Knowledge is Power

One of the things that attracted me to the outreach externship was the focus on human-wildlife interactions. I’m interested in the ways humans interact with the natural world, especially when it comes to other animals. Interactions can be both positive and negative, and I think that one of the most important things we do at the Wildlife Center is give people the knowledge required to turn a potentially-negative interaction into a positive one.

Many of the animals we take care of here are disliked due to misunderstandings or misconceptions. Virginia Opossums, for instance, have a bad reputation because 1) they are not fluffy or big eyed or any of those other things that are classically considered “cute,” 2) they have more teeth than most terrestrial animals (50) and they like to bare those teeth when they’re scared, and 3) even though they aren’t actually tough, they will pretend to be tough in order to scare off foes – hissing and snarling are not the most endearing behaviors.

Because of these traits, opossums are often considered nuisance animals and are “removed” or killed. This is truly unfortunate, because people are in very little danger from an opossum.

In fact, opossums are actually quite beneficial to humans; they can eat more than 4,000 ticks in a week, and they’ll feed on other frequently-unloved creatures like venomous snakes. Lowering the opossum population means taking away an important predator that cuts down on the spread of zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be spread from animals to humans).

Even I am guilty of irrational fears about wildlife– though I have been thoroughly cured of one fear in particular. I used to be deathly afraid of snakes. I didn’t even like touching pictures of them because they creeped me out.

Even so, I was fascinated by them. Eventually, my curiosity overcame my fear and I started to learn everything I could about snakes. I watched videos, read books, and went to nature centers to learn more, and eventually I wasn’t afraid anymore.

My fearlessness was put to the test my first week at the Center when I was introduced to Malcolm, one of our Cornsnake educational ambassadors. I was nervous at first, but we became fast friends. I’ve recently begun handling Severus, one of our Eastern Ratsnakes, as well. I’ve seen many Eastern Ratsnakes in my own backyard and, while they aren’t venomous or very aggressive, they are large. Ratsnakes are the only snake we have in Virginia that can reach over six feet in length and Severus is certainly no runt.

Both Cornsnakes and Ratsnakes are constrictors, but whereas Cornsnakes are fossorial (burrowers), Ratsnakes are arboreal (climbers). Severus has certainly taught me just how strong snakes muscles are, allowing them to climb trees and hold on to branches. He and I are still getting to know one another, but I foresee a great friendship before my time is up here at the Center.

When I was a kid, I was taught that most things that we’re afraid of become less scary the more we learn about them. I’ve found this to be one of the best, most accurate pieces of advice I’ve received thus far in life. As they say, “knowledge is power!” One of the best parts of this job is having the opportunity to educate people, to give them the power to get over their fears and start seeing animals as intricate parts of their world, not as things to fear or loath.

I greatly enjoy talking to kids because they are little sponges and when they learn something new they share it freely, often over and over and over again. Even more than that though, I love when an adult, who has hated or been afraid of an animal for their entire lives, suddenly learns something new and it changes their opinion. Humans are stubborn creatures and it’s often difficult to change our minds once we’ve made them up, so when our work here at the Wildlife Center succeeds in doing so, I feel like it is a huge accomplishment and I’m proud and humbled to be a part of it.

When it comes to wildlife, the environment, and human interaction, I like to believe that, for most of us, all it takes is a little education to ignite our compassion. That’s why outreach is so important to me. Environmental and wildlife endangerment issues can seem huge and insurmountable at times, but there are so many little things that we can do to help make the world a better place. A great place to start is education.

"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." - Baba Dioum.

WCV Class of 2016