Herpetologists in a zoo setting often work with a diversity of reptiles and amphibians from fairly innocuous tree frogs to gaboon vipers. I reached out to my colleague, Albuquerque Biological Park’s Curator of Herpetology Doug Hotle, to find out what it is like to work with an eclectic collection of native New Mexico and exotic herpetiles. Doug has worked in a variety of husbandry and administrative capacities as a zoo professional at several AZA institutions over his 30 year career. He has also curated live collections at an academic institution—a serpentarium holding over 500 venemous snakes. Doug has also conducted quite a bit of field work as a professional herpetologist and has published work in both the popular and peer-reviewed literature.
Jordan: Tell us about what drew you to work with some of the world’s most venomous reptiles?
Doug: I am one of those all-encompassing zoologists that gets fascinated by literally whatever is in front of me. Over the decades I have had the pleasure of working with a variety of animal taxa, from ants to zebras. Of course the belly-crawlers have always held a special place in my heart. I grew up catching reptiles and amphibians and keeping them in order to learn everything I could about them. In a peculiar way, I always felt more comfortable with them around. In that, I suppose that I have always had a different outlook on venomous species than others do. Most people approach it as there are two types of reptiles; those that are venomous and those that are not. To me, that’s absurd. There are thousands of types of reptiles, some just happen to be venomous. I happen to find them all equally as enthralling.
At one point in my career I traded my zoo director position to work alongside of some of the most brilliant researchers in snake venoms at the Natural Toxins Research Center at Texas A&M-Kingsville. The NTRC is the largest federally funded venom research laboratory in the country. I aided in the design and the completion of the new serpentarium that holds roughly 500 venomous snakes. The sister lab is a multi-million dollar facility with the latest state-of-the-art instrumentation. For someone like me it was a dream job. I spent my time collecting snakes from the wild, extracting venom from up to 100 snakes a day, conducting research and of course publishing. Undoubtedly, this is where I gained my passion for venomics (the study of venoms). Snakes went from being a, well… a snake, and they metaphorically exploded into a million little components, each with their own fascinating ingredients to explore. So, I guess you could say that while I jump up and down like a little kid every time I see a new animal, I suppose I do see the venomous snakes in a different light.
Jordan: The zoo has a sophisticated international collection of herps, if you will. But you also contribute widely to local conservation initiatives. Can you tell us about them?
Doug: This is another area that I think a little different that many others in this profession. Many years ago, when I was just a young enthusiastic kid I went out reptile hunting with a few folks from the Moscow Zoo. At one point, I brought back a common Eastern box turtle. Of course I didn’t think much of it. I watched as the group from Moscow took at least 2 rolls of film (remember rolls of film?) of this little turtle. At first I thought it a bit odd. Suddenly it hit me that this was an exotic tortoise to them! That day changed my perspective of native animals forever.
In my mind, our team can spend our energy on exotic animals like most do, and don’t get me wrong, we certainly do. However, for that same energy and money the BioPark can do far more research and conservation by focusing on our native herptofauna. Currently, we are involved in six programs that team up with New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Arizona Fish and Game and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. These involve the Chiricahua leopard frog, Sacramento Mountain salamander, Jemez Mountain salamander, Dunes sagebrush lizard, Narrow-headed garter snake, and the Northern Mexican garter snake which is a species we have not seen in the state for nearly 20 years! Our staff is regularly out in the field assessing the wild populations. Last year we participated in a group effort to salvage Narrow-headed garter snakes from two areas that were due to have their habitat devastated by the State’s largest wildfire in history. Many of these snakes now reside here at the BioPark and we believe may no longer exist in this particular part of their range. This may make these the last of that genetic line. It is a big responsibility. Thus far the Narrow-head garter has not been successfully bred in captivity. We are seeing signs of this activity and are hopeful for their future.
I believe that, while we can help globally, we need to act locally as well.
Jordan: I’m a firm believer that zoos are the backbone of conservation breeding programs, but they also serve as conservation education hubs particularly in the wake of climate change. What are some of your favorite educational displays or complementary messages that elucidate or illustrate a need for conserving herpetological biodiversity?
Doug: My new favorite is our new mosaic that was just completed for our Amphibians: Life on a Limb exhibit. The mosaic depicts four different amphibians in their habitats. This 5 foot by 7 foot piece has a great story. Over 7,000 local school children participated in its creation by drawing and coloring individual pictures of amphibians. Not only did they color, but they also were asked to learn about amphibians and then put that knowledge into their artwork. These individual pictures are then miniaturized into little 1 inch square tiles and assembled to create this beautiful work of art.
The cool thing about this is that the kids can go online, type in their name and it will show them where their individual contribution is placed. The main reason that I love this piece is that is a true definition of many people working together to create something amazing. This is the perfect example of how we succeed at conservation.
Jordan: Could you define herpetoculturist vs. herpetologist in this era of conservation breeding. Are their roles being blended or are they somewhat mutually exclusive?
Doug: More and more, the line between the two is getting fuzzy. There are indeed many areas where the two overlap, and rightly so. Anytime you take something that so many have an interest in, there will be plenty of shared concentrations.
The idea of conservation breeding is a complex subject, one that many people don’t fully grasp. The impression that we can just breed some random animal in captivity from the private sector and release them back into the wild is more illusion than reality. Let me expound on that so there are no hurt feelings out there. In the captive breeding world of animals for true conservation research, there are plenty of participants from the private sector. They contribute a great deal, they really do. However, these programs are intensely managed keeping in mind things like genetic viability, behavioral plasticity, accidental disease introduction and so much more. They are also expensive, take a great deal of time, and may be at least a 20 year commitment. In zoos we can make that commitment. Even if a major zoo was to decide to opt out of the program, the animals and all of the vital background information can be transferred. We just can’t get that in private sector to any reliable degree.
At a symposium once I was asked why zoos are finicky to work with the private herptoculturists. I was asked about animals like Figi Island Iguanas, Mangshan vipers, Komodo dragons and other assorted charismatic animals. I replied that their very questions were one reason. Everybody (including zoos) is eager to jump at the current “reptile of the month”. They look to the animals that are high dollar, rare, exotic and are otherwise, just a sexy animal. What about the drab little salamander that isn’t really worth anything monetarily, stays burrowed in the dirt and eats hard to find food items? Where are the hands going up for that species? We tend to hold up a “flagship species” that is attractive for conservation efforts, and this gets attention. But the normal, dull run of the mill herptile garners no favor from most. Sadly, in conservation we don’t get to pick and choose what’s endangered through a popularity contest.
From a scientists point of view; the spectrum of people working in the field is infinite. While I worked at the venom lab I would routinely have the researchers from the lab come over to watch me extract venom. The majority, I’d say easily 99% would not even get within 10 feet of the snake. Oddly enough, when I would visit the lab, I would see these researchers with dried venom vials sitting open and perhaps a syringe loaded with venom sitting openly next to their hands while working. It is not because they are careless, they aresimply doing their job. Yet, I’d often remind them that “it’s not the snake that kills you, it’s the venom”. But that’s the neat thing about this field, there are many folks doing many things that all help in the conservation and understanding of these amazing animals. This includes the herptoculturists.
Jordan: What is your favorite herp?
Doug: Now, that’s not fair. It’s like asking who your favorite child is. My generic, yet totally accurate reply is “what ever one is in front of me at that moment”. I do have a special place in my heart for Timber rattlesnakes. I spent a number of years spearheading the research on these snakes in Southern Indiana. I will say that I have built up a special bond for these snakes.
Jordan: Name a zoo experience of yours that would surprise people?
I think what really surprises people is how much I have an affinity for literally all things that walk, fly, swim or crawl. I was about 13 years old when I first got into the business. I spent most of my first decade working extensively with mammals and birds. Primates, big carnivores, ungulates…really the entire deal. My first true zoo job was working with penguins of all things. I have managed public aquariums, overseen entomology collections, managed elephants, wrestled dolphins, I have to say I’ve seen it all and loved every single moment. And, I have the scars and replacement parts to prove it!
I am often pigeon-holed as a herpetologist, and even further as a venom guy. I am okay with that. In reflecting upon it, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I believe that everyone needs to open their perspective on things and not focus everything on a single taxa. There is a whole other world going on around you, so marvel in the moment.
Jordan: Tell us about some close calls or calls?
Doug: Wow. These are the things we like to pretend never happened. Although, working with wild animals for any length of time up close and personal, there’s bound to be a few close calls. One that I think I can look back on as almost “funny” now involves a rhinoceros. When I was general curator at the Abilene Zoo, we brought in a male rhino from another facility. We secured his crate to the chute and opened the drop door anticipating a smooth shift into his new home. After a few minutes he came out of the crate and looked around for a moment. Not wanting him to go back into the crate we dropped the door back down to keep him out. Evidentially, he wasn’t to keen on that move. He looked up an me and the curator from the Ft. Worth Zoo who happened to be standing atop the crate, and decided that we were the perfect pair to take his frustrations out on. 5,000 pounds of angry rhino charging and slamming into a wooden crate is an interesting thing. Especially when you are perched on top of it and wondering how many more impacts the poor ole crate can take. I’d say he charged and hit that crate about a dozen times before he finally made his point and sauntered off. Funny thing, the next morning that rhino was as calm and playful as a puppy dog. (A 5,000 pound puppy).
On the not so amusing side of close calls, I have had a few of these too. Once while extracting from a western diamondback rattlesnake, the snake jerked at the last second at it was enough to be able to sink both fangs in pretty deep. I have had 6 good venomous bites in my time, but this one was a little different. While in the intensive care unit at the hospital that night, things took a bad turn. As I was laying there watching some television I suddenly began hearing loud buzzing and alarms going off. Almost immediately, a nurse came running into my room and looked directly at me and called out for a crash cart. I thought to myself, “someone’s dying, what a bummer for them”. Next thing I knew there were more nurses in the room and they were rolling in the crash cart. The nurses were yelling to me and asking me if I could respond. I thought for sure that they had the wrong room. I was just fine. After another request by the nurse to respond, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t move. I was fully aware of everything going on around me, but I absolutely could not move or speak. Then it hit me that it was indeed me that was dying, and I knew it and could not do anything about it. After a few moments and some syringes full of “anti-death” juice injected into my IV, I heard them say that I was responding at that my heart rate was stabilizing. Within a minute or so I was moving my fingers and was able to answer their questions. Sadly, I have come close to death more than once in my time, but that was by far the most unsettling thing I have ever experienced. I never want to go through something like that again. To be totally 100% helpless and watching your own demise…never again. All this from a three foot rattlesnake too!
Jordan: What snake species do you most fear or should I say respect?
Doug: There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of fear when dealing with venomous snakes. I tell my staff constantly that “there’s no other animal here at the zoo that can kill you with a single bite to any part of your body”. In that, we take every snake seriously, very seriously. I’m not too proud to admit that working with big king cobra, black mambas and those crazy taipans do in fact get my blood pressure up a notch or two. Mambas and taipans are like a stream of flowing water. You just can’t predict with any certainty where that snake is going to go, or when. But, like the “who’s your favorite” question; I’d say that I respect whatever snake is in front of me at that moment. It’s a good practice to live by, and I mean that literally.