Coexisting with Pitvipers Symposium

at Biology of Pitvipers 4
Rodeo, New Mexico, USA

6:00 – 8:30 pm
Friday 15 July 2022

A female Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (yellow rattlesnake with dark brown blotches), hunts against a rock on the steps leading to the front door.
Porter, female Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake, hunts against a rock on the steps leading to the front door.

Education and outreach are essential components of any conservation program, especially for those working with maligned, misunderstood animals that pose a potential threat to the public. As lifelong pitviper enthusiasts, it may be difficult to relate to snake-averse people. However, we often find ourselves interacting with the public and want to be effective advocates. This forum will facilitate a discussion about this important, and often overlooked, aspect of conservation.

What to Expect at the Symposium:

Effective Outreach Brainstorm

After a brief welcome and introduction, we’ll start our evening with a brainstorming session where participants contribute to a list of effective outreach practices. We encourage everyone to bring a local-to-you libation of choice (e.g., beer, wine, spirits, kombucha) for a beverage exchange – please also bring your own cup. We’ll share beverages while we learn together how to be the most effective pitviper advocates.

Improving People’s Perception of Rattlesnakes with Conservation Messaging

Featured presentation by Erin Allison1; Emily Taylor2; Zackary Graham1; Melissa Amarello3; Jeff Smith3; Zachary Loughman1

Given the current extinction crisis, there is an urgent need to investigate strategies for adapting human perceptions of unpopular species to benefit biodiversity conservation. In North America, rattlesnakes are unpopular among most members of the public, generating feelings of fear, disgust, or hatred. However, they play extremely important roles in ecosystems, and their conservation must be prioritized, especially those species and populations threatened by anthropogenic change. The objective of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of empathetic or utilitarian message strategies for improving public perceptions of rattlesnakes. We deployed an online survey to social media users to assess change in perception after viewing one randomly selected empathetic or utilitarian video message. An 8-item, pre- and post- Rattlesnake Perception Test (RPT) recorded perception variables along emotional, knowledge, and behavioral gradients, and summed Aggregate Rattlesnake Perception (ARP) scores on a 5-point Likert scale. We used model selection to analyze socio-demographics and perceptions of rattlesnakes before and after viewing a video with empathetic or utilitarian messages. We will discuss the efficacy of these two framing strategies on different socio-demographic groups and how our results can be used to hone and personalize outreach strategies to improve perceptions of rattlesnakes and other unpopular wildlife species.

  1. West Liberty University, Dept of Organismal Biology, Ecology, and ZooScience, West Liberty, WV
  2. California Polytechnic State University, Biological Sciences Dept, San Luis Obispo, CA
  3. Advocates for Snake Preservation, Silver City, NM

Panel Discussion

Dr. Emily Taylor will moderate a discussion with people who have extensive experience with various forms of outreach about pitvipers. Confirmed panelists include:

Melissa Amarello, Executive Director, ASP

Melissa received her BS in wildlife, watershed, and rangeland resources at the University of Arizona (2005) and her MS in biology at Arizona State University (2012), where she studied rattlesnake social behavior. After witnessing how negative attitudes can stifle conservation efforts, she incorporated education and outreach into her research to foster appreciation for snakes by sharing stories and videos of their behavior in the wild. In the spring of 2014 she co-founded Advocates for Snake Preservation (ASP) with Jeff Smith to change how people view and treat snakes. In 2017 they received the Jarchow Conservation Award for commitment and creativity in studying snake behaviors and tireless and continuous efforts to use scientific knowledge to advocate for snake conservation through outreach and social activism. While promoting coexistence has always been part of ASP’s mission, over the past couple years it has become the primary focus of the organization through the development of online, offline, and local resources to reduce human-snake conflicts and make coexisting with venomous snakes safer.

María Elena Barragán-Paladines

María is the Executive Director of Fundación Herpetológica Gustavo Orcés, where she has worked for 32 years in the conservation of Ecuadorian reptiles and amphibians including education, human dimensions of snake-human encounters, and working with local communities. For more than 28 years she has worked with indigenous communities in Makuma and other isolated areas in the Amazonian region of Morona Santiago. As a result, an entire generation is now able to distinguish venomous snakes from those that are harmless and pass that information along in their native language. The book “Venomous Snakes of Ecuador,” which she co-authored with Katty Garzon and Jorge Valencia, was a 2016 recipient of the “Enrique Garcés Award” for the best publication in the field of Biological Sciences. She is now planning to publish that book in the Shuar Language – spoken by one of the indigenous communities who suffer the impact of snakebite accidents. María earned her MS in Environment and Education for Sustainability in 2012 and currently serves as co-chair of the IUCN Viper Species Group and is a member of the IUCN SSC Snake Specialist Group.

Bryan Hughes

Bryan Hughes is the owner of Rattlesnake Solutions, a rattlesnake-focused private conservation organization operating throughout Arizona. His group works with homeowners, businesses, and government agencies to solve situations where human development and rattlesnakes come into conflict. This includes improving outcomes of short-distance relocation of rattlesnakes, habitat and home-range modification, physical prevention, education, and research. In partnership with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the City of Phoenix, he is currently conducting research to better understand urban-island rattlesnake populations and coexistence with rattlesnakes in fully-developed areas. His organization’s data, collected from conflict situations over 12 years, is available to universities and social scientists to examine the nature of human/rattlesnake conflict. Information from these projects will be used to improve the understanding of sustainable mitigation practices and communication with those who fear snakes. Every day he is engaged in conversation with people who fear snakes, often justifiably. His depth of “front line” experience drives his perspectives on coexistence with rattlesnakes and how to do so safely.

Erika Nowak, PhD

Dr. Nowak is an Assistant Research Professor in the Center for Adaptable Western Landscapes and teaches in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She earned a BS in Wildlife Biology from Cornell University (1991), and a MS (1998) and a PhD in Biology (2009) from Northern Arizona University. As an internationally-recognized expert on viper ecology and management and member of the IUCN Viper Species Group, Dr. Nowak has conducted over 28 years of research with venomous reptiles, including effects of translocation on “nuisance” reptiles, predatory roles, trophic-level impacts of provisioning food and water to rattlesnake prey in human-developed areas, and using ecological data to predict threats from climate change. Her venomous reptile awareness and handling trainings, conducted for federal, state, municipal and private agencies, increase awareness and safety while decreasing ophidiophobia. Dr. Nowak and her students conduct inventories, bio/monitoring, and ecological studies of federally threatened narrow-headed and northern Mexican Gartersnakes, and are actively involved with research-based efforts to improve captive husbandry for Narrow-headed Gartersnakes and assisting in species recovery.

The Guide to Coexisting With Pitvipers

At the end of the symposium, we will form a working group of participants interested in contributing to a guide on best practices for pitviper education and outreach to be published in an academic journal. This symposium is only the beginning of a collaboration to improve coexistence between people and pitvipers — we hope you’ll join us!