Reptiles and Amphibians in Environmental Education (EE)
*By Eric Roscoe
What is “environmental education” and why is it important? These are some of the question that can be asked to perhaps best be able to introduce the subject and explain what it is, what it does, and what it seeks to instill and accomplish. When it comes to reptiles and amphibians, as well as herpetology and the active education and outreach that individuals and organizations such as herpetological societies do on a daily basis, there is obviously a huge overlap between that area of study and environmental education that, more often than not, complement one another to a large degree that can very easily be seen. The purpose and scope of this article will be to simply examine several important, key aspects and concepts that herpetological education/outreach, conservation, and research can and often does contribute to the field of environmental education, and vice versa (what we can perhaps learn and utilize in return).
Environmental education (often abbreviated as “EE”) is oftentimes a very broad and multi-disciplinary field of study that can incorporate many different areas of study including biology, ecology, natural history, chemistry, physics, mathematics, earth sciences, geography, and many others, and can include nearly any organized or institutionalized effort to raise environmental knowledge, awareness, sustainability, and stewardship. For instance, The Wisconsin Environmental Education Board (WEEB) defines environmental education as “a lifelong learning process that leads to an informed and involved citizenry having the creative problem-solving skills, scientific and social literacy, ethical awareness and sensitivity for the relationship between humans and the environment, and commitment to engage in responsible individual and cooperative actions. By these actions, environmentally literate citizens will help ensure an ecologically and economically sustainable environment.” Performance criteria and standards, often broken down by grade level are also available. These standards define and assess what levels and bodies of knowledge should be gained by students as they progress and develop through their elementary, middle, and high school careers. Overall, environmental education can be taught at all grade or experience/knowledge levels from Kindergarten through college (and even later through adulthood), although it is usually considered an additional, elective, or supplementary field in most K-12, or is only implemented into some of the coursework.
Studies and Research
It is also well known that environmental education, as well as added, or increased exposure to the outdoors and positive interactions with the animals or wildlife that inhabit them can produce numerous positive or beneficial changes in our health, mood, and many other aspects of our physical, mental, and psychological well-being. For example, studies published in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology show “increased vitality exists above and beyond the energizing effects of physical activity and social interaction that are often associated with our forays into the natural world” and that “nature is fuel for the soul”. And of course, when it comes to studies specifically, benefits of keeping, working with, or interacting with reptiles and amphibians also exist. According to one study that examined the positive health outcomes of those exposed to animal assisted therapy (notably children with disabilities and the elderly), the rates of interaction grew the most significantly with nonvenomous snakes used in the study over those that did even for puppies and rabbits. This affinity clearly demonstrates that a strong desire to interact with snakes (and other animals) can outweigh cultural stereotypes, widespread fears, and negative attitudes towards them. These are only a very few of the many bodies of research and evidence that outdoor and environmental education can, and is having a positive impact in society in many ways.
In addition to the use of live animals and specimens to be discussed in further detail below, many environmental educators also use and incorporate preserved specimens and other non-living articles pertaining to reptiles, amphibians, and other animals. Several examples of these can include emptied turtle or tortoise shells, sheds from snakes and lizards (either whole or in pieces), articulated skeletons, bones and skulls, bird feathers, and other products or accessories. One such research study here, for example, found that the cognitive and attitude changes of students who have interacted with these materials was close or similar to those of students who handled or interacted with live specimens. Using such materials can also be immensely beneficial for comparing and contrasting, as well as showing internal processes and structures that may not otherwise be easily seen or understood by viewing a live animal externally.
Reptiles and Amphibians are Leading Examples of Many Ecological and Environmental Education Concepts
It is well known that reptiles and amphibians are still feared, disliked, or misunderstood by many people for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons can range from a traumatic or negative childhood experience with a snake or other reptile, but more often, is due to shared and taught attitudes, perceptions, or beliefs from parents, grandparents, or other relatives. Indeed there is ample bodies of research suggesting that a fear of these animals is not innate, but is rather quickly learned during infancy. In many other cases, it is simply the fact that many of these animals appear strange and foreign when compared to other traditionally kept and domesticated species that have fur, feathers, or four legs, and largely has to do with a fear or lack of familiarity with the unknown. These attitudes have traditionally even carried over in many cases to conservation priorities as well. For instance, a study published in the January 2012 issue of Conservation Letters showed that for even charismatic species (such as the giant panda or African lions), taxonomic biases can alter or affect our conservation knowledge and level of legal protection. The study went on to note that people showed significantly less interest and conservation knowledge of smaller species such as the anemone fish, a concept that can undoubtedly also apply towards conservation priorities surrounding many reptiles and amphibians. Furthermore, when it comes to reptiles and amphibians specifically, only the largest and most fearsome species, such as the saltwater crocodile, king cobra, and Komodo dragons were of greatest interest to Internet users.
However, it must be recognized that reptiles and amphibians are in fact oftentimes leading examples of illustrating many different ecological and environmental education concepts. One such example involves how anurans (frogs and toads), as well as other amphibian species are looked to and widely considered as “environmental indicators”. The presence or absence of an animal or organism that is an indicator species can indirectly tell scientists and researchers about the state of, overall health of, and many other aspects of the greater environment. Amphibians possess smooth, porous skin that are significant components in their respiration and other physiological functions, thereby making these species especially sensitive and vulnerable to pollution, degradation, and other changes in their environment. It is also well known that many species of snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, serve as excellent forms of natural rodent and other pest control, and in many examples, reptiles and amphibians are illustrated in, and play significant roles as secondary and tertiary consumers in the many ecological concepts such as food and energy webs, carbon cycling, and other ecological concepts.
Native Species, Field Herping, and the Basics
Perhaps one of the largest areas of focus when it comes to reptiles & amphibians and environmental education are in fact emphasis on our own native, or indigenous species. Native species are those species that can be found naturally in a given area or geographic range. They inhabit our forests, prairies, wetlands, farmlands, and even our own backyards and neighborhood parks and recreation areas. Although keeping reptile and amphibian species in captivity is oftentimes important and has benefits that must be recognized, native species are perhaps of the greatest interest and/or oftentimes concern to the public (including by those who do not maintain them in captivity in some fashion). Native species are the ones most likely to be seen, found, or encountered by gardeners, homeowners, hikers, or by others while participating in many other types of outdoor activities. With snakes especially, there is also oftentimes a valid concern whether the species they may see or be encountering is venomous or otherwise potentially dangerous. Fortunately, the vast majority of snakes in North America (as well as worldwide) are harmless and/or nonvenomous, and do not pose any threat to humans, pets, or livestock. Unfortunately, many snakes are still needlessly killed out of fear, ignorance, or mistaken identity, and then oftentimes are posted online or inquired about after the snake was killed. Having to hear about or listen to negative attitudes and perceptions, oftentimes specifically about snakes/reptiles, also is a frequent conversation topic. While these sorts of things can understandably be frustrating or annoying to those of us who are herpers or enjoy these animals, each one can also be seen and used as opportunities to educate with the hope that the next snake that is encountered will not be killed, and a greater sense of respect and appreciation for these animals will have been developed, even when its just someone looking for a quick ID answer online.
Field herping can be defined as the active searching for reptiles and amphibians in their natural habitats and ranges, and can be done by those of all levels of experience and knowledge (although some reasonable guidelines and rules should always be followed whenever field herping, such as practicing the commonly told phrase of taking nothing except photographs, and leaving nothing but footprints and returning any objects moved or displaced back to their original position). In fact, many field trips and outdoor excursions that are commonly utilized lesson plans in environmental education also include some field herping and native reptile and amphibian species components to them. One such example are the opportunities to see and learn about the different basic life stages of a frog or toad beginning from the eggs (which are contained in a soft, gelatinous like mass laid in ponds or other shallow water) through their metamorphosis into tadpoles, and finally into sub-adult and adult frogs or toads. This is largely due to these animals being perhaps the most vocal/audible and easily located group of reptiles and amphibians (each species produces their own distinctive calls and oftentimes other vocalizations), and the fact that they can be readily found, captured, and studied at nearly any local neighborhood or backyard pond, marsh, creek, or even ditch. What kid doesn’t love tromping through the water and mud at their local pond in search of frogs or other amphibians?
Likewise, many other reptiles, invertebrates, and other animals can also be readily found, even well within urban or suburban settings if you know where and when to look, and what to look for. Many snakes can be found or are attracted to gardens, around sheds and outbuildings, rock walls, or even under trash or debris in vacant city lots, while many turtles can be seen basking on rocks, logs, or the banks of ponds or other wetlands. Even many different insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates, while not reptiles or amphibians, can often be found in a myriad of ways all around us and oftentimes compliment or overlap with an interest in other “herptiles”, or “creeping, crawling” animals. How many kids that have shown an active interest in creepy crawlies in general and the outdoors have used a butterfly net, Kritter Keepers, or bug catching kits and magnifying glasses to further study their prized summertime invertebrate catch and thought it must have been the coolest discovery in the world. I know I was this way.
Herpetoculture and Exotic Species
Herpetoculture can be defined as the care, keeping, and/or propagation of reptiles and amphibians in captivity for use as personal pets, education and outreach, or for commercial and business reasons. While at first glance the captive keeping of animals in the pet trade and Environmental Education may seem like mutually exclusive areas that would be at odds with one another, and is often viewed as part of the problem by some conservation biology sectors, it actually is just as important of a component to environmental education. This is particularly so when native (and exotic) species alike are able to be successfully kept and bred in captivity to serve as valuable education tools and viable, self-sustaining captive bred alternative for those looking for a pet of their own. Indeed, it is a North American species of snake, the corn snake (Panthertophis guttata) of the southeastern United States, and another, the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), an aquatic, neotenic species of salamander indigenous to only Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City that serves as just two examples of successful captive breeding that has pioneered the reptile industry and hobby since the 1960’s. Many other examples outside of North America can also be mentioned as well.
When it comes to using live animals in environmental education and outreach, the results and noticeable impacts can be proven to be far greater than simply reading about them or seeing pictures of them in a book or on TV. Indeed, being able to see these animals up close and in person, as well as being able to physically touch and hold them (when appropriate, and as long as the species is not venomous, poisonous, or otherwise too delicate or sensitive to do so with) can often have a much more profound sensory and educational experience leading to a greater likelihood of actually caring about the animal/species and their plights they may face in the wild. This is precisely the reason why many nature centers and other environmental education schools and institutions oftentimes have and utilize live animals for these reasons.
When it comes to using exotic, or nonnative species in environmental education and outreach, there is admittingly at least some degree of lesser importance to using them, although this depends on the content and curriculum being aimed for. Likewise, the use of atypical or aberrant captive produced color and/or pattern morphs or variants in such efforts should be discouraged or minimized as much as possible, unless the aim is to educate about Mendelian genetics and inheritance, or when the goal is to simply raise appreciation and awareness and to dispel fears or negative attitudes towards snakes (and other reptiles) in general, in which case the animal’s phenotype would not really matter. There is perhaps the greatest value, however, in using “normal” or “wild type” animals, as these animals hold the greatest ability to serve as ambassador animals for the best identification purposes and results for what people are most likely to see or encounter naturally in the wild. Utilizing exotic, or nonnative species can also still prove to be beneficial when examining other biological aspects of reptiles and amphibians, including by gaining a greater understanding and observation of their overall behaviors both in the wild and in captivity, their diets, reproductive and active and passive defensive behaviors or strategies (i.e. camouflage or crypsis), their preferred habitats and environmental requirements, and even aspects of their captive care and husbandry that the educators are responsible for as primary caretakers or keepers of the animal(s) in question.
An Interest in Pets: Wild Caught Vs. Captive Bred Animals
It should also be mentioned that the keeping of native species as pets, while going out and being able to do so can often serve as a valuable education experience that can raise one’s level of environmental awareness and appreciation, does have some issues to be aware of. The legalities, which often vary from state to state, of collecting or keeping any animal found in the wild must always be understood and followed. Many species of reptiles, amphibians, and other animals may be state or federally threatened, endangered, or otherwise designated as species of concern or have other special protections that forbid or restrict their collection and possession. Many of our native species can also be difficult to keep or do not acclimate well to captivity, and often end up dying or failing to thrive. Some species, for example are dietary or habitat specialists that can be difficult to replicate or locate in captivity. In general, any interest in acquiring a pet reptile or amphibian should be focused and directed towards locating a healthy, better acclimated captive born animal through any number of qualified, reputable breeders, pet or reptile specialty stores, or other sources. Ultimately, the goal is for new keepers and pet owners to be successful in keeping the animals they acquire and continue well on into the hobby rather than for them to become discouraged or lose interest. In other words, a novice or new pet owner will want to maintain an animal that makes a good pet to begin with.
Health and Safety Issues To Be Aware Of
As with any education or outreach effort involving live animals, the overall health, safety, and welfare of any animals used in any environmental education outreach efforts, as well as that of the keepers, educators, and event attendees are all obviously important concerns that must also be acknowledged and mitigated. Firstly, as with any species of animal, there are some health related risks, namely through the potential transmission of zoonotic diseases (which are diseases that may be transmitted between animals and humans). In reptiles and amphibians, perhaps the most well-known zoonotic illness is salmonellosis, which is a zoonotic bacterium. Although this is an issue to always be aware of, zoonotic disease transmission associated with most of any animal can easily be reduced or prevented by practicing simple, common sense hygienic measures and good husbandry practices for the animal in question such as having access to disinfectants, washroom facilities nearby with soap, or simply portable bottles of hand sanitizer. It must also be explained that newborns, toddlers, pregnant women, the elderly, or others with an otherwise compromised immune system are most at risk of contracting any zoonotic disease, including from domestic animals. Some animals, such as amphibians, may also have smooth, delicate, and permeable skin that can be adversely affected by excessive handling or by any creams, lotions, or other chemicals as well.
The physical safety aspects of any animals used in education and outreach must also always be kept in mind. Medically significant venomous animals are obviously not suitable as hands on education animals, and are best considered as no contact to minimal contact animals through viewing only. Many other animals are capable of biting, scratching, and/or tail whipping, which can also cause significant injury depending on the size or species of the animal and whether proper handling protocols are followed. As a general rule, however, any animal that is equipped with a mouth is capable of biting, including dogs, cats, and people. It must therefore be up to each individual educator or presenter to maintain adequate control and supervision of any animals used at all times, and to be able to use their best discretion regarding any individual live animals used, including their temperaments and dispositions, capabilities, and levels of tolerance for being handled or interacted with. Any animals used should also be healthy overall and in adequate physical condition and weight (free of any known parasites, open wounds or injuries, illnesses, or other diseases) in order for the best portrayal of the animal and outreach efforts being made. With this said, most reptiles and amphibians used in environmental education efforts are harmless and nonvenomous, and can often make for excellent hands on or display ambassador animals that can very readily be interacted with by handlers and the public without incident overall. Many different species of snakes (including boas, pythons, and colubrids), turtles, tortoises, geckos and other lizards, frogs and toads, and salamanders and newts, as well as many different insects, tarantulas, and other arachnids can all be safely and readily used in such EE efforts.
TV and Media Issues Continue and Conclusion
On a few more flipsides of the coin, however, the captive keeping of pets and other animals has also long been integrated socially and socio-economically as well whether we like the idea of keeping animals or not through several different examples. This is why many of the legislative and regulatory issues surrounding herpetoculture and the keeping of reptiles and amphibians are not simple black and white issues that can be solved simply through governmental overreach or through collective punishment (which are unjust governmental actions penalizing all for the actions of some). Most of everyone is likely familiar by now with highly sensational and inaccurate TV, movies, or other media that depict reptiles and/or reptile keeping in a negative or inaccurate light, sometimes deliberately. While many television networks (such as Animal Planet, Discovery Communications, National Geographic, and others) have traditionally been founded in natural history and legitimate science, many have since strayed far away from these roots into nearly unrecognizable forms of drivel including numerous examples of absurd mockumentaries, docudramas, and other works of fiction. Unfortunately, when it comes to native species sightings, TV and the media also often get it wrong more often than they get it right. As a result, many harmless and beneficial native species are commonly misidentified as either dangerously venomous exotic snakes, or as someone’s escaped giant boa or python when neither is usually the case.
As just one absurd example, a harmless indigenous bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) was recently erroneously reported as a 20 foot long plus python said to have spanned “the entire width of a highway” as of May 2016 in a small town in southwestern Wisconsin. Numerous other examples of terrible misidentification and misrepresentation can also be cited. This is why it must be up to the herpetological and environmental education community to serve as the points of expertise for the public and the media when weekly issues such as these arise where native or exotic species require identification, action from stakeholders, and/or rescue and rehoming when and where appropriate (especially considering the fact that many environmental education facilities are or have been points of surrender for these animals). Herpetological societies and other members of the reptile and amphibian communities can and must continue to work closely with other organizations and institutions such as these to provide outreach and interchangeable expertise, as well as act as additional resources for the appropriate placement and rehoming efforts of any exotic species that may come through their doors. Indeed many such environmental educators obtain or acquire the animals kept or used at their facilities through other educators or wildlife rehabilitators, or through owner surrenders of unwanted pets.
In conclusion, there are many different opportunities and avenues for herpetological societies and the reptile community to become more greatly involved and integrated into local, state, and even national environmental education efforts. Many K-12 public and private schools, environmental education and charter specialty schools, children’s museums and other science and natural history museums, nature centers, 4-H centers, and others are oftentimes excellent starting points for expanding education and outreach efforts in communities. There may also be state or regional environmental education conferences, workshops, and seminars that can be participated in as attendees or as vendors as well. The Midwest Environmental Education Conference held in Monona Wisconsin is just one such example. Wherever the venue or whatever the means, the pet and herpetological communities must be actively engaged and involved in outreach wherever possible, especially in cooperation with other areas of education and outreach with similar interests, goals, and visions.
Addendum: Personal Experiences
Each one of us has out own unique set of experiences that have led to our interests and passions in reptiles and amphibians. For me, I have had many early and otherwise childhood experiences with these animals through many different settings, but perhaps the earliest one that sparked my interest specifically was finding and catching my very first wild snake at a petting zoo in Door County, Wisconsin (northeast Wisconsin, or on the “thumb” of the oven mitt) when I was four or five years old. It was an adult eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), which I thought was much cooler than any of the farm animals. I’ve always liked and have been interested in animals in general, and can never remember being taught to fear or dislike snakes or other reptiles. I’m not exactly sure what it was about this animal, but perhaps the way it looked, felt, and moved so quickly and efficiently without limbs and with an elongated body. I knew I was hooked after that! Another early experience that was a huge part of my childhood in being able to grow up learning about these animals was through attending a summer camp in northwestern Wisconsin for six consecutive summers (thanks goes out to Swift Nature Camp near Minong Wisconsin, specifically). There I generally disliked most of the activities (such as swimming, arts & crafts, and non-related cabin activities, etc.), and mostly just wanted to either be in their nature center or out finding and keeping many of the different frogs, snakes, turtles, or any other critters I could find temporarily at the nature center for a few days, and then re-releasing them.
I knew I wanted my own first “real” snake after these experiences, and it was all that I ever wanted for my next birthday after them. Finally, one day on my sixth or seventh birthday, my parents invited me up to my bedroom by telling me they had a “surprise” waiting for me there. When I made it up there, I was surprised to see a new 20 gallon setup sitting on my desk with a brand new occupant, a black and yellow striped California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae). This was it! My very first real snake! I must have been the happiest kid on Earth that day, and we quickly decided to name the new arrival “King Tut” or just “Tut” since he was a kingsnake. At one point, I can remember even showing the rest of my 4th grade class an hour long infrared feeding video of Tut eating a frozen thawed pinkie mouse. Fast forwarding over the years, I continued to have a deep passion and interest in reptiles and amphibians as I began visiting reptile shows, local pet stores, reading just about every reptile book and field guide I could find from front to cover, and generally doing anything else I could think of to learn more. I certainly couldn’t have imagined back then that many years later, I would be able to become a part of what is now one of the most active and influential herpetological societies in the country as Education and Events Coordinator, and for what is now almost certainly the most active herp society in Wisconsin has ever seen historically. I can say that I am proud of this accomplishment. It certainly takes a lot of time, hard work, dedication, and investment, but knowing and remembering why it is that we do what we do helps me anyway in continuing on even despite the setbacks, frustrations, and difficulties.
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