The revival of the Lake Erie water snake is one of the nation’s great threatened-species success stories. But the snakes’ biggest fan says the story’s not over.
It’s a sweltering summer day on South Bass Island, and the snake hunting is slow. The water snake’s mating season — when they’re found in writhing “mating balls” — has just ended, and the snakes, much like their human counterparts on Put-in-Bay, are on vacation.
Not that this stops Kristin Stanford from taking a group of snake enthusiasts to catch and tag any Lake Erie water snakes, known as LEWS, they can find. Stanford is the Ohio State University research associate who’s led the effort to rebuild the snake’s population after the federal government designated it a threatened species in 1999.
But to locals she’s simply the Island Snake Lady.
Kirsten in bushes with snake sign - By Jennifer Keirn
Stanford is the unlikeliest of herpetologists. She’s young (34), attractive and charismatic. She’s become a local celebrity, often recognized “when I’m wearing my Snake Lady outfit,” she says — typically a “Respect the Snake” T-shirt, a visor and her long blonde hair tied in a loose knot on top of her head.
Since 2003, Stanford has been the public face of the LEWS recovery effort. She was a graduate student studying small-mammal biology when a classmate dropped out of the LEWS recovery effort and Stanford’s professor told her she should step in. Water snakes, which feed on the invasive European goby, are critical to the health of the lake.
“I figured, it’s just another animal. I can do snakes, no big deal,” she says. “I’m a fixer. When I see a problem, I want to fix it.”
Stanford launched an aggressive PR campaign to stop humans, the snake’s primary predatory threat, from destroying this pesky but not venomous species, found only in the Lake Erie Islands.
“You can still find islanders who remember sitting in their grandparents’ backyard as kids shooting snakes all day,” says Stanford, “or digging up balls of snakes and setting them on fire.”
Signs proclaiming “Water Snakes Welcome Here” went up all over the islands. Stanford contributed a weekly “Ask the Snake Lady” column to local papers. She created a direct-mail campaign that went to island residents and educational materials for local classrooms.
All the while, Stanford captured, examined and tagged as many snakes as possible — 10,000 of them over 10 years — to monitor the population’s mating, living and eating habits and protect their natural habitats.
She even enlisted star power to help her cause when she invited Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, to join her for a day of on-air snake-capturing fun in 2006 — a hilarious segment worth checking out on YouTube.“That blew things through the ceiling,” says Stanford. “We were getting emails from all over the country, kabam! Just like that.”
There were only 2,000 snakes in 1999, and with Stanford’s help that number has increased to 12,000 today.
“By spring of 2008, we had made it,” she says. “We far exceeded our recovery goals in a very short period of time.”
The Island Snake Lady’s mission appears complete. The sharp increase in population has plateaued to stable levels. Stanford will oversee the federally required five-year monitoring period, but the species’ delisting as a threatened species is imminent.
“Many people assume that this is the end of the story, but I don’t think that’s the case,” she says. “If people go out and start whacking snakes again, we’ll be right back where we started. There needs to be a continued effort to find ways for people and snakes to coexist, without the use of a shovel.”
That means Stanford isn’t abandoning her Island Snake Lady persona any time soon. She still lives half the year in the islands with her husband, Matt, who manages Ohio State’s Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island. In the winter, the couple retreat to their home in Sandusky with their two cats and a brood of research snakes.
Perhaps, she says, she can apply her Snake Lady charms to other recovery efforts, potentially for the copperbelly water snake, another threatened species found only in the Midwest.
“I’d be interested to see if we could take our formula and use it for a species that isn’t doing so well,” she says.
In the meantime, Stanford remains the Lake Erie water snake’s biggest champion. On the day we visit her, six adults and two children have gathered at a South Bass Island beach to try their hand at snake capturing as part of Stanford’s Discover Island Snakes educational program.
Each are handed a pillowcase, the official mode of transportation for a captured snake, as Stanford demonstrates her decidedly unladylike snake-hunting posture — body flung over a rock, bum in the air, with her arm thrust into a crevice, feeling around for snakes.
Stanford manages to capture four, and has the blood-speckled forearms to show for it. Walking the beach and holding her wriggling pillowcase, she attracts the stares of four shirtless 20-something guys sunning themselves.
Finally, one gathers the nerve to pipe up. “You’re that girl from Dirty Jobs, aren’t you?” In true celebrity fashion, Stanford flashes a grin and a big thumbs-up, and they hoot and holler in return.
It may not be glamorous work, but it’s an effort the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has called “a remarkable success story … in a very short time frame.”
Good for the snakes. Good for the Snake Lady. Stanford has uncovered a career path she loves and attained the status needed to get the snakes’ cause heard.
“I think snake education will keep me busy for a lifetime,” she says.