The Magic Is In the Finding, Not the Keeping

Clint and I have been hitting the road together for over ten years, and we each started herping a long time before that. Like others, we’ve gone through an evolution during these years of getting out in the field. To put this most recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley in context, here’s a little of my own evolution as a kid who liked snakes, to a herper, to a naturalist.

When I was about ten, the girl across the street came over and asked if I wanted to go snake hunting. Sherry was certainly breaking the mold for what girls were “supposed” to do, and I like to think she grew up continuing to be interested in the natural world and uninterested in what women are “supposed” to do. At any rate, we scoured some of the fields on the western edge of Denver, caught a plains gartersnake, and I was hooked.

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A juvenile plains gartersnake

When our family moved back to Texas, I wanted to see and catch more snakes, but had little interest in the rest of the natural world. My parents got me involved with the Natural History department at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum, and my fate was sealed. I went on field trips, got together with other kids who also liked snakes, learned something about the value of preserved collections and put in a lot of hours injecting formalin into specimens. But I put in even more hours wading the creek and wandering in the woods, collecting snakes that came home to live with me, and picking up specimens that came to the museum to be preserved in a jar.

There was no way to hang out with the museum people and not pick up some appreciation for the broader natural world. I learned a couple of things about birds, not that I cared much for ornithology but I respected the biologists who did. Under Bill Voss I learned a few things about arachnids, even though I was still somewhat afraid of spiders. Gradually I learned that if you wanted to understand a particular snake or turtle, you needed to understand the place where it lived, what its predators were, and what other organisms were in its diet. My horizons broadened.

I still mainly wanted to collect snakes, and had a sweet tooth for turtles, too. I brought back a juvenile Texas tortoise after our family lived in Corpus Christi for a year (before the tortoises were protected). I was captivated with softshelled turtles after finding a couple of hatchlings at the creek. Everything had to come home with me, because when something was as wonderful as a coachwhip, or a Texas tortoise, you wanted to have it.

I got married and Jo appreciated these animals as well. We got a boa constrictor as one of our wedding presents, and of course in the 70’s we made the short-sighted decision to buy the cutest little baby Burmese python. The snake was beautiful, not finicky about eating, and gentle when handled. Then we learned that they grow fast and then become quite impractical for most people to keep. Meanwhile, we collected many of the snakes we found, because to pick up such an incredible, beautiful, fascinating animal and then just let it go was so hard.

Eventually, it occurred to me that the magic was in the finding, not the keeping. A snake in a box had only a small fraction of the wonder that the snake had in the field. I began to be able to look at and release all but the most desirable species. Meanwhile, those that I did bring home cruised around in their boxes (whether literally a plastic shoe box or an expensive display cage) and generally could be kept healthy, would eat, and even breed. Gradually, an appreciation grew within me for how their lives might be impoverished by living in a little patch of wood shavings, hide box, and a water bowl. They are designed to move about within a home range very much larger than a snake cage, and their travels provide a good bit of stimulation and variety. My training in psychology and neurosciences tells me that brains – human or nonhuman – develop in a working partnership between neurons and experiences. Behavioral health depends on an adequately stimulating environment, and while the reptile brain is very different from our own, the same principle should hold. No anthropomorphizing is intended here; I am not trying to assign human characteristics to reptiles, just trying to understand what reptile characteristics belong to reptiles. The more we learn about maternal care in rattlesnakes, reptiles’ ability to recognize a home range and find their way back to it when moved a small distance, and so on, the less I am able to look at a snake as a pretty automaton with no more brain than necessary to house a collection of “instincts.”

I mean no condemnation to those who keep snakes in captivity, especially those who maintain collections for study or other worthy purposes. If you like keeping snakes in cages, I’m not fussing at you. Do it as well as possible, keep them healthy, and give them as much space as you can.

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In the Sabal Palm Sanctuary

At the same time that my interest in collecting decreased, my interest in the broader natural world increased. Bit by bit, I tried to learn more about invertebrates, trees, plants, and ecoregions like the cross timbers. By the time Clint and I planned to go to south Texas, we weren’t concerned with how many snakes we might find (though that was the first love for both of us), or targeting places where collecting was allowed. In fact, in recent years we have benefitted a great deal from visiting the places least affected by human activity, and that is often a preserve or refuge where no collecting is permitted. Seeing the places themselves, visiting relatively intact habitat – reminding ourselves that some of it still survives – that’s the thrill. We found a Texas coralsnake, Clint saw a Texas indigo snake, we saw three big western diamond-backed rattlesnakes, we saw over twenty rough greensnakes, as well as green anoles, Texas spiny lizards, rose-bellied lizards, keeled earless lizards, short-lined skinks, Texas brownsnakes, Gulf Coast ribbonsnakes, and so on. When we were not seeing reptiles, we saw black witch moths, green lynx spiders, Texas tan tarantulas, tons of other invertebrates, a marine toad, caracaras, Harris’s hawks, green jays, chachalacas, and the list goes on. We learned a little (only a little!) about the trees and other plants of the valley, such as tepeguaje, barbed wire cactus, retama, ebony blackbead, and so on. Because of the richness and diversity of all the different species, there was almost always something to admire and photograph.

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Western diamond-backed rattlesnake, near La Sal Del Rey

We hope this way of thinking comes through as you read about our time on the road. For us, a broad interest in everything from ecosystems to various plants and animals works wonderfully. I’m no expert in most of these things, but I don’t have to be – it’s enough to be open to really seeing all of it, wondering about it, and seeking to learn more.

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