Incidental Herping and Heroes

Southeast Arizona desert

Southeast Arizona desert

I recently took an all-too-short birding trip to Arizona. (Birding is like bird-watching only more sciency.) While my friend Martha and I set our sights on finding some of SE Arizona’s more glamorous birds, we did take the opportunity to check out some of the other local fauna. We were privileged to observe kangaroo rats, a family of javelina, swarms of mosquitoes and a variety of very speedy lizards. Here are a few of the non-blurry pictures we managed to snap of the slower daytime critters.

aponophelma species

Wild tarantula peeking out of her hole at the Sonoran Desert Museum - in the bird aviary!

dung beetle

A dung beetle! If you look closely you can see the ball it is rolling.

western box turtle

Martha first spotted this little cutie on our walk in San Pedro Valley.

While lots of animals are active during the day, some are easier to find at night. Daytime or nighttime, herping is good, clean fun. It’s a lot like birding, except with reptiles and amphibians and more often than not you try to catch them. Herping, especially in the desert, can be very rewarding once the sun sets. As the air cools, the roadways retain a lot of their warmth, which reptiles and amphibians crawl out to absorb.

Summer is also monsoon season in SE Arizona, so toads are just as likely as snakes. Our nocturnal guides on our mini-excursion were none other than the same folks who had rescued us the night before from atop a mountain when our rental had a flat tire and a leaky spare – a story for another time but heroes none the less. Quick shout-out to Nick, Mary, Steve and Becky!

As we set off into the night, watching a spectacular lightning show to boot, Martha and I followed behind our knowledgeable leaders in our car. How prepared were they? They even had these cool radios so when we stopped abruptly I would know where to park without running over our intended “catch”. Of course, we only handled the nonvenomous reptiles and all of them were herded or released to the side of the road. Safety first! Here are some of the pictures Martha took since, wouldn’t you know it, my digital’s batteries died after the first rattlesnake.

great plains toad

One of our first toads: a Great Plains Toad, who it turns out can hold quite a lot of water.

couch's spadefoot

I was surprised at the greenish tint of this Couchs Spadefoot toad.

mojave rattlesnake

All of the rattlesnakes we found at night were juveniles, and none were as large as this Mojave Rattlesnake.

rock rattlesnake

I found this Rock Rattlesnake as we headed to Tucson, though not under a rock.


I still do not know how Nick spotted this Threadsnake on the side of the road. Now to count the head scales to accurately identify it.

desert variation of common kingsnake

After this gorgeous Desert Kingsnake finished defecating all over Nick, I got to hold it!

longnose snake

One of the more colorful snakes we saw that night, the Longnose snake.

Martha, not necessarily a fan of snakes but more an appreciator of amphibians, was very patient with me when I requested she photograph each of the critters we saw. We had a great time and would have stayed out longer had the weather been slightly more cooperative.

aphonophelma species

aphonophelma species

On our way back to Tucson to catch our flights home we also were lucky enough to spot this little beauty (at 70 mph no less) crossing the road. By the time I turned around we had nearly lost it to the roadside shrubbery full of cows. We had a great adventure and can’t wait to plan another trip to spot all those we missed this go round!

Got Venom?

Whether you know it or not, we have a small collection of venomous animals at the Museum. Yes, I do have to handle them and yes, we do take them to schools – in very secure, locked cages. This isn’t recreational handling, either. I use proper safety tools, like snake hooks and tongs; large, heavy-duty containers; and, of course, a back-up person.

There is a risk of getting bitten – just like there is a risk of getting beaned in the head with hockey puck. While I have experienced the latter and do not recommend it, I have been fortunate enough to avoid the former.

Venomous animals are dangerous. They deserve respect, just like all living things. Okay, so maybe a little more respect, since some of them can kill you. I have always been fascinated by dangerous animals. But keeping them is another story entirely. Not so much the danger…okay, maybe the danger. I haven’t worked with a lot of different, venomous species, but those that I have been exposed to have been both awesome and frightening.

My first training exercise involved pulling a young Black Forest Cobra from his terrarium and putting him into a tall trash can (Rubbermaid makes some tough stuff!). The first part was easy. He rode the hook, staying loosely coiled, and was alert while I settled him into the can. After I did the hard part – cleaning his terrarium – I had to pull him back out of the can. Well, he must have seen this coming. Have you ever played with a Jack-in-a-box toy? The nice part about the toy is that there is a musical cue when it might pop open. Well, not so with the snake. Just as I would get the hook over the edge of the can, this 5-foot snake (not so little) would pop straight up, looking right at me. Slightly nerve-wracking.

So, I moved to the other side, but sure enough, here he comes, straight up with his head about 6 inches over the edge of the can. Needless to say, I did need help getting him out – it was my first time. I remember being really nervous and very hyped up after that – I still remember the snake fondly.

Creative Commons License photo credit: el__vaquero

Since then, I have mainly worked with native species of venomous snakes. Not to say some of ours aren’t as ornery as the cobra, because I can personally vouch for some bad-attitude rattlesnakes. All in all, I would have to say that I enjoy working with venomous snakes. It was not something I had signed on to do, or was even a goal. The opportunity appeared and I thought “why not?” I have to admit, it is kind of fun when people ask my husband, “what does your wife do?” and he says, “she plays with rattlesnakes.” He does go on to explain, but that first expression is too funny!

Now add in another factor – pregnancy. No, not of the snakes – mine. This adds another whole level of risk that I am not willing to take. Thus begins an interesting journey in training another (read: willing) person to do the job of handling our hot species.

During summer camp, the Animal Room is very fortunate to have an intern. For the past few summers, one of our interns has been Stefan. Stefan attends Texas A&M and is a tried-and-true herper. His Herpetology field class, projects and summers with us have given him a lot of exposure to snakes, turtles and amphibians. I am confident in his ability to handle our venomous snakes – even if he does get really excited about it beforehand. Put him in front of the snake with a hook in his hand and he is all business. This works out great for us during the summer.

For the rest of the year, our current part-time Animal Technician Ben is the other person you will see in the pictures below. Ben is a certified Veterinary Technician and very excited about being trained to work with our hot snakes. In the pictures, you’ll see me showing Ben how to use the hooks to pick up our practice snakes (rope and plastic tubing); Ben showing me how easy it is; Stefan showing Ben how he hooks one of our copperheads; and Ben showing us how he can do it too.

The fun part is that once the snakes are aware of what we are doing, they are less apt to “ride” the hook. They get more active, move away from the hook when touched and even get cranky after a few go-rounds. Both of the “boys” are very capable and I do not doubt in their abilities, but…I am a natural worrier. The hardest part is standing back and watching, trying not to hover or be a backseat director. We have safety protocols, are near several excellent hospitals and have emergency phone numbers posted nearby. Plus, the Houston Zoo is next door. Safety first!

  Chris and Ben with a little practice “hooking.”
Ben showing Chris how easy it is and Chris just “showing.”  
  Stefan making it look easy as Ben learns from the sidelines.
Ben working with a copperhead, while Stefan acts as back-up and offers tips.  
  From the snake’s point of view, Ben hooking one of our copperheads.