“I Hope One Day They Will Be Protected”

Today I talked with a great group of kids at River Legacy Nature Center in Arlington. The twenty or so children were in a week-long “Hands-On Herpetology” class, having fun and learning about native reptiles and amphibians. I brought a few snakes and we talked about things like how they live as well as being safe when around them.

The trail approaching the River Legacy Living Science Center

One of the snakes I brought is a Texas garter snake. He has a dark background color and three light stripes, big inquisitive eyes and an active, athletic build. We talked about how snakes with stripes generally rely on speed – and a sort of optical illusion – to get away from predators. The thing is that when “Tex” or other striped snakes move, it’s hard to see their motion. If they had spots, it would be easy to see the spots move as the snake’s body slipped away. The stripes, however, seem to stay where they are, until the stripes converge on the narrowing tail and then the snake is gone. The predator may be left empty-handed.

There’s a tendency for people to think of garter snakes as common “garden snakes,” but in the case of Tex it just ain’t so. He’s a member of an uncommon subspecies of garter snake whose fate is not well understood. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department considers the Texas garter snake to be critically imperiled. It appears never to have been actually common, but there were places here and there (particularly within prairie habitat) in which they might be found at times. A recent study noted that despite trying to find these snakes in the field in 2013 and 2014, researchers were not able to find any. Tex is a long-term captive donated to me years ago by a landowner in Hill County so that more people might see and understand Texas garter snakes.

The Texas garter snake (“Tex”) – photo by Meghan Cassidy

My discussion about this was much more brief with the kids, but they got it that this is a snake that may be disappearing. When I mentioned that they are not legally protected, a girl commented, “I hope one day they will be protected.” Me too. I hope one day we will understand the reasons for the snake’s decline in more specific ways that allow us to protect it. And I hope we continue to have children who, when they learn about a species that is in trouble, want to protect it.

We talked about being safe when out in the field where there could be venomous snakes, and I showed the kids a prairie kingsnake and the young bullsnake that was a big hit with kids in Dallas earlier this week. The kids asked good questions and they already knew a number of things from their week at River Legacy. But nothing quite equalled that girl’s comment. It was an offhand remark that revealed her empathy or her capacity to care about a unique, lovely little member of the natural community. It made my day.

More Children in the Woods

Children should walk in the woods, often. They should be able to do so fearlessly, knowing how to explore safely, with wonder and confidence. That doesn’t happen enough for kids growing up in urban areas. Recently, I was asked to talk with a group of kids at TR Hoover Community Development Center in Dallas. Despite living near the Great Trinity Forest, I was told that a concern about the presence of snakes kept many of the kids from exploring the woods. Volunteers from Master Naturalist programs thought I could help the kids understand snakes in a more realistic way. I was eager to try to help with that.

There are lots of possible reasons that urban kids might not visit the woods. There can be the fear that dangers lurk in the woods. Some of that can be realistic, and some not so much. When I asked about their worries, one of the children mentioned wolves. I could reassure her that there would be no wolves, but some of the wildlife might potentially be dangerous. Surprise close encounters with feral hogs, for example, or a copperhead half-hidden in the leaves. Kids need to know about watching where you are going and knowing what to pay attention to.

A young copperhead

If they haven’t developed the skills that can make a walk in the woods full of delightful discoveries and minimal risk, it would not be surprising. In cities and suburbs, children play inside most of the time, and a lot of that time is spent in front of a screen of some kind. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports that elementary school-aged kids spend four to six hours a day in front of games, TV, tablets and phones, and the number is even higher for high school kids.

In 2005, Richard Louv published his book Last Child in the Woods, introducing the term “nature-deficit disorder.” It wasn’t a formal disorder, just a convenient shorthand for the way children – and the rest of us – are becoming estranged from nature. In the years following the book’s publication, a lot has been done to try to address that widening gulf between children and nature. I hope to contribute as much as I can to bringing us back together.

I talked with the kids at TR Hoover about what makes a forest and that we need all the “ingredients” in order for it to be a real forest. I said that most of the snakes they would find would be harmless, but that they should not count on that. The rules I suggested that they follow were:

  • Your EYES go first before your hands or feet
  • Don’t touch or pick up an animal when you aren’t sure what it is – no guessing!
  • If you see a venomous snake – walk away

In other words, never put your hands or feet somewhere until you know what is there. And don’t be quick to touch (I worry that a child will become overconfident and assume that they know something is harmless when it is not). And last, when you see what may be a venomous snake in the wild, there’s no need for panic and certainly no need to kill it. Sometimes a person has a well-intentioned but mistaken belief that they will make nature safer for the next visitor by killing a snake. They endanger themselves when they come in close contact and make the snake panicked and defensive. Killing the snake only opens up a place for another snake to fill the gap left by the dead one.

The kids loved the young bull snake I brought with me. She is a gentle example of one of our biggest native Texas snakes, and most of the children wanted to touch her. I would have gladly allowed this except that having thirty kids touch you (and perhaps a few try to grab you) is pretty stressful for a snake. Toward the end, I brought out a Texas garter snake, a subspecies that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department considers endangered in our state. His three pretty stripes and graceful body charmed the kids and the adults in the room.

The young bullsnake

I hope these kids are more comfortable and more prepared to get out there and safely explore the woods. I loved their questions and their energy, and would love to see them out there walking on a trail and discovering all kinds of wonderful things in the woods.

“Letters to Nature Kids”

I’m adding something new: free, downloadable “Letters to Nature Kids” that I will write from time to time. As I noted on the page for this publication, we “don’t send letters so much any more, but a good letter can feel like part of a long-distance conversation, informal and personal.” The first issue is only a few pages of text and photos, that includes a little information about wasps, egrets, turtles, and trees, without getting in-depth. The idea is for the natural history facts to be incidental to the telling of a story about something (in this case, about a walk I took at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge).

We will see how future letters go; they probably will not all be about future walks I’ll take. They might be about a particular kind of animal or plant, or something about how people and nature are related. In each one my purpose will be to “send” a letter to anyone who enjoys nature and would like to share a little bit of it. Readers might be around ten or older – including adults who, like me, can be “nature kids” at any age.

I hope you or someone you know will enjoy it. And I hope you’ll let me know what works and doesn’t work, what topics would be good. Please – write back to me!