- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - A perception problem complicates fundraising for the Tri-State Herpetological Society, a local nonprofit that offers educational presentations, rescue services and placement for reptiles and amphibians.

The snakes, bearded dragons, iguanas, geckos and other exotic animals that come into the group’s orbit are not cuddly or cute, the qualities that often draw people to cats and dogs. Many people reflexively fear reptiles, and some even ascribe sinister characteristics to them.

It is an utterly irrational response to animals that will not bite unless startled or provoked, said Chris Ulrich, president of the Herpetological Society. Walking around the northern Vanderburgh County house from which he and veterinarian’s assistant Carrie Williams run the Herpetological Society, Ulrich cradled, held and handled a variety of scaly critters awaiting placement. A few, such as a boa constrictor with spinal deformities resulting from mistreatment, are pets.

They are all God’s creatures, the two said.

“Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all,” Ulrich said, quoting 20th Century writer and intellectual G.K. Chesterton.

Ulrich cast his gaze at Victor, a boa constrictor for which he and Williams are actively trying to find a home. He gently caressed the snake, which raised its head in response.

“He’s a sweetheart,” Ulrich said of Victor. “Just because there’s a snake in your yard doesn’t mean it’s trying to attack you or that you have to kill it. It’s just part of nature.”

A bearded dragon, a female named Pogan, cocked its head as Ulrich spoke to it. That happens every time, he and Williams said.

Spreading the message of tolerance and acceptance of reptiles is half of the Herpetological Society’s mission, an objective it meets with presentations to school, scout and church groups. The other half is providing foster care and placement for reptiles. The creatures come primarily from animal control agencies, owners who no longer want them and people who find them.

But it takes money to run an organization supporting reptiles in captivity - money for travel and food for the animals, reptile heat mats, thermostats, lamps, rock hides and enclosures. The Herpetological Society also welcomes new and used reptile supplies.

Lacking the broad appeal of furry pets, snakes are a harder sell to donors.

“We do good just to stay even,” Ulrich told the Evansville Courier & Press (https://bit.ly/1ALl3qK ) of the organization’s fundraising.

Meanwhile, new reptiles come in all the time. Many - mostly snakes - come from Evansville Animal Care and Control. The agency also seeks advice from Ulrich, whose expertise is self-taught, and Williams, who has a lifetime’s practical and medical experience with reptiles.

“They’re the experts when it comes to handling those creatures,” said Alisa Webster, superintendent of Animal Care and Control. “It’s beneficial for us to be able to call them, even if it’s just for them to come in and look at a turtle.”

Animal Care and Control periodically gives the Herpetological Society reptiles to hold in foster care in hopes that an owner will come forward. If one does not, the organization works to find a home for the animal. In one case, the Herpetological Society helped find a sanctuary in northern Indiana for a small American alligator, a reptile prohibited by city ordinance.

Reptiles come to the Herpetological Society from all sorts of places.

Ulrich approached 10 Baby Leopard tortoises in a large enclosure. The little animals scurried over to him en masse, apparently thinking they were about to be served a helping of the grass, straw and pellets that constitute their daily diet.

Ulrich said the tortoises were handed over by an Indianapolis-area woman who had found the group online.

“She just said, ‘Here, I don’t know what to do. Take them,’” he said with a chuckle.

People find the Herpetological Society through its website (https://tristateherpsocietyindiana.weebly.com), its Facebook page and through simple word-of-mouth.

The constituency for reptiles - the community of people willing to take the creatures into their homes - is not as small as one would think, Ulrich said.

“There are a lot of people in the area that are into reptiles,” he said. “The thing is, most people don’t realize how many people own reptiles because, it’s not like we take them out on a leash and take them for a walk. You don’t see them in public as much.”

But as long as there are people willing to abandon animals without food or care, groups like the Herpetological Society will have plenty to do.

Dr. John Scott Foster, executive director of Wesselman Nature Society, said the organization performs a vital function that few others can provide.

“Literally, we had somebody dump a ball python in a bag here at the center, and so we worked with them to help get the animal placed,” Foster said.

“If you buy a ball python and you take care of it, it’s going to live for 12 years or more. But it’s often teenagers who then grow up, graduate from high school or go to college, where you’re not allowed to have them - and their parents don’t particularly want them. So they’re sort of left going, ‘What am I going to do with this?’”

There might not be an emotional attachment, as there might be for a cat or dog, to tug at the individual’s conscience.

“It’s hard to form an emotional attachment with a snake,” said Foster, who kept snakes once himself. “To me, they’re almost living sculpture. They’re beautiful, to watch them move, to watch them function - but it’s not like a cat or a dog that’s going to be happy to see you come home.”

Williams, the Herpetological Society’s treasurer, said the organization’s presentations before children may help explain human fear of animals that are essentially docile. Williams learned to love reptiles as a child, sharing a household with a Columbian redtail boa constrictor owned by her father.

Children often approach the reptiles with smiles, open minds and open hearts - only to be admonished by parents or other adults to keep their distance and beware that the animals could hurt them.

Ulrich nodded his head as he listened.

“It’s a taught fear,” he said. “A taught fear.”


Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, https://www.courierpress.com

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