Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Budding Herpetologist

Yesterday I mentioned how I once, as a young boy, searched out “signs of new life” in the early days of spring by turning over rocks to find garter snakes, salamanders, and other such things.  It was for me the “Thrills of a Naturalist’s Quest,” (Raymond L. Ditmar book, 1934) that prompted this love of wildlife.  From early childhood I was fascinated, according to my mother’s reports, in living things of all kinds.  She often told me how at a very young age I would sit with awe and watch the ants move about on the doorstep of our home.  This fascination grew in those early years and every summer there were frogs, toads, turtles, squirrels, chipmunks, baby woodchucks and rabbits and other such varmints brought home for observation.  Neighbors and friends would often bring some of these specimens to me.  Once my father even brought home a baby black snake for me to observe. I will always be grateful to my parents for allowing the naturalist in me to live.

As the years went by, influenced by Raymond L. Ditmars' book and others, my interest became focused on reptiles, namely snakes.  For several summers I erected a “snake pit” in the backyard and filled it with various types of snakes—water snakes, garter snakes, black snakes, ribbon snakes, rat snakes, hognose snakes, etc.  Some of the snakes looked rather threatening, particularly the large water snakes, leading one neighbor to suggest that I was collecting poisonous water moccasins.  (Water moccasins did not make their home in our area).  At some point, someone called the chief of police about my collection.  He came to check things out.  I will always remember my Dad telling him that I “knew my snakes” and there were no poisonous snakes among those in my collection.  “Thanks, Dad, for backing me up way back then!”

Later, I worked a couple of summers in the Nature Department at a Boy Scout Camp.  My  assignment was to catch snakes for exhibit and to educate scouts on the various types, etc.  This was “right down my alley” and probably the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had.  At the camp I captured my first poisonous snakes—Copperheads—along with many non-poisonous types.  It was at the camp that I met Tim Brown, a herpetologist at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.  Tim helped me develop the proper habitat for “hatching” several black snake eggs and invited me to the famous Reptile House of the New York Zoological Park.  He was an encourager!  

Then suddenly, just as with Jackie Paper and Puff, the Magic Dragon,  the “Thrills of the Naturalist’s Quest” ceased to dominate, though strains of it still linger to this day.   There was another work to do.

Thrills of a Naturalist's Quest in Costa Rica, 2016

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