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Herpetology Camp

Updated: Mar 18

As soon as school let us loose the summer of 1969, my mother sent my sister and I away to camp. Not some screwy religious indoctrination camp or even a more wholesome secular summer camp. It wasn't any kind of camp I had ever heard of before or since.

It was a herpetology camp sponsored by the local museum of natural science and history which was housed in a very cool modern building in Lafayette, with expansive slanted walls of smoked one-way glass and packed with intriguing exhibits inside. A group of ten kids congregated at the entrance to the museum one bright morning with all of the prescribed camping gear stuffed in duffle bags and waited for the museum director to show up to let us in. We didn't spend much time inside the big glass museum building, though. We were given a quick tour but were then promptly loaded into vans and whisked away deep into bayou country to gather live specimens of every kind of reptilian, amphibian and aquatic exoskeletal and endoskeletal life form we could lay our hands on.

We were equipped with snake tongs, pillow cases and fat rubber bands, and then instructed in their use for safely capturing live specimens without causing them any physical harm. The snake tongs were easy to learn to use but the rubber bands took some practice since we were told we would be shooting them off of our index finger or thumb at nimble lizards to stun them long enough to be easily retrieved and dropped into the pillow cases we would carry our catches in.

Over the course of the next week we gathered common and uncommon specimens of both venomous and nonvenomous species and listened with rapt attention as the museum director and his aids talked about them all in scientific terms. During daytime, we ventured out in search of specimens on land, in brush and trees and in water bodies alike, turning over stones and logs and wading up to our chests into bayous pursuing anything swimming or squirming about in them. A few of us came upon a nest of cottonmouth snakes in a narrow bayou and spent a couple of hours counting them and capturing a few for field examination. After nightfall and supper, we loaded into the vans and patrolled the still-warm roads for specimens warming their cold-blooded bodies upon them.

My sister found a hard to find Eastern Worm Snake during one daytime expedition in heavily forested wilderness of eastern Louisiana which would eventually become the Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge near the Mississippi state line. It was a beautiful specimen which looked very much like the earthworms it fed upon. The museum director went on and on about it, how it's being fossorial (tending to burrow into the ground most of the time in pursuit of food and shelter from predators) made it very difficult to find. He admitted that he had been searching for one himself for many years without success.

We roamed around Louisiana and Mississippi, camping in different places and swimming in every deep waterhole we came upon. It was hot, sweaty work in the humid bayou country but we hardly felt the heat and dampness, rejoicing at the arrival of each brief rainstorm which made the creatures we were seeking more active and easier to find. I sometimes pondered my future serving as a young draftee on patrol in Vietnam as I was stalking about in thick bush of southern USA, wondering how long I might be able to survive guerrilla jungle warfare and how my demise would come–a hail of bullets, landmine, mortar barrage, trip-wired boobytrap of poison-coated razorblades, knife or bayonet, snake bite, disease?

As dangerous as it was gathering wild creatures that could bite and envenomate, only one person was injured during the expedition when he slipped on a steep muddy slope and was gouged in the shoulder by a particularly pointy little cypress knee poking up out of the earth as he slid down at high speed on his back. The museum director applied firstaid and determined a bunch of stitches were required. He was whisked away to the hospital and recovered without any major complications, but we all sort of freaked about it, realizing we were doing something fairly risky tromping around in bayou country pursuing wild creatures every day and night, but no one else was hurt or bitten although one kid everyone called Shamburger was stung a couple of times by wild honey bees when he turned over an old gas range someone had dumped alongside a remote dirt road. He was hoping to find a specimen beneath it only to see a large hive there instead. He and another kid had jumped out of the van to check it out and as soon as they heard the buzz of bees, the other kid turned tail and made it back into the van quickly, leaping in through the back doors as we grabbed at him to help out. Poor Shamburger, though, yelped for us to stop as he struggled to catch up to the van while the museum director's aid, Kirby, was already driving away to prevent the swarm from getting into the van. We were all yelling for Shamburger to haul ass and laughing hysterically at the situation until Kirby finally stopped for a second to let him catch up and get in before roaring away again at high speed with the swarm still chasing us and everyone giggling with relief.

Modern mores and child safety laws would not allow such a museum-led summer camp to be conducted these days. Too dangerous. Too much liability. I'm glad that wasn't the case in the summer of 1969. It was one of the finest experiences of my life.

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