Another season over, another month of species at risk outreach completed, a new batch of reptile ambassadors ready to help a turtle or snake cross the road. Huron Stewardship Council staff (myself, Monique Aarts, Lauren Schmuck) and our loyal volunteer Bill Dineen, embarked on a mission this fall to reach most schools in and around Huron County with a science-based Reptiles at Risk educational outreach program. The hour-long presentation used live, native reptiles and taught students about the risks to reptiles in Ontario, how to identify local species, and how students can help. At the end of the program, the students were given the opportunity to hold the animals – an important component to the presentation and a necessary tool in changing attitudes.
Fear and reservation usually resounds when talking about reptiles. Snakes are especially a hard sell to most people – they’ve always been portrayed as the villain in cartoons, stories, even the bible. Just mentioning the word ‘snake’ usually elicits consternation and bitter vitriol among people, some even offering up stories to us of their successes eradicating the ‘dangerous animals’ from their properties.
The only reptile that would be considered ‘dangerous’ is the massasauga rattlesnake – Ontario’s only venomous snake – which is not present in and directly around Huron County. Although it is a venomous snake, they are very timid (would rather retreat than confront) and small (don’t produce much venom) so a bite from one of these little guys would not be life-threatening unless you were a mouse or a small child not given proper medical care. During our outreach, we taught the students that activities we deemed innocuous, like eating hotdogs and using vending machines, kill far more people every year than massasauga rattlesnakes do in Ontario. Each year in the United States alone, approximately 77 people die choking on hotdogs, 34 people are killed by dogs, 450 people die falling out of their beds, 6000 people die texting while driving, 4 people die riding roller coasters, and 13 people die using vending machines… death by snacking! In comparison, 2 people have died in Ontario in the last 200 years by a massasauga rattlesnake bite (the last death was a small child that was bit over 50 years ago and not taken to the hospital).
Our outreach presentation taught students that most of Ontario’s reptiles are Species at Risk – meaning their population numbers are significantly declining due to habitat loss, poaching, road mortality, and human persecution. Eleven of our 17 snakes, 7 of our 8 turtles, and our 1 lizard are all listed as Species at Risk. This is not good. We taught students that it is against the law to kill, harass or move a reptile off their property. Fear of these animals leads people to kill and relocate an unprecedented number of reptiles each year – one of the leading causes of their decline. We also taught students that snakes are not slimy, there are hospitals you can take an injured turtle to, and it is illegal to take wild animals home as pets. One of the most valuable lessons we taught was how to move turtles across the road – safely in the direction they were heading, of course!
We presented the outreach program 55 times to 19 elementary/high schools and 4 community groups. Approximately 2,265 people heard our presentation and got a chance to interact up close and personal with a snake or a turtle. The feedback was all positive! Students and teachers that were once afraid of snakes were holding them with ease and talking about reporting their sightings the next time they see one instead of running away or killing them. Teachers who were open about moving snapping turtles from their cottage lakes, fearful they would hurt their water-bound children or grandchildren, told us they felt more comfortable knowing the snapping turtles were relatively harmless (a human bite can be more than twice as strong) and that they do not snap underwater. One teacher even told us that after seeing our presentation, her daughter knew just what to help a snapping turtle cross the road the next time they saw one trying to cross. I love seeing our hard work come to fruition!
Education is paramount to changing attitudes, and therefore behaviours. I look forward to doing it all again next year!
Jory Mullen, M.Sc. (Wildlife Biology and Conservation)
Photo credits to Darryl Coote and me (the group shot)