(Written by Sara Arthurs, reporter for The Courier. Story originally published on Oct. 29, 2018).
Alise Mitchell has always loved reptiles. When she was young, she would just “go out and catch stuff” – even once trying to catch a cottonmouth, a venomous snake native to her then-home of Arkansas.
She is now president of the herpetology club at the University of Findlay, where she is a junior. The club, which studies reptiles and amphibians, held an event last week for National Reptile Appreciation Day. Cincinnati-based Arrowhead Reptile Rescue brought snakes, lizards, turtles and even a caiman (an animal related to alligators and crocodiles).
Mitchell said reptiles are “misunderstood.” People think they’re “super scary” and will hurt you, but that isn’t true.
She said some people are excited to hold reptiles but may are “very, very scared.” Unlike a dog, she said, people haven’t had a lot of exposure to them.
“I just like them all,” she said. “I just think they’re so fun.”
The four-year-old club also gets together once a month to talk about the animals, and have trivia games about them. People also bring their pets to meetings for “show and tell.” Mitchell, a pre-vet major, has a pet leopard gecko, named Pancake.
Origin of the club
The club was first created by biology instructor Justin Rheubert. Many members are biology majors, but some aren’t, he said. Some just want to learn about the animals, or have frogs or lizards as pets. He wants them to know it’s possible to just go out and learn if you “have a passion,” without it necessarily being your career.
Club activities have included going out in the wild to look for reptiles and amphibians, and going to events featuring breeders in the pet trade.
National Reptile Appreciation Day is actually Oct. 21, but as that was a Sunday, the club celebrated it the day after. Rheubert said it’s basically a “low-key event” to spread awareness of the animals. The goal? To convince people that reptiles are fascinating – not scary.
Success was mixed. One student could be overheard walking past and saying, “I am not a fan of reptiles.” (She did accept a free T-shirt.)
But then there was sophomore Kayla Grant. She said she’s actually really scared of snakes, but she has a friend in the herpetology club, so she stopped by the event on her way out of class.
Soon, she had a corn snake crawling on her. It was an accident, as another student handed the snake off to her upon needing to go to class, so it was suddenly in her arms. It was going all right so far, though.
Damien Oxier, director and founder of Arrowhead Reptile Rescue, said he’s encountered several people who say “Ew,” that there is no way they want to hold a snake. But, “Five minutes later, they’re holding a snake.”
The rescue takes reptiles from throughout Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. They do wildlife rehabilitation in coordination with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Sometimes, injured animals found in Findlay end up there.
“Most of the turtles we can save,” as they can survive more trauma to their shells than people realize, Oxier said. But those who suffer a head injury might need to be euthanized.
They’ve also cared for garter snakes injured by lawn mowers. Whenever possible, these animals are returned to the wild.
Arrowhead also takes in rescued pet reptiles, and adopts them out. (These are separate programs, as it’s not legal to take wild reptiles from Ohio as pets.)
“Reptiles live a really long time,” Oxier said. “It’s not like a hamster.”
Sometimes, parents get a pet when their child is small – but years later, when the kid goes off to college, they don’t want it or can’t care for it any more. So they surrender pet reptiles to Arrowhead.
They’ve also come across pets that escaped, as well as animal cruelty cases, including some found in their cages in dumpsters, Oxier said.
Arrowhead also regularly does educational programs like this one. Oxier said they present more frequently to young children, who may not understand the nomenclature, so college students are a different audience.
What does he like about reptiles?
“Oh, they’re just cool,” said Oxier, a veterinary technician by background.
Nathan Duvelius, a volunteer at Arrowhead, said a pet reptile is “kind of like a tattoo” – once you get one, you soon find you have several.
Duvelius has a golden hognose snake, a ball python, two bearded dragons, a blue-tongued skink and a leopard gecko, and is fostering a ball python and a bearded dragon. He also has other types of animals.
Duvelius said he’d always been fascinated by “animals that most people find scary or gross.”
He’s tried to educate others about them, too. An attorney, he once brought a snake into his workplace, encouraging colleagues to touch it and see it’s not scary. “Some of them aren’t huge fans,” but after the experience, they’re “not as terrified.”
He said he likes the opportunity to change people’s opinions. Reptiles “make fantastic pets” and you can walk around your house with a bearded dragon clinging to your shirt, he said.
While there are types of hognose snakes that live in the United States, the golden hognose is native to Madagascar.
“I like to call them the soap opera snake because they overreact,” Duvelius said.
They’ll puff themselves up like a cobra, and flip over and play dead, he said.
Duvelius said he got his golden hognose snake, Midas, through a breeder. But he pointed out that, if someone’s looking for a pet reptile, a rescue is an alternative to a pet store. Just as cats and dogs are in shelters needing homes, Arrowhead generally has animals they are hoping to adopt out. More information is on their website.
Research prospective pets
Duvelius encourages prospective pet owners: “Number one, do your research.”
Ellen Walton, a freshman sonography major who is not a club member, was holding a sunfire dwarf bearded dragon named Cinders. Walton said she loves animals and was learning that bearded dragons are fond of cuddles.
Sierra Williams, a freshman, held the corn snake. She said he or she – she wasn’t sure which – was friendly. Someday, Williams wants to get a snake of her own.
Also present were a ball python, a tegu and a blue-tongued skink named Sandal who, Mitchell said, was “just hanging out.” Both the tegu and the skink are lizards.
Ginger is a redfoot tortoise and Stumpette is an eastern box turtle who was struck by a car, and cannot be released so is now used for education.
Arrowhead also brought skins from various reptiles for students to examine and touch. Oxier said his favorite presentation was to an organization of blind people, who remarked upon the particular feel of the reptile skins.
Las week’s presentation even featured a venomous snake, the northern copperhead, which is native to Ohio. She doesn’t go to school programs with small children, but as this program involved adults, Oxier brought her along. She stayed in her tank and people could look at her, but had to keep their hands far from her. The snake can strike up to two-thirds the length of her body, Oxier said.
He said he gets a lot of questions about how the venom works.
This snake, which is young, had been confiscated by animal control as someone was keeping her illegally. She was pregnant when she came in, and miscarried seven babies. (The copperhead babies are born live, but that isn’t true of all snakes. The Burmese pythons, for example, lay a clutch of eggs, Oxier said.). She can’t be released so, she, too, is part of Arrowhead for now.
Arrowhead also brought a dwarf caiman to Findlay. A camian is like an alligator or crocodile, and full-grown dwarf caimans measure seven and a half feet if male, or five feet if female. “Oscar the Grouch,” a baby, was small enough Oxier could hold him. He said he had to hold his hands around Oscar’s jaws or he would try to bite.
Oxier said crocodilians have, in millions of years, not changed at all. They don’t get sick often, and can live anywhere: “American crocodiles love nuclear cooling ponds.”
Something to learn
He said there’s something to learn from these species, and there are frequent scientific breakthroughs related to reptiles.
Rhuebert and University of Findlay professor Robert Charvat, a microbiologist, started some research of their own after a discussion about antibiotic resistance.
Rheubert said snake venom has certain properties within it that will attack and kill cells, so they are looking to see whether it can be used to kill bacteria or parasites without harming normal, healthy cells.
They are starting with the “less venomous” snakes. The hognose snake, for example, has a venom that is toxic to frogs, but will not cause anything in humans other than perhaps a minor reaction, like a bee sting, he said.
Charvat also had a long interest in reptiles and amphibians, and has had them as pets. He said he particularly finds large snakes fascinating, like the Burmese pythons, which are “majestic but powerful as well.”
Rheubert teaches a herpetology class, which is limited to 12 students so they can all fit in a van to take field trips. Whenever it’s warm enough, they go outside, and have gone further south in Ohio, as well as out of state, in search of other species. Rheubert urged the public, if you see reptiles or amphibians out in the wild, “just don’t kill them.”
Most snakes in Ohio are “completely harmless,” he said, and if you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone. They also help control the rodent population, he said, and there is a circle of life with predators and prey.
“If you remove one piece of that puzzle, everything gets thrown out of whack,” he said.
You can also call someone like Rheubert to come onto your property to deal with a snake, he said, and he’s been asked to do this before.
Rheubert said they’re trying to get rid of the mentality that all reptiles are bad. He said he was raised with this as “My mom is definitely afraid of snakes.” In fact, she wasn’t thrilled he went into this field, especially since the first snake he worked on was venomous.
Over time, though, her attitudes changed. In college, he lived with his parents and had poison dart frogs as pets, which are amphibians, not reptiles, but also weren’t his mom’s favorite. He couldn’t take them with him when he moved to go to grad school, so his mother cared for them. When his life was more settled, he told her he was able to take them back, and she responded “Over my dead body’… She fell in love with them,” he said.