The Snake Lover
A Virginia herpetologist fosters respect for reptiles
“It’s a rainbow!” shouts J.D. Kleopfer.
As I come running from where I am also searching for snakes, I see a beaming Kleopfer, Virginia’s state herpetologist, holding a slender, three-foot long snake with prominent red and gold stripes.
Photo by Betsy Howell
“I was just about to leave,” he says, “but then I saw her in these rocks and I thought, “Please don’t be dead! The only rainbow I’ve ever seen here was dead, and when I saw flies above her, my heart sank. But then she moved!” As the snake twines through his fingers attempting escape, he adds, “She’s not as bright as rainbows usually are because she’s about to shed. See, her eyes are milky.”
I ask to hold the snake and she feels wonderfully smooth and dry. She continues to move, along my forearm and over to my other hand, and I must work to keep hold of her. Up close, the colors jump out more. Light purple, brown, and a row of diamond-shaped scales that are half red and half yellow. I’ve never seen a rainbow snake before, dead or alive, but that’s not surprising since I live on the other side of the country, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. As a Forest Service wildlife biologist from the temperate rainforest, I work mostly with small carnivores, but in the last few years I’ve become more interested in amphibians and reptiles and the biologists who love them. I first got to know Kleopfer through our mutual participation in Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC). This organization is dedicated to maintaining healthy populations and habitats of herpetofauna, the collective term for amphibians and reptiles, whose Greek root, “herpein” means “to creep.”
Now I’m in Virginia, accompanying Kleopfer into the field. Being a state herpetologist means that Kleopfer is involved in everything to do with amphibians and reptiles in Virginia, including surveying for the presence of different species throughout the state. Field inventories, which may include simple visual surveys or setting live traps, provide important information that can then be used to inform land management and restoration activities and/or land acquisition. Our first day together is cool, with breezes blowing in off the Atlantic Ocean at False Cape State Park. We don’t see much at first beyond one leopard frog sitting quietly in a pool of shallow water, and a cottonmouth snake basking appropriately next to a sign warning about the presence of cottonmouths in the area. Our looming disappointment, however, vanishes instantly with the appearance of the rainbow snake.
Kleopfer releases the snake back where he found her. She disappears into the darkened pockets of the rocks without a sound or a backward glance. Back in the vehicle, he can’t stop smiling. “I’m 53 years old,” he says, “and I’ve been doing this work for 30 years. Yet I still get so excited when I see a new species!”
In the mid-1970s, when John D. Kleopfer was 12 years old, he began volunteering at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News. Known back then as the Peninsula Nature and Science Center, the organization’s mission has always been to connect people to nature and to promote conservation. As a youth, he assisted with the husbandry, collection, and maintenance of the life support systems for the aquariums and amphibian and reptile exhibits. Sometimes Kleopfer rode the bus to the nature center with turtles in a box. “I got some strange looks from fellow passengers,” he remembers, “as you could hear the turtles scratching around inside. I’m sure you couldn’t do that today.”
Kleopfer volunteered at the museum until he was 16 and his interest grew in creatures that many people find frightening or useless. He remembers catching watersnakes along the Warwick River and riding his bike home with the snakes wrapped around his arm.
“Of course, my mother wasn’t too happy about this,” he tells me. “She wondered how I could tell the difference between a watersnake and a water-moccasin (cottonmouth), a highly venomous species of snake. Consequently, I never told either of my parents about snakes that escaped in our garage.”
After high school, he left to pursue a degree in degree in biology and later a master’s in environmental science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. For his graduate work, he studied the intergradation of yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta), a native turtle, and red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), an introduced species. In 1993, he returned to the Virginia Living Museum, but this time as the Curator of Aquariums and Herpetology. Except for four years in Colorado working for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Kleopfer has lived and worked in Virginia and has gotten to know the state’s 149 species of snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, and salamanders very well. In addition to field surveys, his current job as herpetologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries keeps him busy reviewing permits for research on amphibians and reptiles, assisting law enforcement where the well-being of the different species is at stake, writing regulations for collection guidelines, and working to improve habitat.
As we drive north along the sandy track through False Cape State Park, a large turtle appears on the road. This female yellow-bellied slider is heavy with eggs and feisty. She has no intention of hiding in her shell and even stretches out her long neck to nip at Kleopfer. The turtle’s plastron, the part of the shell under her body, is a bright, buttery yellow; the carapace, or top part, dark with just a hint of yellow in the background. As the air temperature climbs, more reptiles appear, including red-bellied cooters along the water’s edge and a large snake taking up a fair portion of the road.
“It looks like a racer,” Kleopfer says, slowing down, “and if so, I’m not going to catch it. They’re just mean and bite a lot.” However, after getting out of the vehicle, he determines it’s not a racer but rather an eastern ratsnake. He walks toward it, but the snake is not interested in further interaction. It begins to head for cover.
Kleopfer is tall and broad-shouldered and has the athletic build of a football or basketball player. Yet, he now moves across the road with the speed and grace of a dancer and grabs the snake near its tail. Ratsnakes might not be as prone to biting as racers, but this animal still isn’t happy. It strikes at him protesting the tethering before settling slightly and allowing me to take several photos. The snake is deep black in color with a lighter, whitish-gray belly, and it regards us with a serious countenance that comes from having unblinking eyes. Pantherophis alleghaniensis, or “panther snake,” is also known as “blacksnake.” These reptiles are important predators of white-footed mice, one of the primary rodent hosts for ticks that carry Lyme’s disease.
“I don’t care if people become snake lovers,” Kleopfer tells me as we leave the coast and head inland to a long-leaf pine restoration area, “but I would like them to become “snake-tolerant.”
Persuading people to such a view is not an easy task. Myths and misconceptions abound and cultural antagonism toward snakes is ancient. Before the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries hired college graduates to staff a Wildlife Conflict Helpline, Kleopfer routinely fielded five or six phone calls a day. One particularly memorable inquiry came from an older woman who wanted to know why the department was planning to drop copperhead snakes — a venomous species — from helicopters. Kleopfer assured her this was not something the agency was planning. Yet the woman continued, saying she’d received the information from a good, Christian gentleman who wouldn’t lie.
“No, ma’am,” Kleopfer said, “I’m sure he isn’t lying and is just repeating what he’s heard. But we’re still not dropping copperheads from helicopters.”
Many of the calls are from people who have the reptiles turn up in their yards. Virginia has thirty-two species of snakes, only three of which are venomous, and most of the time, the visitor is one of the many nonvenomous species. Yet, even if it is a copperhead, cottonmouth, or rattlesnake, Kleopfer still gives callers advice on how to safely move the animal out of their yard and how to make their yard less attractive to snakes. Then he tells them it’s best just to leave the snakes alone.
“If I ever write a book, it will be called, What About the Children?” he tells me. “After I’ve explained to people how they can remove snakes without harming the animals or themselves and that there really isn’t a safety concern with most species of snake, they always ask me, ‘What about the children?’” He shakes his head, “I can’t recall the last time I heard about someone’s child being eaten by a blacksnake. Can’t they just leave them alone?”
Often “the children” show little fear of snakes, illustrating that such anxiety is more learned than instinctual. I remember a speaker at one of our PARC annual meetings who gave a presentation on the topic of reptile environmental education. This man shared that he regularly put snakes “up close to babies’ faces,” and that there never was any sign of fear from the babies, only curiosity (where the parents of these infants were during these meetings wasn’t entirely clear). And young children often express a distinct interest in snakes and other amphibians. Currently, Kleopfer receives good location information for different amphibians and reptiles from young people he calls his “herp minions.” This is a group of highly motivated and enthusiastic amateur herpers that have a strong interest in amphibian and reptile conservation and doing citizen-science work, and Kleopfer tells me that he is often amazed at what they find. He has developed a spreadsheet that they maintain, with the data being uploaded into the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information System, an electronic warehouse documenting where species are found. Those of us working in wildlife biology know that instilling young people with a sense of respect and interest in the natural world is a wise investment for future conservation.
The next day I drive to Kleopfer’s office in Charles City along the James River and meet his field crew. Dane Conley is tall, dark-haired, bearded, and in his early twenties, and is currently working towards his associates degree while also working full-time for Kleopfer. Jessica Johnston is a few years older, with a serious expression and hair pulled back in a ponytail. She has just finished her undergraduate degree in environmental studies and will soon start a master’s project on insects. They are both excited to learn that Kleopfer and I saw a rainbow snake and they hope to show me more species as we head out to check turtle traps and cover boards (long pieces of metal or wood set on the ground to attract animals seeking warmth, or shade depending on the day’s weather).
As we drive, Conley tells me he’s been interested in “herps” ever since he was two years old and his mother showed him a gopher snake in their yard. More recently, she’s been less pleased with his online posting of photos of venomous snakes he finds. Conley travels to Florida on “herping bonanzas” with his girlfriend, another snake enthusiast, where they spend a busy few days looking for all the reptiles they can find. He pulls out his phone and happily shows me a photo he took of an alligator eating a non-native Burmese python. “Alligators still rule,” he says.
Our first stop is the New Kent Forestry Center, a research and educational facility managed by the Virginia Department of Forestry. With 850 acres of bald cypress swamp, hardwood forests, and open fields, the Center property is ideal for surveying for a variety of reptiles and amphibians. Conley and Johnston’s work this summer is funded by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, the focus being to document presence of species in habitats along the Chickahominy River, an important waterway for humans and wildlife. The lower region of the watershed is a focal area for wildlife conservation, and at the end of the summer Kleopfer writes me that his crew documented 64 of 70 amphibian and reptile species known to be in this area. Two particularly important findings included a new county record for the scarlet kingsnake and a new location for the recently described Atlantic Coast leopard frog.
Photo by Betsy Howell
The swamp is shallow and we wear rubber knee boots. Conley, being the tallest, wades out to the farthest traps while Johnston records the findings in her notebook. A striped mud turtle, one eastern red-spotted newt, a blue-spotted sunfish, and a bullfrog tadpole have all followed the scent of the bait, canned sardines in soybean oil, into the traps. Still, Jessica is disappointed.
“Yesterday, we had four turtles in one trap at this site,” she says. “But it’s cooler today.”
At the next trap, a leopard frog escapes Conley’s grip and he begins sweeping his arm through the black water in the hopes of finding it again. Johnston explains to me that her field partner is a bit crazy, a remark she intends him to hear.
“Hey, I wouldn’t do this at Back Bay!” he shouts, defending himself. Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, on the coast just north of False Cape State Park, has an abundance of cottonmouths and blindly moving one’s arm through the water there would be risky.
We move on to the next location, a tract of private land the owner has generously agreed to have surveyed. Though the turtle traps continue to yield little, we start to see more snakes. Conley finds a ratsnake and this one I get to hold. The bulk of its body curls up in my left hand, while the head and upper body rest in my right. The snake is relatively calm and isn’t breathing heavily or flicking its tongue, both signs of stress. However, when Conley begins to carry it back to where he found it, the snake decides it’s had enough. An impressive bite on the back of Conley’s hand shows at least three inches between the upper and lower teeth. Still, the young man isn’t fazed.
“I get bit all the time,” he shrugs, gently placing the snake back in the tangle of bushes.
Our last stop is the Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area. This 5,000-acre property belonging to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries consists of more upland habitats than wetland habitats. In one area, we investigate several cover boards and are rewarded with three copperheads under one board. Even Conley is surprised to find so many together.
“Wow!” he shouts, then adds for my benefit, “Okay, now these are venomous.”
The copperheads are more beautiful than I had imagined, with their eponymous copper heads, and hourglass-shaped bands and several shades of tan and brown along their backs. Two of the snakes, upset by our arrival, begin to move away; the third stays in place for a few minutes and allows itself to be observed. Conley tells me that some nonvenomous snakes, when threatened, can use their movable jaws to make their head appear triangle-shaped like copperheads and other venomous species. Unfortunately, this strategy, designed to deter animal predators, can backfire when they are killed by people who mistake them for the other.
After Conley replaces the cover boards and is writing notes, we suddenly hear movement in the grass. A few feet from the cover board a black racer comes into view, providing a wildlife observation not orchestrated by any human. The racer immediately joins the copperheads in the shelter. I wonder about this, but Conley says they’ll all leave each other alone. I say again how beautiful the copperheads are.
“Yes,” he agrees. “It’s too bad people always want to kill them.”
It’s fitting that J.D. Kleopfer’s home is currently adjacent to a swamp. It used to be next to Lake Powell, an 81-acre body of water before the earthen dam retaining the lake blew out during Tropical Storm Ernesto in 2006. There are plans to reconstruct the dam to restore property values and provide recreational opportunities, but due to the cost, this hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime, the shallower water with abundant cover is much more ideal for amphibians and reptiles, and Kleopfer has seen box turtles, mud turtles, and snapping turtles all nesting in his yard. Additionally, seven species of snake — including rough greensnakes, black racers, and wormsnakes — have all made appearances around his house. One copperhead that turned up on the porch had to be carried back to the forested swamp using a snake stick.
Kleopfer says he has seen a tremendous shift over the past thirty years in many people’s attitudes toward snakes. Much of the public has come to appreciate and enjoy, or at least tolerate, the occasional snake in their yard. And where they once were most inclined to bring him a snake they had just killed to identify, now they are more likely to bring in a photo of a live snake on their smart phone.
“This change is a direct result of the incredible amount of education being done by governmental and nongovernmental agencies,” Kleopfer says. Similarly, snakes are experiencing a more positive portrayal in pop culture. “Love him or hate him, Crocodile Hunter has had a significant, positive influence on people’s attitude toward snakes and reptiles in general,” he says, referring to the controversial TV personality.
Yet, one doesn’t have to be famous to persuade people of the value of other species, or of our interconnectedness with creatures that are very different from ourselves. Kleopfer has spent his life in this endeavor and the snakes and turtles of Virginia are the better for it today.