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'Island snake lady' working to protect water snakes



Published: Sat, July 2, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Not many young women would take pride in being called "the island snake lady," but Kristin Stanford does.

Based at Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island in Lake Erie, Stanford acquired the nickname shortly after beginning a research project on the endangered Lake Erie water snake. It lives only on the rocky shores of western Lake Erie islands, and until Kristin arrived five years ago, it enjoyed a lousy reputation among island residents and visitors.

Water snakes make poor neighbors. They commonly bask innocently near docks, jetties and piers, and curious travelers, especially children, try to catch them. That's a big mistake because, though they're harmless, they're mean, ill-tempered and quick to bite. Combine their nasty personality with most people's innate fear of snakes, and you've got a conservation education nightmare.

Enter Kristin Stanford. Five years ago, after completing her master's degree at Northern Illinois University where she studied the plains garter snake, Kristin jumped at the chance to do her doctoral research on the Lake Erie water snake. She understood that a key to the unpopular species' survival was convincing the islands' human population that if left alone, water snakes are harmless and even ecologically beneficial.

Over the course of four years, Kristin captured water snakes on South Bass, Gibraltar, Middle Bass, North Bass and Kelley's Islands. Her work included surgically implanting radio transmitters into 61 snakes so she could track their movements and locate their winter dens. The field work is now complete, and Kristin is writing her dissertation. However, that was the easy part.

Snake fascination

Convincing people to appreciate water snakes was the greater challenge. Having just spent a week at Stone Lab teaching an ornithology class, I observed firsthand that Kristin's people skills are among her greatest assets.

Last year Kristin taught a popular and successful one-week herpetology class. She obviously excelled because she was recognized last week as one of 2004's outstanding summer instructors at the Stone Lab. This year she's co-teaching a five-week herpetology class. Though the class covers all types of reptiles and amphibians, snakes are her passion.

One day she turned her class loose on six-acre Gibraltar Island. The assignment was to catch snakes. Ninety minutes later the students returned, each with a pillow case filled with three or four writhing snakes. On a break, I wandered into the herp lab and found Kristin holding an absolutely beautiful fox snake.

"Fox snakes live in wetlands along Lake Erie in northwestern Ohio, and I'm studying their abundance and habitat requirements," she explained. She's hoping to determine the effects of habitat fragmentation on these boldly patterned constrictors.

Positive effects

With her background, it's only natural that Kristin has acquired the "island snake lady" nickname. However, her reputation is largely due to the outreach programs she does throughout a multicounty area. She provides educational programs to schools and other groups and writes a monthly newspaper column in which she answers reader questions about snakes and other herps. In fact, if you have any snake questions, contact her at "theislandsnakelady@yahoo.com."

During my week at Stone Lab, I discovered two additional tangible indications of Kristin's influence. Many driveways on the islands now sport signs provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ohio DNR that read, "Water Snakes Welcome Here." I doubt there were any of those BK (before Kristin).

And finally, there's Arthur Wolf, Kristin's nine-year old prot & eacute;g & eacute; who lives on Middle Bass Island. "I call him 'my little snake man,'" Kristin told me. "He's caught many water snakes for me on Middle Bass." His father, who captains one of Stone Lab's research boats, told me he's now catching fox snakes for Kristin. Arthur's extraordinary exploits are featured in the current issue of Wild Ohio for Kids Magazine.

Kristin Stanford does it all -- researcher, teacher, mentor, community relations expert. Not a bad resume for the "island snake lady."

For more information about Stone Lab's summer programs, visit its Web site (www.stonelab.ohio-state.edu) or call (419) 285-2341.

XSend questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, W.Va. 26033 or via e-mail to sshalaway@aol.com.




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