TO THE PARENTS OF A YOUNG HERPETOLOGIST
TO THE PARENTS OF A YOUNG HERPETOLOGIST
Robert George Sprackland, Ph.D.
It was mid-day during the summer vacation of my 13th year when the doorbell to our New Jersey house rang. I answered the door, followed closely by my cousin, who was visiting from New York, to find a huge policeman holding a pillow case at arm's length in front of him. He may have squinted at me from behind his Ray-Bans, but I couldn't tell... all I saw was a uniform, gun, badge, and a coffee can.
"Uh, you Sprackland?" he asked carefully. I nodded, and he paused. "You sure? The commissioner said you were a snake expert?"
He had my interest, but my cousin took a step backward from the door. She didn't like snakes, and even the word "snake" made her cringe.
"What kind of snake?" I asked, suddenly very interested in what was inside that coffee can.
"I dunno," the officer answered, still not quite sure he should trust me. "Some three-year-old was in his backyard and got bitten by this snake. His folks put it in here with a hoe, and rushed him to the hospital. If it's a rattler, they need to start giving him antivenom."
The officer thrust the can towards me, and I took it and carefully peered inside. I saw nothing. I held the can under a better light, finally seeing the tiny form of a young hognose snake at the bottom.
"They don't want to give the stuff to the kid unless they're sure," the cop continued, referring to the impending antivenom treatment. "It can be pretty bad if it's not really needed."
"It's okay," I said. "Just a harmless hognose snake."
"Are you sure?"
I reached into the bag and withdrew the snake before the policeman could react; my cousin almost fainted (to this day, she remains ophidiophobic). "Yeah, I'm sure. May I keep the snake?"
The officer radioed the hospital, and a non-issue was resolved. That night, my cousin recounted the story--with a few sordid details I didn't recall--to my mother. Mom sighed, I expect, with the expectancy that my lifelong interest had just matured into a new phase. She never liked snakes, and was saddened, I think, when my natural history interests turned from dinosaurs, fishes, and insects firmly into the camp of living reptiles. To her credit, she drew the lines at a very few restrictions (no bats, anteaters, or venomous animals and NO animals at the dinner table), and endured only a very few later incidents of policemen bearing serpentine gifts. Only the last specimen I examined for the Jackson Police Department, when I was 17, actually was a rattlesnake. My dad was the police commissioner, and routinely had officers bring snakes for identification. The initial disappointment of the officers that day ("no, I don't want the rattlesnake," I told them) quickly turned to joy when I suggested they take it to Staten Island Zoo, via a particularly nice Italian restaurant on the way home--in essence, a day "off." Not wishing to argue with the commissioner's son, the officers duly took the snake and drove north.
If you are the parent of a young reptile enthusiast, you may have fallen into a hobby without ever having been prepared. Young naturalists bring home the darndest things (like a pocket full of dead baby bullhead catfish I found at the Raritan River when I was 8), and parents must either adapt or go nuts. If you are not an enthusiast yourself, you may feel particularly isolated, for newsletters and magazines are largely for the "converted." I am sharing some of my youth so you may be a little better prepared for what's in store. Of course, as you already know if you've learned enough to have joined this society, no herpetoculturist is "typical."
My interest began from the baby carriage, when introduced to Tyrannosaurus rex for the first time at the age of two. My grandfather had worked at the American Museum of Natural History since 1927, becoming head of the guards until his retirement. My aunt also went to work there, starting just two weeks before I was born, going on to head Guest Services until her retirement. My mother would often drive into Manhattan to pick them up at night, and if we were early enough, we got to explore some of the huge galleries. On one occasion we were particularly early, so we went to the fourth floor to see the dinosaurs. The rest, as they say, is history.
Dinosaurs are a safe interest, from a parental position. The kid, after all, isn't likely to have a Diplodocus follow him home, and there are no live pets one must feed or clean up after. For me, the switch to living reptiles came when I was four, and my aunt had bought me a gift. Thinking it was a dinosaur book, she actually brought home the classic Zim book on Reptiles and Amphibians. I noted frequent use of verbs in the present tense, and my interest shifted virtually overnight. Soon our apartment became home to baby turtles, tadpoles, and my first frog. The frog, as it so happened, was Mom's first trial.
We had gone for a vacation trip to Kingston, New York, where I was fascinated by the abundance of insects, small mammals, and frogs, not to mention trees, lakes, and mountains that were new to a city boy. One day I was exploring the lake shore with my father and an acquaintance he'd met fishing, when we found and captured a small green frog. Housed temporarily in a bottle, it was essential to bring him to the city for further study. Of course, it escaped, and eluded all efforts to find it again. That is, until a few months later when my mother was repotting her plants. Out of one pot jumped our frog, alive and, apparently, still well!
The collection of further specimens was very limited while we lived in New York and, later, a New Jersey housing development, so my interests were primarily centered around the study of exhibits, collections, and the library of the American Museum of Natural History. During these years I was very fortunate to spend time learning about a broad range of zoological and palaeontological subjects, talking with scientists whose names are legendary in their fields, and otherwise quite happily compensating for my lack of field experience. To this day, I remain extremely grateful to Charles Bogert, Charles Cole, Herndon Dowling, George Foley, Samuel McDowell, Charles Myers, Russell Rak, and Richard Zweifel
But when I turned 15, we moved to the country. Imagine my mother's great delight the day my "expedition" returned home with a huge, live, snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). I had been collecting frogs in a tiny pond a few hundred yards from our house, an activity I pursued almost daily. While wading around, I stepped on a large rock where, I belatedly recalled, no large rock had been before. Retracing my steps, I found the rock was gone. I hollered at a friend to stay "on guard" while I got help. My surprised dad was dragged into the hunt, along with two or three neighbors who happened to be drawn by the excitement. Using some fish as bait, we eventually lured this local Leviathan close enough to the bank for us to get it out of the water (though in such a confused manner, I shudder to think back about how we must have accomplished this feat). Following the handling instructions provided in Conant's Field Guide, we carefully escorted the turtle home. Retelling the tale of its capture to my mother, I was wise enough to omit the part about my having discovered the snapper by stepping on it. Soaked, exhausted, and triumphant, we deposited the turtle in a large wood and chicken-wire cage in the backyard--one once used to house our large puppy. Imagine our surprise the next day to find that the turtle had climbed out and escaped off into the woods. Imagine, further, Mother's joy that it escaped outside.
Despite poor local collecting, I had made contacts through many pet shops and mail order dealers, so my need for "lab space" was both real and growing. Basement quarters were quickly cramped, so I had been given a large, enclosed porch at the back of our house, where the collections--fish, amphibians, reptiles, and crustaceans, dead and alive--were kept. Well, usually, that is. Snakes are, after all, legendary escape artists, so we did have a few... incidents. Little things, like that same cousin I mentioned earlier finding a pair of water snakes (Nerodia sipedon) coiled in the laundry basket. Or the snail-eating snake that somehow found itself coiled around the doorknob just when Mom was planning to use that same knob to open the door to leave the house. This lab area was adjacent to the kitchen for which reason, I remain convinced, my mother's cooking took on a more powerfully aromatic and spicy nature. Only a swinging, half-door separated the two rooms, and we were fortunate in having no unpleasant incidents between Mom and the reptiles, though I averted a near-disaster when I discovered the boa coming over that door one day. Fortunately, Mom was still at work. Snakes, it seemed, where chock-full of potential learning experiences for a young herpetologist.
Parents may also be advised that the "down" side, from the youngster's point of view, is the obsessive nature of herpetology as a hobby. In other words, it is often easy to bribe a young herpetologist. My eighth grade grades went up noticeably after being offered the chance for my mother to buy an expensive new reptile book in exchange for my earning a "B" in history. I overcame my fear of water and learned to swim when my dad offered Boulenger's Catalogue of the Lizards as incentive.
It must have been hard on my parents to have an only son wanting to become an aspiring herpetologist, because I was not only the first member of the family to go to college (and being the first member of the family in three generations to be leaving the New York-New Jersey area), I had chosen a college halfway across the United States from home. I imagined that my parents would be relieved ("we get two new rooms, and no more formaldehyde odors!"), though my dad assures me that Mom was not ambivalent about my leaving. We packed off most of my live reptiles as gifts to the Philadelphia Zoo, keeping only my 3-foot tegu as a dormitory roommate, and I headed off to the University of Kansas, still one of the leading centers of herpetological science. It was there I met my wife, Teri, who, in continuing the tradition of encouragement of my parents, has helped me experience a wonderful and varied career that has taken me across the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Guinea.
When herpetologists publish books and papers, it is customary to acknowledge the help given by colleagues in museums, zoos, and institutions. A few, such as the late James Oliver, dedicated books to parents. I hope that in this short paper I have demonstrated how important some parents can be in developing zoological interests. To my parents, the late Lucille and Joseph Smith, I have been and remain grateful for encouraging and supporting my life-long interest in understanding the rarely-loved inhabitants of the animal world. If your child isn't destined to become a zoologist, the interest and it's demands on your time and resources are still not wasted. An appreciation of nature and the aesthetic beauty of other creatures is sorely needed in an increasingly high-tech/low-touch society. I know many non-herpetologists who still hold a warm spot in their hearts for Pope and Ditmars. Herpetology helped expand and diversify their interests, and in human society, as in nature, diversity is the fabric of life itself.
Dr. Robert Sprackland is the Director of The Virtual Museum of Natural History at www.curator.org. His research focus is the evolution, variation, and distribution of lizards. Robert has been a teacher for over 30 years, conducting classes at high schools, colleges, and universities, and strongly encourages any academic interest experienced by young people. His latest book, Giant Lizards, Second Edition, will be released in October 2008..