In the spring of 2018, I met a friend named Alexus Cazares who was fascinated by snakes. My first thoughts when I learned this were, Are you crazy?, Who likes snakes?, and Don’t they harm people ? Before meeting her, I purposely killed snakes because I grew up in a community where snakes were the “bad guys.” They were risks to companion animals and livestock which my community depended on. My attitude then seems very closed-minded now, as I have become more knowledgeable about and closer with snakes. Fortunately, as I started to hang out and road cruise with Alexus, I developed this new perspective that I never imagined having. I remember the first time we found a snake together on one of our hikes, it was a Sonoran Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer). She encouraged me to hold the snake, and I did nothing but shake as she handed it to me with full confidence that I would not drop it and took a photo. Anyone could see how fearful I was just by looking at how I was holding the snake, with two hands lightly grasping it mid-body (do not be fooled by the smile, it was truly fear). Although it was slightly traumatic, that first experience of searching for snakes and handling one opened by mind to how I viewed them. In no time, I found myself wanting to see more snakes and going hiking and road cruising with my friends in search of them. This included hikes at Madera Canyon, the Chiricahua Mountains, and Sabino Canyon, where I saw my first Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum).
Shortly after, I asked Alexus if there was an opening in her lab. After interviewing with her mentor, Dr. Matt Goode, I joined the lab as a volunteer! I was very excited and had never dreamed of having this experience. On my first night out with the team, I joined Diego Huerta on a road cruising survey. We encountered a Gila Monster and three neonate Tiger Rattlesnakes (Crotalus tigris) that night. Each snake survey became more and more memorable, and has inspired me to learn more about herpetology. I enjoyed this research so much that I added Wildlife Conservation and Management as a second major, in addition to my Veterinary Science degree. I am now an undergraduate senior in the lab and aspire to become a wildlife veterinarian and conduct research on amphibian and reptile diseases.
None of my current passions would have developed without the following herp lovers. Alexus pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and taught me to never judge a book by its cover. I learned to always ask questions and do my own research. Diego taught me how to handle herpetofauna and better understand their behaviors. On one of our surveys, he said, “They [Rattlesnakes] are not aggressive, they are just defensive.” This was something I never understood or considered before going on a few surveys with him. I am telling the story of how I fell in love with herpetology because I believe there are many people, like my past self, out there who do not understand reptiles and need individuals like Alexus and Diego to push them. Push them to look beyond stereotypes and try to understand the perspective of snakes and other wildlife.