Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Interview with Terry VanDeWalle: Part 1

Common garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis
Range: Eastern (T. s. sirtalis): IL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, OH, WI; Red-sided (T. s. parietalis): IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD size: 16–26 inches, maximum 50 inches
Description: Medium-size dark brown or black snake with yellow or gray midback stripe and yellow
stripe on sides confi ned to scale rows 2 and 3. Red-sided subspecies has red or orange bars separated by black bars on sides. Belly greenish or yellowish with 2 rows of black spots partially hidden by belly scales. Scales keeled, anal plate single.
Habitat: Meadows, marshes, woodlands, streams, city lots, parks
Similar species: Plains garter snake has stripe on sides on scale rows 3 and 4. Brown snake lacks stripe along sides, anal plate is divided.

What was the catalyst—the magic moment—that brought you to appreciate reptiles in the first place?
My high school had a class in which the students took care of live animals that were kept in the lab and then took those animals out to the elementary schools and did educational programs for the kids. We had an 8-foot boa and a 12-foot python, and because I was the biggest guy in the class at the time, I was chosen to handle the large snakes. Unfortunately, I was a little afraid of snakes at the time. One day, a teacher who was handling a smaller snake needed to take care of something. I happened to be standing beside her, so she turned and handed the snake to me. I was a little afraid, but the snake was very docile, and I ended up holding it for quite some time. I went on to take care of and handle all of the snakes that we had, including the large boa and python. It was at that time that I became very interested in herpetology. I got my first pet snake a few years later. We currently have a ball python that I have had for 25 years. 

How long have you been studying and protecting reptiles, and what are your favorite species?
Over 20 years. My graduate research was on turtles, which I still enjoy. For the past 10 years, I have been conducting research on the massasauga rattlesnake, which I would have to say is one of my favorite species.

So many people are afraid of snakes. What do you say to someone who tells you that they’re terrified of snakes? First, I tell them that it is natural. It is said that humans are born with only three innate fears, one of which is the fear of snakes. Then I tell them that I too was once afraid of snakes and that I think the best way to get over being afraid of snakes is to get to know one. You may never come to love them, but you may at least come to respect them for the fascinating creatures they are.

Terry VanDeWalle, Snakes and Lizards in Your Pocket, with photographs by Suzanne L. Collins

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