MIDDLE BASS ISLAND, Ohio — Armed with nothing more than courage and a Mickey Mouse pillowcase, Kristin Stanford scoured the banks for her “babies.”
With the sound of Lake Erie lapping against the shore, she found one and plunged her right arm up to her shoulder between two rocks, feeling with her fingers for Nerodia sipedon insularum.
Sometimes the Lake Erie water snake feels for her as well. With its teeth.
And once she’s got a grip on them, the snakes do what they do best in a tough situation.
They pee and poop on her.
It’s a dirty job, that’s for sure, but one that Stanford and others say is worth it.
Stanford, 30, is Lake Erie’s unofficial “snake lady.” At least that’s what locals have called her since she arrived on the islands just north of Port Clinton seven years ago.
Back then, when she was just starting her research, Stanford had never seen the species.
Now, she’s credited with helping save it.
“Thank goodness we’ve got Kristin,” said Carolyn Caldwell of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
The division teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Black Swamp Conservancy, Ohio State University and Northern Illinois University to protect the water snake, which in 1999 was listed as an endangered species in Ohio and a threatened species in the United States after its numbers dipped below 2,000. Stanford, a research associate at Northern Illinois University, studies everything about the snake, from digestion rates and eating frequency, to where it lives and how they affect the goby, a fish that makes up about 90 percent of its diet.
Stanford, who works out of Ohio State’s Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, said the ill-tempered snake was losing habitat to development and was often hunted by people who saw it as a threat.
Today, scientists estimate that there are more than 7,000 Lake Erie water snakes on nine islands. And if things continue to improve, the snake could be removed from the endangered species list within three years.
“It would be a fabulous success story,” Stanford said.
Megan Seymour, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, attributed the comeback to several factors, including restored habitat.
Officials have preserved more than 4.7 miles of island shoreline and 126 acres of inland habitat to protect the snake.
And, with Stanford’s help, more than 200 “water snakes welcomed here” signs have been given to island residents.
“Kristin has been key to our outreach and education program,” Seymour said. “She has a really great rapport with the citizens up there.”
If the Lake Erie water snake ever had a PR person, it is Stanford, who began studying the species for her master’s-degree project at Northern Illinois.
She has since made the project a full-time job while she performs her doctoral research.
Stanford catches snakes three days a week during the summer. In the field, she measures and weighs them and feels their rubbery bellies to see whether they are pregnant or have eaten recently.
She also tags snakes and has implanted radio transmitters in six to track their whereabouts.
She takes some back to the lab, where she makes them regurgitate to study what they ate.
The snakes, which can stretch as long as 3 1/2 feet, often are not cooperative. They pee on her, cover her in poop and bite her fingers, wrists and arms.
“It gets to the point where you’re doing it every day, all the time, you just don’t notice it,” Stanford said of the first two indignities.
“It’s more common than we want it to be.”
As for the bites, the snakes are not poisonous, but their pinlike teeth nearly always pierce her skin.
Stanford estimates she’s been bitten more than a thousand times.
On a recent hot, sunny gathering day, the snakes basked on the rocks as Stanford and three undergraduate research students arrived.
Depending on the terrain, researchers catch about a quarter of the snakes they find. (At the start of this day’s hunt, Max Castorani, an OSU undergraduate, crept in for the catch but lost the first snake in a crevice.)
At the end of the day, the group had captured and released more than a dozen snakes. Only one researcher reported a bite — a snake drew blood on his left wrist and a couple of fingers.
Between the blood, poop, pee and vomit, snake hunting is a dirty job. So dirty that Stanford was asked to be on the Discovery Channel’s hit show Dirty Jobs last year.
The show’s host, Mike Rowe, spent a day catching snakes with Stanford on South Bass Island, where the snakes welcomed him with open jaws.
“He got bit by every snake he caught except for the first one,” Stanford said. “That one crapped on him.”
Then they made the snakes bring up their prey so Stanford could study what they ate and how fast they digested the food.
The show’s success — it originally aired in November — has turned Stanford into an island celebrity of sorts.
A picture of Stanford, snakes in hand, is on an island kiosk, and she has received hundreds of e-mails from fans.
In one, a West Virginia man asked Stanford to marry him. (She’s married and politely declined.)
“It’s still completely bizarre to me,” said Stanford of her television success. “It’s just weird.”
That weirdness continues. Late last month, Dirty Job s fans voted Stanford’s episode among their top 10 favorites. Others included an exterminator, a pig farmer and a gentleman who tests shark suits.
The Discovery Channel flew the dirty jobholders to San Francisco to attend a party celebrating Rowe’s 150th job.
There, Stanford said, she met more fans.
“I just think it’s hilarious that people are so fascinated by me because I catch snakes and was on TV with Mike Rowe,” she said.
“It’s really strange.”
Some, however, would say grabbing snakes — poop, vomit, teeth and all — is a tad strange in itself.
From The Columbus Dispatch