CHARMING SNAKES AND ALLURING LIZARDS
- Mardi Ford
- The Observer
Lyn Tovar has a son who is crazy about snakes. And turtles and lizards. Now a fourth-grader, Dale for several years was too young to join Leapin' Lizards, the county's only herpetology 4-H club, led by Joyce Hyder of Elgin.
"We'd go to the fair every year and he just loved the (herpetology) display. But he wasn't old enough yet to be in 4-H," Tovar explains.
By the time Dale was old enough, the Hyder family had moved out of the area and the Leapin' Lizards, being leaderless, disbanded in 2006.
Needless to say, Tovar recalls, her son was terribly disappointed when they discovered there was no herpetology 4-H club.
That's when Tovar contacted the 4-H Extension Office for Union County and asked what she needed to do to start a new club.
"Dale's really pleased," Tovar says about her son's reaction to Mom's proactive solution.
Tovar, of La Grande, has completed all the paperwork and 4-H leader training. Although she's never led a
4-H club before, she is excited about stepping into the new role.
"All I'm waiting for now is some more kids," she says.
Ironically, another mother from Imbler has also taken it upon herself to get the ball rolling with a new herpetology club this year.
Heather Winburn has three boys Â— Micah, 13, Isaiah, just turning 11, and Josh, 8. Micah had two years of Leapin' Lizards. During 2006, the year with no club, they discovered that life just wasn't the same without it.
"We really missed being at the fair with our 3-D poster displays last year," Winburn says.
Although the Winburn boys have also raised sheep and rabbits, there's just something about herps. Winburn says many people don't realize all that goes into a 4-H herpetology project. According to Union County Extension Agent Carole Smith, a big requirement is the educational poster that makes up the herpetology display, along with the animals themselves.
"They are usually quite detailed and are required in addition to the project itself," Smith says.
The educational poster display must include a report that introduces the animal by its scientific name and include information on a topic pertaining to that particular animal. For example, diseases or predators the animal is susceptible to.
The report must also list three new facts not used in any prior reports. This criteria, Winburn says, shows the judges the 4-Her is still learning and studying the animal even if it has been shown before.
Visuals such as diagrams or photographs must also be included, along with personal information about the animal as a pet Â— its name, particular likes and dislikes and what activities the owner and pet may have done together.
"For example, in the summer the boys like to take our turtles outside for a while. They walk around and explore. It's just fun to have them out once in a while," she says. "Boys like reptiles and amphibians. They feed the turtles live crickets, and they kinda chomp 'em. Boys like stuff like that. It's exciting to them."
The Winburns currently have a big-eyed tree frog named Bulge "because of its big, bulgy eyes" and two female turtles Â— Daisy, an ornate box turtle, and Buttercup, who is either some variety of box turtle or a small tortoise. They aren't sure.
"It's not always easy to know exactly what they are," says Winburn Â— just as it isn't always easy to know exactly what sex they are either. The tree frog's gender at this point is still unknown. Winburn is hoping that local veterinarian Ursula Kelley will be willing to work with the herpetology club again, as she did with Leapin' Lizards.
"Maybe Dr. Kelley will be able to help us figure out whether Bulge is a girl or a boy," she says.
But Dr. Kelley says frog gender is not always easy to figure out. One thing she is sure of, however, is that she would welcome working with herpetology 4-H clubs again.
"A reptile or amphibian makes a great 4-H project. Kids learn a lot about biology,'' the veterinarian says. "You can't just take a frog home and stick it in an aquarium. You have to learn about the animal Â— what it likes to eat, what kind of an environment will keep it healthy and happy. You have to think about humidity levels and temperatures Â— recreate the landscape they come from."
Kelley said herps also make great pets because they're fairly clean,
non-allergenic and allow their owners to recreate a little piece of nature at home.
"It's not like having a fluffy little kitten," she admits, "but some animals will actually come to recognize their owners and take little treats from them. They make really interesting pets."
Laura Mahrt is an associate professor of biology at Eastern Oregon University. While Leapin' Lizards was going strong, Mahrt was often called in as a judge at the Union County Fair, or to educate kids on outings to her lab at the college. She is also happy to see the enthusiasm for herpetology clubs is still high in Union County.
"I'm more than happy to be a resource again," Mahrt says, adding that her role was pretty much the same as Kelley's Â— providing some basic information on each animal, along with the proper care and needs of the pets.
In fact, Mahrt did her master's thesis on garter snakes.
"They are close to my heart. They are very colorful and active." Unfortunately, she says it is their proclivity to making a musky smell when handled that has been a disadvantage to being chosen as pets.
"It's a defense mechanism when they get upset. Â‘You handle me, I poop on you, you put me down.' But once they get used to you, they will stop that," she says.
Mahrt has captured herps in the wild in the early fall, brought them home or into the biology lab for the school year, then released them in the summer.
"The kids in the herpetology club loved tramping around outdoors looking for herps. Taking one home is even more fun," she says.
For the first two weeks after bringing one home, Mahrt suggests keeping the animal in an environmentally friendly aquarium in someplace quiet like the garage without feeding it. After two weeks, it if will eat, it will probably be fine to keep for the season. If it won't eat, then it's best to take it back where it was captured and release it.
Taking a native reptile or amphibian home for the winter is a fun way to study them, she says. But it's important to be patient for the first two weeks and see if they will be happy. Either way, she says, it's extremely important to release them back to the same place they were captured.
She laughs, then adds, "I like to tell the kids that they probably go back to their friends and describe their strange UFO experience Â— being captured by aliens."
For more information on herpetology or joining one of the new 4-H herpetology clubs, call Honour Bowen or Carole Smith at the Union County Extension Office, 963-1010.