Sunday, April 29, 2012

Belated Save The Frogs Day Special!

This year Save the Frogs Day fell on April 28. It is something that has been celebrated by wildlife conservationists from all over the globe with over 180 events being organized in 38 countries (spanning into 5 continents!). Yesterday I celebrated by going into the city, that's right the city, to look for amphibians and hopefully catch glimpse of some toads if it is not too chilly out. Unfortunately, I did not see any herps at all, most likely due to the fact that it was a steady 52 degrees out and completely overcast. A couple of weeks ago I had slightly better luck and at least saw some frogs. Now a city is generally not the place one would expect to look for toads but just inside the city of Philadelphia, around where I live, there are several habitat areas where one can find the American toad (Bufo Americanus), the green frog (Rana clamitans, the Northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens) and the bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) as well as a treasure trove of other reptiles and amphibians and a whole cast of other animal species. One of the largest areas for such habitat is a place called the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, a private wildlife preserve in Roxborough just inside the city itself that is dedicated to exactly what its title suggests. I traveled to the Schuylkill Center to participate in the annual "Toad Walk" that they do every year in mid April. Although we did not manage to see any toads we did see some frogs and other pond life!
There was also some remains of human settlements from the past as well, preserved as historical landmarks.
The ground pictured here is normally at least muddy and when summer comes along it's a decent sized pond. Here it is dry as a bone. The tour guide, a woman named Gin, said that she had never seen anything like it in her years working there. To learn more about the Schuylkill Center just visit them by clicking the link! They have plenty of great programs to educate kids and adults alike about the nature that can be found in PA.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bullsnake, Mouth Rot and a Listing

This beautiful patterned snake is the increasingly rare Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi). In years past this snake was quite common and most every farmer boasted of having a resident bullsnake controlling rodents in their barns or bins.

Last Friday, March 30, 2012 I received a phone call from one of our agents, Jason. He had paid a call on one of the residents of the county he patrols. This man had in his possession a large bullsnake. Jason wanted to know if I would like to have the bullsnake to use as an exhibit snake for a period of time. I was thrilled by the prospect and told him "yes, I would definitely like to see the snake and keep it for awhile." The man who found the snake agreed that when we were done with the snake he would re-release the snake back on his property. I knew Dr. Mills our local herpetologist had been on the look-out for this species and had not found one in the entire 14 years he has lived in this area, other than one found on the road dead. I could hardly wait to let him know we had a bona fide bullsnake coming into out office, and not just any bullsnake, but a LARGE one.

That afternoon our herpetology class was planning a field trip to Squaw Creek NWR, so I told Dr. Mills I would bring the bullsnake along so the students could see it. He was anxious to see it and show it off the the class. We all met at 2:30, and as expected the students were impressed with this large snake. When it first came into the office it hissed loudly and rattled its tail, trying very much to sound like a rattlesnake. We could not get it to repeat the defensive behavior they are famous for in front of the students, perhaps he suddenly felt shy?

Dr. Mills took the snake out of its enclosure and showed off his unique snake wrangling abilities.

He gently places the snake between his legs and slowly feeds the snake towards the front of his legs as he feels for the head. When he feels the head he grips it firmly but gently to keep it from biting. A snake as large bodied as a bullsnake can and will give a painful bite. This particular snake however calmed down almost immediately once in hand and did not offer to bite or act aggressive. We were able measure his length, but did not have time to take further measurements before we were confronted with the wildlife biologist and the Massassauga he had captured and wanted to show the class.

Dr. Mills telling the class about the bullsnake.

Students assisting Dr. Mills in measuring the bullsnake, he has a SVL of 171 cm (nearly 5.5 feet)

The bullsnake behaving very calmly as it is being handled. 

Bullsnakes are the largest snake found in Missouri and may reach lengths up to eight feet, with 6 to 7 feet being common.They range in color from yellow, tan to white with approximately 41 dark brown or black blotches. Most of the specimens I've seen in previous years have been yellowish with brown blotches. They occur in traditional prairie habitats  throughout most of Missouri.

In the past 15 years their numbers have drastically fallen and they are becoming difficult to find. Joey and I raised hogs from 1990 until 2000. We had a couple of bullsnakes that hung around near the farrowing house, in large part because of the rats and mice that were there. With all the grain we had around to  feed the hogs, we had no shortage of rodents. These bullsnakes soon learned that an easy meal could be had and they stayed pretty close to the building. When we got out of the hog business, the snakes left  and I have not seen one since. In fact, I have not seen a bullsnake at all anywhere, and I am out looking for snakes all the time. Dr. Mills moved to St. Joseph in 1998 and said he found a bullsnake dead on the road and that has been the only specimen he has seen in all these years. So, to say he and I were excited about this bullsnake that suddenly came into our possession would be an understatement.

Bullsnakes are famous for their large size and the hissing sound they make when disturbed. They puff their body up to look bigger and then let loose with a hiss that will make you take a step back and reevaluate the situation. Do you want to get closer? Is this thing venomous? Will it hurt me? It is doing what Mother Nature designed it to do, mimic a rattlesnake. It will even shake its tail in leaf litter or dry grasses to carry the ruse further. Truthfully this species is harmless, however if you grab one it may earn you a bite. When I was in high school I remember one of my classmates was putting up hay and got bitten by a large bullsnake. He ignored the bite and continued to work in the hay. The superficial mound he received became infected from sweat, dirt, hay and the bacteria from the snakes mouth keeping the wound dirty. He spent some time in the hospital seriously ill from infection. Had he taken a few minutes to wash the bite and wrap it, this most likely would have turned out different for him. A snakes mouth carries bacteria from the things it is feeding on. Anytime you are bitten by a snake, it requires attention. If it is a venomous bite, seek medical help IMMEDIATELY! If it is non-venomous take a few minutes to clean the bite and wrap it. Putting an antibacterial topical ointment like neosporin is a good idea as well.  Better safe than sorry.

Several days after acquiring the snake, myself and several others noticed it was holding its mouth funny, it was slightly agape and he was drooling. Snakes don't drool, Bulldogs do! I contacted Dr. Mills and explained my observations and he said he thought it sounded like Mouth Rot. I had never heard of such a thing, and did some research. I soon discovered this can be quite serious and may even kill the snake. I contacted several local vets, and none knew anything about it or how to treat it. A friend of mine from Squaw Creek NWR suggested a vet named Dr. Roy Wilson from Mound City. He and his wife run Rafter Cross Veterinarian Care. I called him and he knew how to treat it. I took the snake to him and after looking him over, he determined it was indeed mouth rot.

 (Photo By: Carrie Wilson)

 He weighed him (4 pounds) and gave him an antibiotic shot. He sent me home with four more doses of antibiotics to administer and then wanted to see him in a week.

 (Photo By: Carrie Wilson)

Eight days later and 3 more shots later I returned to Dr. Wilson with our patient. He said he thought the mouth looked some better, it at least had better color. The snake however developed thrush (A type of yeast infection of the mouth) brought on by the antibiotic shots. Dr. Wilson cleaned a bunch of dead tissue out of the snakes mouth, gave him another antibiotic shot and an additional shot of an anti-inflammatory. He then tube fed him an electrolyte cocktail. He also applied an athletes foot/jock itch ointment to the mouth to help with the thrush. I will continue to give him another round of antibiotics and apply the ointment for another week then return to the vet in ten days. Hopefully this poor snake will be well on the road to recovery. I will try to feed him a small mouse tomorrow to see if he has any interest in eating. The sooner he eats the better and faster he will heal.

I contacted the man who found the snake and told him this snake could not be returned to him to be released on his farm. Once we began administering antibiotics we have no way of knowing how long those antibiotics will remain in the system of the snake. Dr. Wilson said in good conscience he could not recommend releasing it. If a predator such as a owl, eagle or hawk were to try and feed on this snake and in turn consume the antibiotics we don't know what the affects would be on them. The gentleman was fine with that and was happy for us to give it a home. This snake (should it survive) will be used as an ambassador of his kind in education.

I spoke to our state herpetologist and was told by him that there is a very good chance that this species will be listed as threatened in the state of Missouri as early as next year. This is a decision I support whole-heartedly, as do many of us in the herping/conservation community. We recognize the rarity of this species and know that protecting it may bring it back from the brink of extinction in Missouri. To have this snake extirpated from our state would be sad indeed. With humans encroaching on the habitats of the snakes in their desire for more strip malls, housing additions, agricultural ground and various other human related construction/destruction the snakes are finding it more and more difficult to hold on to what little remains of their natural habitats.

I will update later and keep everyone posted about this snakes progress.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Claxton and Sweetwater: A Comparison

Well, against tremendous odds, I made it to Claxton. How I actually got there is a long story filled with empty promises, broken dreams and last minute betrayals and is an insane story all in of itself. One day, it may be told but there is no reason to right now, there are more important matters to discuss, such as the Rattlesnake Roundups in Texas and Georgia. These three were known to be among of the bloodiest spectacles to take place in the Deep South in the name of “family entertainment” and it was this year that they were changed forever.

The towns of Sweetwater, Texas and Claxton, Georgia: those are what we are going to be looking at for our purposes today. We have plenty of footage from both.

Sweetwater has become gravely paranoid in response to new negative publicity and the declaration of Danny Mendez that he would personally attend with photographer and biology student, Sky Stevens, in order to document the cruelty displayed there. Danny describes the act of decapitation in one of the videos perfectly on his weekly radio show “Urban Jungles Radio” at about 23 minutes into the program. Unfortunately, before Danny and Sky were able to enter the roundup they were stopped by the Sheriff and several deputies. They were then issued a criminal citation and told that they could not come back to the roundup or attend any of the other local Jaycees events.

Danny and Sky's invitation to leave

And here is the link to the show itself:

Sweetwater Roundup---Holocaust on Rattlesnakes

What Sweetwater did not count on were other people with cell phones and video cameras, ones that did not necessarily support their gory festival, getting in and documenting what went on. Ray Autry, who is a concerned wildlife enthusiast and noted member of the group Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups, managed to gain entry and film some of the more gruesome events of the roundup. The links will take you to the radio broadcast and the videos.

Public Video---Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup

Video #2

Video #3

Meanwhile, I managed to get to Claxton, which garnered a good deal of publicity for their change from a rattlesnake roundup to a wildlife festival that teaches children about the importance of nature and the place that snakes, including rattlesnakes, have in the ecosystem. Here are some pictures and videos of what happened on the weekend of the 10th and 11th of March.

Instead of capturing wild rattlesnakes as the vast majority of the roundups do (even the no-kill roundups), the newly christened Claxton Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival borrowed snakes from wildlife rescues and private collection. Throughout events leading up to the roundup I had a chance to discuss the matter with one of the rescuers that volunteered use of his snakes so that the reformation could be successful. Jason Clarke of Southeaster Reptile Rescue willingly let his snakes be used as part of the show, provided that they were not used in any of the demonstration shows or handled anymore than necessary. Although some rattlesnakes were used for demonstration none were permanently harmed and, as far as I could tell, these shows did not last very long at all. I only arrived in time to see the closing of the second to last “snake show” where some of the rattlesnakes were handled (but not Mr. Clarke’s); the final show after that used no snakes other than a kingsnake that was simply held for show. Here are some videos and photos from Claxton, I will let the readers decide how well these snakes were treated but please keep in mind that just one year ago every snake seen here would be slaughtered for the sake of the weekend festivities.

Claxton, GA Wildlife Festival

Claxton, GA Wildlife Festival Video #2

Claxton, GA Wildlife Festival Video #3
Although I was unable to actually meet with Jason Clarke in person I did keep an eye on his animals to the best of my abilities and when I called him after returning home to Pennsylvania he confirmed that every one of his snakes made it home no worse for the wear. Talking with several of the vendors and groundskeepers at Georgia confirmed that the numbers either matched or beat those of the previous years. Overall I would say that the new festival was a huge success in converting the slaughter of thousands of wild animals to celebrating their existence and acknowledging their place in nature. Sweetwater could learn a valuable lesson from this.

Bob Irwin weighs in