Educating communities about snakes and the importance of snakes can really go a long way in reducing the fear of snakes and the unnecessary killings of snakes. That is exactly what Melissa is doing.

Melissa and Henry, male western diamond-backed rattlesnake, photographed by Jeff Smith.

What is your current job?

I am the new Executive Director of Advocates for Snakes Preservation (ASP). It is a non-profit organisation I co-founded 5 years ago. Our key focus is in the USA.

What is a typical day like for you?

Up until 1 July 2019, I had a part-time job and I would do Advocates for Snakes Preservation work whenever I had the opportunity, so I’m still feeling out the new typical day. We are a small organisation that’s still largely volunteer powered, so I do all the administration tasks required to keep the organisation growing including fundraising and marketing. I’m also the primary educator at ASP, both online and within the local communities, where we promote compassionate conservation and coexistence with snakes by illustrating cool snake behaviours with multimedia stories. Our education focuses on this, because we’ve found stories and cool behaviour inspire people to like snakes. In the rural and economically challenged area close to us, the schools don’t often have access to resources available in more urban areas – such as people coming in to talk about snakes and bringing in live snakes. The teachers here get really excited compared to those in the city. We are also working on a releasing our first printed newsletter and gathering all the content is quite a bit of work. The printed newsletter is necessary because there are still many people in the USA that don’t have access to the internet; in my community, it is less than 40%.

How did you get your start in your career and become interested in working with snakes?

Like many children, I was very interested in dinosaurs, but I knew getting an actual dinosaur from an egg wasn’t going to become a reality, so my interest shifted to alligators and crocodiles. It was around the same time that my dad found a garter snake in the back yard and called me to see and hold her. We kept her for a few weeks and then released her, but that is really what ignited my interest in snakes. I always wanted to work with wildlife and started with birds, but I came back to snakes because I enjoy supporting the underdog. It seemed like there was a huge need for people to work with snakes, especially in conservation.

One of my early career projects was assessing the impact of a housing development and golf courses on the reptile and amphibian community. When the people living there saw us with our big radio telemetry equipment, they were really interested in what we were doing. However, when we told them that we were looking for the snakes and assessing the impact of the development on them, they would respond by saying ‘who cares’ or ‘aren’t we glad that they’re killing the snakes’? Other snake researchers have had similar experiences and received negative feedback from their community, which makes it difficult to conserve snakes.

During graduate school, it became clear that to promote snake conservation, there needed to be a non-profit dedicated to combating the fear of snakes and the myths it’s based on. Like most people in the United States, I grew up with stories of snakes being evil, even though we don’t have truly deadly snakes here (snakebites are treatable and treatment is easily accessible). Even television documentaries tend to focus on who is the deadliest or most venomous snake instead of other less frightening details about snakes. We talk about other aspects of snake behaviour: stories about individuals, social behaviour, mothers taking care of their young, and other behaviours that people can relate to. The fear of snakes is an emotional response, so we make an emotional appeal for their conservation. It has been five years of sharing snake stories and it has been great.

Have you noticed a change in behaviour of the public and schools in the past five years?

There have been a lot of changes in the last five years, largely due to the increase in use of social media. Many stories are now shared about snakes on social media and five years ago this was not as prominent as it is now. We know more about animals’ (including snakes’) cognitive abilities now and that has changed how people talk about them and their behaviour.

What are the best and worst parts about your job?

Now that I’m doing this work full-time, it’s great that I have time to hike and see snakes. I also really enjoy the education aspect and going to schools to educate the students about snakes. It is amazing to see the faces of the girls and boys that are scared at the beginning of the talk, how that changes, and by the end, they often don’t even want to let go of the snake. We are in a rural area and when you go into a classroom, all of these kids raise their hands when asked if they’ve seen a snake in their yard. My follow-up to that is what their parent’s reaction is; which is not so great. But by getting out there, talking to the kids, and getting them excited about snakes, I expect to see changes over the years, which is really exciting. It’s also fun to talk to adults and see their love for snakes. I think there is a bit of a shock when I tell them rattlesnakes don’t lay eggs and they take care of their babies. We show them videos of that behaviour and you can see that they are just amazed. They never considered snakes were capable of this.

The worst part is probably the administration but working with people and seeing that change in behaviour is completely worth it. You don’t always get positive feedback, but it is overall inspiring.

Do you think herpetology has good role models for women entering or currently in the field?

When I started 10-15 years ago, women and girls seemed to be most valued as attractive field assistants rather than scientists, but that is changing. Herpetology is still a male-dominated field, but we do have some good role models, like Dr. Emily Taylor at California Polytechnic State University. She’s the closest I have to a female mentor in herpetology. She is a great role model and encourages female students to get into this field. She’s currently working with some of her undergraduate students on a research project to see if there are any trends in the gender of authors on scientific papers. At meetings she goes out of her way to make young females feel welcome and included and introduces them to others. I think she’s done a great job with that. Although her focus is research, she does do some work talking about how people think about snakes.

As far as the conservation field goes, I looked up a lot to Jane Goodall. Especially when I first started studying social behaviour, the way Jane studied animals, how she talks about animals and the way that she kept pursuing her career, were inspiring and exemplary. She was not taken seriously, both because she was a woman and because of the way she was studying and talking about the animals she worked with, chimpanzees. But she stuck with her methods and has seen things that no one else would have seen doing things the way that they usually do. Now she’s a great voice, not just for chimpanzees, but for conservation in general. I love that she just stuck with that and kept doing things her own way because she knew that it was the right way. I think that she is a great role model for anybody doing anything.

Do you see any gender differences in the school children, are the girls less outspoken than the boys?

It changes with age. With the younger children I don’t notice that difference but with the older girls, more of them tend to stay at the back of the class in the beginning of the talk. I think they feel they need to pretend to feel afraid because that is what is expected of them. Towards the end of the talk, most of them will be more interactive and less afraid. It may help that there is a woman in the front talking about snakes.

How do you think we can make herpetology more inclusive?

Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Task has a great Twitter account (@herpetALLogy) focused on this issue. What I like about their approach is that they have researchers in herpetology that come from diverse backgrounds take over this Twitter account and share their own stories. I think that’s an excellent model to follow – give people a platform to speak for themselves. As we elevate more women and others underrepresented in this field and empower them at conferences and meetings, we will see a change in the industry.

How can we increase awareness about snakes?

Talking about snakes, especially in non-threatening ways is useful. It is important to share stories about snakes, especially highlighting behaviours people find appealing (parental care, social behaviour, etc.). While defensive behaviours, venom, and predatory behaviours are interesting, to those who are already scared of snakes, these topics reinforce their fear and may not promote conservation. By focusing on positive characteristics about snakes, we can inspire appreciation rather than fear.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work with herps or specifically with snakes?

Don’t be afraid to be yourself. If you stick to what you want to do, then anything is possible. If you have a passion for herps and you have skillsets that are not necessarily science, you can still incorporate that into conservation, such as art or photography. Look at what others are doing and reach out to them. I am happy to help anyone to connect with others in the field.

Stay updated with the amazing work by Advocates for Snake Preservation on Twitter!

Photo credits: Jeff Smith