My Turn – Joe Crowley: snake charmer

As told to Victoria Foote
I started working for Ontario Nature in April of this year when I was hired through the Metcalf Foundation internship program to oversee the Reptiles-At-Risk project. I spent the summer surveying six of Ontario Nature’s reserves and the surrounding area looking for at-risk reptiles and trying to determine the extent of their populations. We need to know what lives where.

There have been some really thrilling moments. With a couple of other staff, I went out to Lyal Island Nature Reserve, which turned out to have a high density of massasauga rattlesnakes. Catching and handling these snakes was a huge thrill. We were collaborating with other researchers on a project on snake genetics, so we had to get blood samples.

It is very challenging to catch a massasauga. They often retreat under shrubs and you can’t just reach in and grab them. I’ve always liked rattlesnakes the best. They are so cool.

Another thrill was coming across a sizable population of spotted turtles, an at-risk species. One day I found a lot of them in good habitat in Bruce County and that was very rewarding.

I’ve been fascinated with reptiles, and snakes in particular, since I was a kid. I’m intrigued with their alien and prehistoric nature. They are completely different from any other animal. There were a lot of snakes around where I grew up in North Bay. I was the kind of kid who would bring home all sorts of creatures, including wasps.

When I was growing up, the highlight of the year was our annual trip to the Stony Lake area near Peterborough. I spent the entire week there catching turtles and frogs. My brother and I would paddle out into the lake in paddle-boats to a spot where turtles bask in the sun. If one slipped into the water, we would dive in after it. I always wanted to bring them home. I looked forward to that trip all year.

When I realized I could get paid to do something I loved to do anyway, it was a no-brainer. It’s amazing to be out all day, looking for reptiles. It is also fulfilling to know that this work is contributing to their conservation. The last thing you want to see happen is the disappearance of something you really care about.

Reptiles have been declining throughout Ontario at unprecedented rates, and over two-thirds of Ontario’s reptiles are on the federal endangered species list. Roads have a huge impact on reptiles. Sometimes I almost feel helpless about it. Reptile populations near a road will be in trouble even if the road is in a protected area. It is very difficult to mitigate the effects of roads and almost impossible to prevent roads from cutting through endangered species habitat, despite legislation that is supposed to protect that habitat.

There is an overwhelming lack of knowledge about where reptiles live. Entire landscapes are not managed or protected for species. A reptile population can easily become extirpated without our even knowing that it existed. More attention is now being paid to reptile conservation, but their possible demise is still a concern.

While I was conducting surveys on the nature reserves, it was sometimes disheartening when my search efforts didn’t pan out. I went out to one reserve, Baptist Harbour, six times and found nothing. But the seventh time I went there, I found four snakes – all rattlesnakes.

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