The following history of PNWHS was compiled by Shari Anderson and appeared in the April and May 2006 newsletters.
The history of the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society is really the history of two different groups with the same name, separated by more than a decade. The first PNWHS started with informal discussions in early 1965 and by June of that year, there were 5 official members. Within a year, there were 35 members, a board with 4 officers and a publication, called the Bulletin of the PNWHS. Two of the four board positions were filled by people who worked at Woodland Park Zoo (President Don Berry and Secretary/Treasurer Ernie Wagner) A fact not surprising when the main impetus for the formation of the society was to exchange, publish & disseminate information regarding the husbandry and reproduction of herps. At this time there were few herp societies, even fewer herp publications and most of the research was being done in zoos and other institutions which tended to snub private herpers. There were a number of national herp groups but it was felt that something on the local scene was needed. As stated in the constitution, the purpose of the society was to interchange ideas, literature, and information on herpetology, to further the education of the general public, and to work with local zoos, museums, universities and schools.
The first bulletin, published in January 1966, contained an article on iguana husbandry and field notes on the collection of three spotted night snakes (Hypsiglena torquata deserticola) in Eastern Washington. By the time the last Bulletin was published in 1972, there would be numerous articles detailing Washington State herps, including a census of the reptiles and amphibians residing on the McChord Air Force base. There were many species accounts of indigenous herps, including the Northern alligator lizard (Gerrhonotus coeruleus principis), rubber boas (Charina bottae) and the ubiquitous garter snake (Thamnophis spp.) Husbandry issues over the years covered numerous issues, including treating snake mites, constructing herp housing and the body composition of mice.
Conservation entered the society’s activities early on with the support of national legislation that revised the predator control program by eliminating the use of Poison 1080. Poison 1080 directly or indirectly killed many species outside of the predatory mammals responsible for livestock damage. Other conservation concerns addressed the dwindling population of the American alligator, turtle & horned toad protection in Texas and the exploitation of South American iguanas for exotic hides and the pet trade. PNWHS political activism also cropped up in expressing concern over the underground atomic tests being conducted on Amchitka Island in Alaska.
Under the “some things never change” department, a letter was published in the second year of the bulletin from a herper in Florida expressing trepidation about introduced herpetofauna in Dade County. He listed 22 species of concern, including the common iguana, red-eared slider, Tokay gecko and marine toad. It is interesting to note that no Nile monitors or pythons were listed both species of which have exploded across Florida and are decimating indigenous herps. The PNWHS editor added at the end of the letter a comment which reads in part: “Only time will tell if those species are really harmless to the native fauna, or if they will replace them simply by their greater efficiency.”
On the lighter side, a telephone reminder list was mentioned for keeping members in touch. (How did they survive without email?) And in the first year, meetings were already set for the third Sunday of the month and dues were just $5.
After reading through all the newsletters published by the first incarnation of PNWHS, the one that stayed with me was Ernie Wagner’s report of a trip to Eastern Washington in 1968 after the construction of the John Day dam on the John Day river which flows into the Columbia river. Before the construction of the dam, there had been a deep river gorge classified as an Upper Sonoran life zone with lava rock, dry grass, shale slides and some sagebrush. The group of herpers arrived on the fifth and final day of the flooding and found the gorge almost completely filled in. Surveying the shoreline and the water which resembled poorly stirred chocolate, they found snakes floating gently in the brown foam. During a four hour hunt, the most common herp encountered was the gopher snake (Pituophis melanoleucus desertacola), followed by blue racers (Coluber constrictor mormon) and the North Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus oregonus). Regarding this rather somber hunt, Ernie wrote that many of the animals rescued would probably fail to survive. Those that survived this far were facing a rather bleak future, for I doubt if this high ground could support as great a population density as the lower river valley had.
From the beginning of PNWHS, the fundamental intent to educate and improve the quality of care of captive animals has not changed, but some things have changed big time. From the first year, PNWHS entered the classroom to teach eager young minds. In the past few years, our outreach program has provided live animal presentations for thousands of children. But back in 1966, classroom teaching (not to mention the amazing goodwill of a high school principal) was a little more unconventional. In the July 1966 PNWHS Bulletin, Robert Gantert, a biology teacher at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle contributed an article entitled, “The Reptile House in the Biology Classroom.” He wrote: “Last year our reptiles and their value as classroom teaching tools have been the subject of articles in leading educational journals. We can boast that we are one of the few high schools having a live rattlesnake in the classroom as a teaching aid.” Mind you, the teacher did milk the venom, so the snake was potentially less dangerous and only competent students are allowed to handle the more dangerous reptiles. (Just don’t look for a live rattlesnake at any PNWHS outreaches in the near future. )
By a remarkable coincidence, 2 small groups of herp enthusiasts both decided to start local herp societies in the spring of 1987. The previous herp society (see part 1 in the April 2006 issue) had faded away 15 years earlier and a need was widely felt for a regional herp society where herpers could get together and exchange information. In the Seattle area, Giovanni Fagioli (of Bean Farm fame) and Greg James sent out a letter on March 26 to potential members about the formation of the Northwest Herpetological Society. The intended goals were conservation through public awareness & education and the exchange of captive breeding information and general knowledge & experience with herptiles. At the very same time, Dick Dorsett was working on the formation of the Puget Sound Herpetological Society in Tacoma. Within weeks, the two fledgling groups joined together to form the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society. In short order, the first meeting and speaker were scheduled, a newsletter was planned and common goals established. They decided to alternate monthly meetings between Seattle at the Seattle Aquarium and Tacoma at the Pt. Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. At the first meeting in May, Ernie Wagner gave a presentation on milk snakes and the first newsletter was published on June 15, 1987.
During the first year, PNWHS manned a reptile display at the Puyallup Fair and presented the first annual Reptile Fair at the Pacific Science Center a partnership now in its 19th year. The first PNWHS show had 125 exhibits and drew 7000 visitors over the two-day event. (At the 1992 show, a 3 foot alligator -apparently before the City of Seattle ban – escaped and popped up near the gift shop 18 days later)
One of the outstanding facets of the PNWHS from the very beginning was an emphasis on activism. In June, less than a month after the first meeting, the push was on to stop a rattlesnake roundup sponsored by the Lions Club in Eastern Washington. At first, the Washington State Department of Wildlife indicated that it might approve the permit because state law only covered the collection and not the killing of rattlesnakes. Within weeks, the roundup was shut down. PNWHS, with the help of a lawyer and other environmental groups, spearheaded the clarification of state laws covering rattlesnakes. reptiles were found to be included as wildlife under the state definitions and therefore needed a contest permit to conduct a contest using wildlife. The roundup was also found to have an impact on wildlife meaning they would have to follow the State Environmental Policy Act, which they did not. This victory would become one of PNWHS greatest accomplishments. (PNWHS newsletter, May 1992, pages 14-15) (Maybe that’s why the rattlesnake was part of the PNWHS logo for the first 8 years)
In early 1989, Giovanni & Greg met with Bruce Nordstrom to discuss removing reptile skin products from stores. At the May meeting it was reported that while the ban on selling reptile skin products was still on the table, a visit to the Bellevue Nordstrom revealed no reptile skin shoes for sale.
The adoption/rescue committee has been an integral part of PNWHS from almost the beginning. Many herps have been rescued, returned to health and adopted out over the years. There were very few months when iguanas were not offered, sometimes as many as nine in a single month. One description listed an 18 foot iguana I pray that was a typo and not an iguana rescued from Hanford. Among the snakes available, there were the ubiquitous red-tailed boas, kings & corns, plus a few out of the ordinary, like a coachwhip. One month had not one but two 14 foot Burmese pythons. On the lizard front, besides the occasional monitor, tegu & leopard gecko, the adoption committee has offered up a spiny-tailed iguana, prehensile-tailed skink, butterfly agama and sailfin dragon. Turtles and tortoises have always been well represented, but perhaps the most strange potential adoptee was a cane toad. (Who would want one?)
Need a recipe for cutting down the fungal & bacterial infections in amphibian eggs and young? The PNWHS newsletter published not one, but four such recipes, along with many other husbandry articles over the years. From serious problems like egg retention, infectious stomatitis, shell repair in chelonians and vomiting in reptiles to every day issues like lighting requirements, heating, substrates and humidity.
Speakers and newsletter topics have traveled an amazing geographical path: the herps of the Kalahari and Namib deserts, the herpetoculture of Sweden, the flora & fauna of the Mojave desert, the sea turtles of Costs Rica and the chameleons of Africa and Madagascar. Speakers have told us about reptile evolution, state policies regarding the collecting & protection of state herps, the decline of Pacific Northwest amphibians, the re-population of wildlife after the Mount St. Helens eruption and the giant Goliath frog of Cameroon (with a lively display of one individuals athletic abilities) A pretty amazing education for only $15.00 a year.
Like it or not, we are governed by laws that dictate what herps we may or may not keep and if we can have them where we live, so it is no surprise that legal issues were addressed by PNWHS early on. Before the end of the first year, a Tacoma law cropped up requiring a permit for keeping wild or vicious animals or reptiles (When is a reptile not an animal?) 1992 brought a review of both the City of Everett Exotic Animal Control Ordinance and the proposed King County Exotic Animal Ban.
Some things have been tried, tested and frequently tossed: day care for small children during the general meetings; board meetings on separate days; a winter break with no meetings in November & December; a sergeant-at-arms (for tossing out the rowdier elements, I guess.) and alternating meetings between Seattle and Tacoma. Some thorny problems are apparently perennial: people not staying current in dues; low turn-outs for meetings and board members being prickly to one another. A presidential note from 1989 contains an admonition that will probably always be applicable: I would like to see the members contribute more input or feedback on the ideas, projects and speakers we have or you would like to have I think participation by all will lead to a better society. Amen
I joined PNWHS in 1988 and it was quite a trip down memory lane to reread all the newsletters and to flash back over some of the events I had participated in. (And some events I would like to forget, like when my savannah let loose all over me during the first PSC show I volunteered in.)
Throughout the years, there have been topics of concern, such as wild caught vs. captive bred that are hopefully being resolved and other issues like the gap that seems to have widened a bit between those who consider themselves herpetoculturists and those who are labeled pet keepers. For all the things that change and for all the things that remain the same, we are all herpers and the need to learn should never wane. PNWHS can continue to educate its members and provide a unique source of camaraderie for many years to come.