To herp, with love.

Snake Bit 

To herp, with love.

When Lawrence resident Joe Collins was fourteen and living in Sioux City, Iowa, authorities came to his home. They informed his father that if Joe didn't stop operating a zoo without a license, there would be repercussions. The young Collins had been catching snapping turtles, snakes and even a raccoon and keeping them in his backyard. When his father made him pick just a few to keep in the basement, he chose the snakes. "That's when my interests began to focus," he says.

Now Collins leads the Kansas Herpetological Society's annual "Herp Count." On the weekend-long excursion to Howard City Lake (between Kansas City and Wichita), academics, environmentalists, wildlife photographers and lots of snake-loving kids find as many non-venomous reptiles and amphibians as they can. People bring bags full of the critters to Collins at the end of the day, at which point he reaches in and tallies them. Then he tells the kids how to get the animals safely back into the wild. Robin Oldham, who started herping when her son took an interest in snakes, enjoys the socializing that follows. "When all the animals are released," she says, "it's time to wash your hands and eat."

In addition to teaching people about reptiles living in the region, the information helps conservationists. Because slithering animals interact directly with the environment, physical changes they exhibit are good indicators of environmental changes.

Kansas is, according to Collins, "the only state in the union that does this." He had hoped that National Public Radio coverage of the Herpetological Society would inspire other states to join in, but so far that hasn't happened. "But," he acknowledges, "I guess that's what makes Kansas Kansas."

And because snakes were Collins' first love, it's not surprising that he uses these field trips to lobby on their behalf. "A snake's just one of those creatures that scares the tar out of people. They don't exactly have the greatest PR history. All you have to do is open up the Bible to Genesis and already the snake is the heavy in the Garden of Eden."

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