Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Ignorance Is Strong In My Family

"The [Ignorance] is strong in my family, my father had it, I [don't] have it, my sister has it. 

I am pissed.  I am really, really pissed.  This post is not to shame anyone although it might because I am not going to hold back.  I know the fear behind the decisions made today but I also know that education can turn FEAR INTO FASCINATION.  I live through my motto of Conservation Through Education so I hope this post isn't seen as shaming but instead viewed as a chance for education.

My sister just sent the entire family a photo of the 11.5 feet long alligator she just had removed from her yard.  It was taped up and "stunned" as the trappers loaded into their truck to kill it later.  Many of you are probably in agreement that you can't let such a dangerous and aggressive creature live near our pets and children but I need you to understand that THIS IS JUST PURE IGNORANCE!  Yes, an alligator will eat a dog, cat, chicken, or other small animal we call pets but we need to take a close look at alligators and their behavior before we start jumping to the conclusion that they are dangerous.  Yes - I normally write about snakes but large predators are also so misunderstood by humans and wrongly feared that I feel that I need to write about alligators.

Alligators have been persecuted by humans since European immigrants started asserting their dominance on North American in 1492.  They were slaughtered and indiscriminately killed by the millions until protections were put in place to ensure their survival in 1967.  Since then, alligator populations have rebounded and the species is no longer in danger of extinction and protections were removed in 1987 although it is still sort of protected because of a similarity of appearance with the endangered American crocodile.  Most states where alligators occurs now even allow hunting although the practices for this are subject to debate and often considered cruel or unnecessary.  So yes, there are plenty of alligators around and the death of a single alligator that lived in my sister's backyard canal isn't what has me so pissed off.  It is the willful ignorance that humans exhibit towards creatures we do not understand that has me irate.

Alligators are apex predators meaning that they shape the prey communities and food webs of the areas they live in.  Actually the babies and young alligators are often food for other predators so I am not counting them in my assessment of an apex predator.  But this makes them even more important in shaping the food web.  Almost anything will eat a baby alligator and they will eat almost anything themselves.

Alligators are also ecosystem engineers.  They dig waterholes that during periods of drought are the only water sources available for wildlife.  There really is a Jungle Book "water truce" during droughts - okay, maybe not a full on truce but alligator holes are keys to drought survival in the southeastern United States.  I do have to comment that you haven't lived until you have been wading in ankle deep water and your next step finds you waist deep in an alligator hole.  :)

It is IMPORTANT to remember that the American alligator is not the same creature as the sensationalized Nile crocodile or Australian saltwater crocodiles that regularly prey upon large mammals such as wildebeests or kangaroos.  Our alligators are much more at home catching fish for dinner.  In fact, alligators in central Florida have been shown to eat almost exclusively fish (about 90% of their diets) and then reptiles and amphibians are next on the list.  Mammals fall way short as prey items and are typically only eaten when fish aren't available.  I would also argue that our media loves to sensationalize alligators and crocodiles and this spreads myths and fear but that is another blog post.

My experiences with alligators began in 1989 when visited my brother in Birdsville, Georgia where he was a technician on a wood stork foraging ecology study.  As part of the study, they had to wade through a cypress swamp to reach a blind that was at nest level in the top of the trees.  As we were waist deep in water wading into the blind, David told me about the alligator that he stepped on TWICE while wading into the blind earlier that year.  He survived and no alligators attacked us on our way into the blind or on the way out that day.  I then moved to Kentucky and forgot about alligators for many, many years.

I later moved to Florida for graduate school in 1997.  Heather and I moved into an apartment complex that had water retention ponds all around it and it seemed that every 100 feet or so had an alligator living in the pond.  Well, we had just adopted a puppy that LOVED water and running as fast as he could through it.  He would swim everywhere!  So naturally, I listened to the media about the dangers of alligators.  I became worried about an alligator eating him especially one of the tame and people acclimated alligators that lived in these ponds.  But I was also diligent about keeping an eye on my pup and keeping him on a leash if needed to keep him safe.  There weren't any fences to keep him safe, it was my job and he lived 13 years old.  Yes, Ripley was a 90 pound Labrador Shepard mix and this might have been different for a 20 pound rat dog but it would have still been my responsibility to keep my pets safe.  It was not my responsibility to remove an alligator that may or may not have been a threat to my pet when I was the one living in and impacting the alligator's home range.  Wow.  That sounds judgmental and preachy but maybe it is supposed to be.  We are the intruders - not the wildlife.  Unfortunately humans have a way of exerting their will on the planet in ways that isn't often beneficial to native wildlife.

Since living in Florida, I have waded countless hours through swamps, ponds, and rivers with alligators in them.  Not once have I encountered an alligator that I felt threatened by.  Not even when catching babies that were grunting for mom to come save them.  Yes, I have caught alligators - not wrestling around like the Crocodile Hunter but still with my bare hands.  Alligators are powerful predators but they are also very shy and retreating.  This makes them extremely difficult to catch without hurting or injuring them, which is why I have never used a trap to catch an alligator.  If I can't catch it with my hands without hurting the animal, I just don't catch it.  Catching alligators was something I did in my younger, macho days and I don't think I would do it again unless my boys wanted to experience holding an alligator.  I understand the need to catch things - here is a photo of my brother with an alligator we caught in Florida a few years ago so I guess am mistaken.  I must still do the macho thing and catch them.

David with alligator
I can almost feel you appreciating my stories but I can also sense that my experiences just are not good enough to help you shed your fear of these amazing predators.  I can hear you say "but Cameron, you are a herpetologist with tons of field experience.  No wonder you aren't afraid of alligators".  Yes, this is true but I want to tell you that no one has to fear alligators or snakes.  I know that you lost a pup to a diamondback rattlesnake in the past.  I know that this was painful but please understand that the snake wasn't attacking your dog.  The snake was defending itself as it was being attacked.  The same goes for alligators.  Alligators don't decide to eat dogs or other pets - they actually prefer fish.  We put our pets in danger by creating opportunities for an alligator to encounter our pets and this can be mitigated.  We can protect our pets without killing snakes and alligators.  And I have to add this here - statistically speaking, we have more of a chance of killing our pets with our own cars than they do of being eaten by an alligator.  I can understand your fear but I also want to help you overcome it.

So what should you do if you have an 11.5 foot long alligator move into the neighborhood?  Lots of things.  Take pictures.  Take videos.  Research alligators.  Talk about alligators.  Learn that alligators have complex social hierarchies and that removing large males creates voids in the population structure.  I don't want to scare you but removing large alligators actually opens up habitats for smaller alligators to exploit and it is the small, unseen alligator that often catches our pets.  We can and should build a temporary fence to keep our pet critters from getting too close to the water and mixing with the wild critters.  Predators such as alligators are very good at catching prey - they didn't get big by starving.  But if we eliminate any potential encounters, they will become bored (or hungry) and move on to easier prey.  A temporary fence is a great alligator deterrent because it eliminates any chance encounters.  We can also research ways to safely disturb alligators so that they don't want to stick around.  They may not be legal (I would need to check your local laws) but fireworks can be used to disturb a stubborn alligator.  It isn't going to be an easy or overnight fix to convince an alligator not to live in your canal but it is a much better option than to remove a large apex predator from the social hierarchy of the ecosystem.   Alligators are very long-lived and one that is over 11 feet long is likely over 30 years old.  He has a high rank in the alligator world and may have even been top dog.  Pretty impressive if you think about it.

I started this post with a quote from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi when Luke is awkwardly explaining to Leia that she is his sister.  It is also going to help me share a success story that occurred in my family.  "My father once had it" - meaning I think he is ready to let snakes live in his yard unharmed.  I once got an email from my parents with a picture of a dead copperhead that they had killed in their yard.  My parents built a home in the woods of eastern Tennessee where copperheads might just be the most common terrestrial snake.  Still they had only seen this one copperhead in the 6 years that they had lived there at the time.  But they killed it.  In their email text, they apologized for killing the snake even if it wasn't a copperhead.  This meant that they had killed it on the assumption that it was a copperhead because they weren't able to identify it before they killed it.  I was furious! Not only had they killed a snake, they killed it before they knew what it was, and they killed it against my saying that "The Only Good Snake Is Every LIVE Snake".  Even copperheads are great snakes to have around and their reputations are horribly and negatively exaggerated.  Everything that I was trying to do (Conservation Through Education) had gone completely mute with my own parents.  I was devastated.  If I couldn't even convince my parents not to kill snakes, how could I educate others and make a difference for snakes?  Thankfully, my brother took the lead on talking to my parents as I don't think I would have been very nice if I had responded.  He even sent my father some snake tongs to help relocate any other copperheads that they might find. Well, they haven't seen anymore copperheads until just recently.  My mother sent me a text a few weeks ago saying that she had seen a copperhead near her compost pile in their yard.  She left it to go get my father so he could take a photo of it to send to me but when they got back, the snake had disappeared.  In the meantime, I responded to her text with "Please do not kill it" and do you know what her response to me was?  Well, it made me glow and shine with happiness - you can read it for yourself below.  Everything was perfect - no killing snakes and the snake did exactly as predicted - it DISAPPEARED!

So, back to the alligator.  I am pissed.  I am really, really pissed.  But I also know that we can learn to live with wildlife.  We can educate ourselves to not fear the unknown but rather to embrace it.  We can change Fear Into Fascination.   My intent with this post is not to shame anyone although as I reread it, there is some shame in my words.  Some of that shame is that I have not done enough to educate my own family about how we can coexist with critters and predators.  My intent with this post was for me to talk out my disappointment and frustration that a 30 year old apex predator and ecosystem engineer died today because we fear the unknown.  There are plenty of alligators that will take its place but that isn't justification enough for me.  Fear of the unknown is human nature but we can (and should) educate ourselves to mitigate our fears.  I just happen to be passionate about what I do and so I had to write it down.  We can all live by my motto - "Conservation Through Education".

Nancy - I love you.  Although I may not agree with your decision to have the alligator removed, I do understand that we fear the unknown and having a 11.5 foot long alligator living in your canal is a BIG unknown.  Alligators are so poorly understood and there are so many false myths about the dangers they pose to us and our pets.  It is hard to articulate my feelings especially since having a large predator call my yard home would be a thrill and highlight for me rather than fear and anxiety.  It is like the time when I got a text from Heather that a great horned owl had killed a chicken.  My reaction was "did you get video" rather than concern for my pet.  Losing a chicken should not have been a highlight but predators simply amaze me.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

My Scarlet Snake Story

I found my first ever Scarlet Snake at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Florida when I was 10 years old. It was a roadkill on the main drive of the park. I was there with my family and was learning at an early age that I could road cruise on my bike and find snakes. Scarlet snakes were not listed as occurring in the park so I showed my find to the ranger that would walk through the campground each day checking in with the guests. He was adamant that the snake I held dead in my hands was a scarlet kingsnake and I tried to educate him on the differences between the tricolored snakes of Florida. He wouldn't listen and all I wanted was to add a species of snake to the park's species list. I skinned the snake, salted and pinned the skin out to dry and kept it. I still have this skin somewhere in my old belongings. I might have to find it now. It seems I learned early on that people have their preconceived perceptions about snakes and that conservation through education is needed.

Guess what happens when you fast forward 30 years and revisit St. Joseph Peninsula State Park - you find the scarlet snake pictured here. I told that ranger that they occurred in the park!

Conservation Through Education

Scarlet Snake

I quit my job - now what?

Here is my formal announcement to the world - On January 3rd, 2017, I quit my job as an environmental consultant and I will never work on that side of the fence again.  I hated my job in all aspects.  I didn't like the company I worked for.  I didn't like the the people that had been made in charge of me after my good friend and supervisor quit because of the company that bought us.  I didn't like that I worked for the oil and gas industry that continues to abuse the system to make a few people rich.  I didn't like my commute after they moved us into the new office after the buyout.  I didn't like my workspace (I didn't even have a cubicle).  Let's just say, my job was about the most negative thing in my life and I finally made the change to cut it out.

Now what?

Now I can focus on healing.  Healing myself.  Healing my mind.  Healing my unhealthy body.  Healing my relationships.

Now I can focus on snakes and their conservation.  I can finally network without the fear of being caught and reprimanded by my employer (this did happen to me by the new company that bought the old one).  I can finally be the Executive Director of the Center for Snake Conservation!

Now I can be happy.  This past week has been eye-opening about how much stress and anxiety my job caused me.  I am free.  I haven't gotten into a good routine yet (meditation, workout, clean a little, make a snake video, etc.) but I am free.  My entire outlook has changed.  I am not penned down by something I do NOT believe in.

My only regret is not quitting my job 2 years ago when it was clear that negative changes where coming before I got to this point of no return.  However, this is all water under the bridge now, I am free...

Cardamom Mountains Green Pit Viper "free and foraging in the wild"