Vicky Poole, the assistant curator of ectotherms at the Fort Worth Zoo, has been working with ectotherms, or animals dependent on external sources of body heat, at the Fort Worth Zoo for almost 10 years. 

On April 19, her team prepared Louisiana pine snakes for release into the wild April 20.

“They are overlooked and under-appreciated. I’ve worked really hard with various conservation programs to teach respect for reptiles, amphibians, insects, and fish — things that people don’t really think about in terms of charismatic animals — and this is a charismatic animal,” Poole said. “They are just a belligerent group of little snakes.”

Poole and Karen St. John, the zoo’s supervisor of reptiles, are part of a team that repopulates Louisiana pine snakes by “head-starting” them. “Head-starting” refers to the process of hatching, breeding, caring and raising animals to give them a better chance at survival in the wild.

“They will be able to outcompete and have good feeding strategies,” Poole said. “They’ll have an advantage. They’ll be larger than wild cohorts.”

The Fort Worth Zoo and three other zoos — the Memphis Zoo, the Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin, and the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans — spearhead the repopulation of Louisiana pine snakes. Each year,  the zoos release snakes into the Kisatchie National Forest.

The Fort Worth Zoo released a record high of 36 pine snakes into the national forest on April 20,  putting the zoo’s total released at 99 snakes since 2014, Poole said.

The ectotherm team bagged the 36 pine snakes leaving the Fort Worth Zoo for their release.

“We’re aware that they could, you know, be aggressive and bite us, and as long as they’re non-venomous, we’re used to that,” Poole said. “People assume every snake is a dangerous snake. Well, they’re not. Not everything out there is harmful. They’re actually huge, important parts of our environment — they maintain pests.”

St. John and Valeria Gladkaya, the terrestrial ectotherm keeper, traveled to the Kisatchie National Forest to release the snakes into their new habitats.

At the forest, the team finds pocket gopher burrows to release the snakes into because the gophers are one of the snakes’ main prey and sources of food. They are released one snake per burrow to allow the animals to explore and fend for themselves in their respective release sites.

The national forest is maintained by the Forest Service — a key factor in why the zoos chose the location for release.

Year round, the team breeds, incubates, feeds and cleans the snakes to prepare them for release. In the main room, the team controls temperature and lighting and pairs each snake with a mate.

“They’re an important part of our ecosystem, which is really the biggest takeaway message for everybody, which is why we’re really happy to help them survive and expand their range,” Poole said.

Poole said their best days are when they come in and see hatchlings have emerged from their eggs. The team measures success by seeing hatchlings in the wild – a meaningful sign that snakes are beginning to repopulate on their own.

“Baby pine snake days are one of my favorite sets of days that I just can’t beat and since we have so many, and we have so many pairs breeding, it’s going to go on for weeks,” Poole said. “So, big fun.”

Cristian ArguetaSoto is the community engagement journalist at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Cristian is a May 2021 graduate of Texas Christian University. At TCU, ArguetaSoto served as staff photographer at TCU360 and later as its visual editor, overseeing other photojournalists. A Fort Worth...