It started with a chance meeting in a west Texas restroom in 1989.
Russ Walker, a teacher with Houston Independent School District’s outdoor education center, and Dr. David Doherty, a Huntsville veterinarian, were snake hunting in Seminole Canyon State Park when they started talking in the restroom. Walker lived in Trinity, near Huntsville. They shared a passion for reptiles and amphibians, and they knew there were others who lived nearby – especially in Houston, two hours south – who had a similar passion. But there wasn’t a local group to bring these happy herp hobbyists together to share knowledge and network. So David and Russ formed the East Texas Herpetological Society.
The first meeting was March 31, 1989, at the Huntsville Library. They had told other herp enthusiasts they knew, and word of the meeting spread. Although there was a major traffic tie-up on Interstate 45 and a parade in Huntsville before the meeting (and unrelated to the meeting), about 30 people attended to hear Paul Freed, supervisor of the Houston Zoo’s herpetology department, give a presentation about his herpetological expedition to Namibia. Then, they went back to David’s house for cookies and sandwiches while they socialized.
The society’s first newsletter, which came out in May 1989, spelled out the club’s goals:
Provide an opportunity for camaraderie among anyone interested in reptiles and amphibians through regular meetings
Provide educational presentations at the meetings
Promote an understanding and appreciation of reptiles and amphibians among the general public
Provide a collective knowledge pool for those interested in any aspect of herpetology
Unite herpers as a “potential lobbying force” to deal with issues concerning the study, conservation, collecting and keeping of reptiles and amphibians
Provide an outlet for member collectors/breeders to sell, swap and buy legal animals for their collections
But even as David and Russ planned that first meeting, they knew the Huntsville library was a short-term home. “If we wanted to blossom, we needed to move to Houston,” David said. So, Paul talked to the Houston Zoo director, a herpetologist, who gave the club free access to the George R. Brown education center for bi-monthly meetings. They’ve been meeting there for 22 years since, with just a few meetings elsewhere in the zoo while the education center underwent renovations.
About that time, Buzz Jehle moved to Houston from New England. Buzz was a snake collector, and one of his first stops was the zoo, where he learned about ETHS. He’d been a member of the Connecticut Herpetological Society, and he attended ETHS’ second meeting June 28, when Paul once again spoke, this time about an expedition to Peru. Buzz would become membership secretary and then treasurer for 20 years – and counting.
By that second meeting, club membership – costing $10 for a regular member, $8 for students or $12 for families – had grown to 33 members, and the society had its first executive board following a June election: Russ was president, David was vice-president, Bill Dickens was treasurer, and Kim Swartz and Steven Godbe were secretaries and newsletter editors.
By their third meeting Aug. 18, the club had 40 members. Terry Hibbits, president of the North Texas Herpetological Society spoke about Texas reptiles and amphibians. Aligning with the society’s goals, member Stan Perkins wrote up several care sheets to give out to members, pet shops and pet owners. On Oct. 1, 1989, at the society’s first board meeting, the board established an education board and decided to host a full-day conference to celebrate the club’s one-year anniversary in the spring.
That conference didn’t happen, though, “for a number of reasons,” according to the society’s December newsletter. They hoped to have it sometime in 1991.
On the ascent In April 1990, Joe Furman’s entry was unanimously selected as the winner in the “Looking for a Logo” contest. The logo had a slitted snake eye inside a ring adorned with the society’s name. At the May 13 board meeting, board positions were termed for two years. “This was done with the society’s best interests at heart and not to keep the officers in these prestigious and nationally envied positions,” Russ wrote.
The June 1990 meeting featured a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo’s reptile house, followed by a potluck dinner with nearly 50 members. Buzz became the membership secretary, Chris Stanton, Mark Dicello and David Sibler became raffle coordinators, and Sara Munson started doing marketing and press as the society continued to grow. That growth continued in September 1990, when the society’s Turtles and Tortoise Group had its first meeting to more fully educate ETHS members on the husbandry and propagation of those reptiles. They held bimonthly meetings alternating with the regular meetings.
With still no society conference in sight, the club on Oct. 20, 1990, cosponsored the Texas Herpetology Society’s annual fall meeting, held that year at the Houston Zoo. The full-day conference featured seven half-hour presentations, a behind-the-scenes tour of the reptile house, and an evening banquet with the keynote speaker, world-famous turtle authority Peter C.H. Pritchard of Florida.
Russ and Kim had had access to copy machines, which allowed the society to keep the cost for the newsletters down. But that access was no longer available and the costs went up. Other costs were increasing too; money was needed for refreshments and for gas and dinner for the speakers, who weren’t paid for their appearances. So, also that October, they raised rates to $15 for regular membership and changed to a calendar membership schedule, with renewals due in January.
One more milestone that October: The Ask Dr. Dave column started with that newsletter. Members could write their questions to David, a veterinarian, and he would answer them in the newsletter. His first topic: internal parasites in reptiles.
In February 1991, the board drafted the society’s constitution, which was approved at the April meeting. And on Aug. 24, 1991, the society hosted the ETHS Reptile and Amphibian Show at the arboretum in Memorial Park from noon until 5 p.m. Free and open to the public, the convention featured animal exhibitions and presentations by Paul Freed. The society made a weekend out of it: The evening before, a Friday, it had its regular meeting, with Dr. Richard Baldauf giving a presentation on amphibians. On Sunday, there was a reptile and amphibian sale and swap meet in a grooming facility where 12-15 venders from the area were set up.
“It was a rinky-dink thing,” recalls David. At the time, there were very few breeders’ expos and few herp conventions, and they focused on academics, Russ said. ETHS, which has a mix of members – professional sellers, hobbyists, kids with a pet snake – wanted to have a greater mix so it would have something for everyone. More than 200 people came. By December 1991, the society had 170 members.
Booming times Although one of the society’s stated goals was to be a “potential lobbying force,” the society isn’t political. But in March 1992, members joined protests against rattlesnake roundups in Taylor.
The second conference and breeder expo/sale was Sept. 18, 1992, at the Holiday Inn-Astrodome. Members had decided they wanted it bigger than the previous year’s. Friday they had a reception, slide show and videos. Saturday was the conference with speakers, with about 160 people in attendance. Between 500 and 700 attended the Sunday breeders’ expo and sale, and the club gained 27 members.
The third convention, Sept. 10-12, 1993, also at the Holiday Inn-Astrodome, had about 250 attendees. The expo and exhibit drew more than 850 people. In 1994, the convention and expo moved to The Greenspoint Marriot as the convention and the club continued to grow. Following other society goals, members set up exhibits at other conferences, expos and fairs and visited schools and Scout troops. They went anywhere they were invited if they had a volunteer free.
By December 1993, the Houston Parks & Recreation Department had joined the society as cosponsor, lending its credibility to the society. That partnership lasted a few years.
On Jan. 19, 1995, the society became incorporated as a nonprofit. Buzz, a petroleum engineer and the society’s treasure since 1991, was instrumental in obtaining the status, as was Seven Godbe. By then, the club had more than 200 members, and conference revenues were annually about $15,000. At its most successful, the conference generated about $20,000 in revenues – much of which had to go back into paying for the conference or providing refreshments for the meetings and accommodations, if necessary, for presenters.
“That kind of money is enough to attract the attention of the IRS, so I wanted to do it right and create the nonprofit status,” Buzz said.
In January 1997, Kim Swartz resigned as newsletter editor, the first real change in leadership. Charlona Ingram took over.
That was a time of growing popularity for reptiles and amphibians as pets. And for the club. “There was a lot of enthusiasm in the industry. We were riding the time. The commercial aspect of reptiles and amphibians was exploding,” David said. There weren’t a lot of mainstream books on herpetology, so people came to ETHS meetings for information. The prosperous conventions were putting a little money in the society’s bank account. The club was able to “salt some money away,” Buzz said, and it bought a bench for outside the reptile house and computers for the zoo. In 1997, the society established the Herpetological Grants Program, a $2,000 grants program for upper-level undergraduate or Master’s-level students. The money was spread among multiple applicants. “That’s part of our mission of spreading knowledge, spreading learning, and being a portal to learning,” David said. “Some of these are niche projects that could affect the human race.”
The grants program continues, now awarding about $2,500 a year.
Leveling out, but still strong In 1998, Buzz drafted the society’s bylaws. By then, the two-hour drive to meetings every month was wearying Russ. He didn’t run for president again in the 1999 elections, and Mike Howlett, the long-time education chair, became president. Kim Cline took over as newsletter editor. Andrew Godambe and Brian Williams created a welcome wagon for new members in August 2000, answering questions and calling new members to make them feel a part of the group.
The following March, 2001, members took a guided tour of the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection’s mammal, bird, fish and herp collections. Those field trips became an annual spring rite, usually in April or early May. Robert Edwards, a metal refinisher who joined the society in 1998, organizes the trips to Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area or Brazos Bend State Park or Big Thicket National Preserve. They camp out or get cabins, doing field observation, counting the species they see and reporting those numbers to the lead biologist with the Wildlife Management Areas of Texas. Saturday they have a large, society-funded dinner, and Sunday, they have breakfast together, take photographs and socialize.
At the October 2001 meeting, Brian Williams, who helps with the cooking and field management during spring field trips, volunteered to be webmaster for the society’s website. Robert Edwards volunteered to monitor the forums page.
While the Internet made communication between members easier, it had put a damper on membership numbers. Now, people could go online to find the insider information they got at the meetings, and membership declined before plateauing at between 75 and 125 members. In 2000, the society moved its conference and expo to the Crown Plaza Resort. “The conventions are like reunions now,” Russ said.
Hopping along In 2002, Russ became president again. Mike Rapley, an exercise physiologist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center who joined the society in 1998, took over as grants committee chair. The print newsletter, which cost the society about $2.50 a copy, went online. Two years later, Rapley became president.
The society continues to hum along. Board member Meridith Wehrle brought the club into the 21st century by developing its Facebook page, establishing new social networks and modernizing the website.
Because it’s hard to find presenters during the holidays, since 2009 the club’s November meetings have featured behind-the-scenes tours. In 2010, one member invited Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from the area to the tour. About 160 people showed up – more than three times the usual number for a tour. But, the club adapted like a gecko, and everyone was able to tour the reptile house. The youngsters got exposure to the zoo, Scout masters talked to the zoo about doing that again for a fee, and the club added members.
Over the years, members have helped place animals dropped off at the zoo, fostering them until they were fit to be adopted and a home was found, and after the 2010 confiscation at an animal importation in the Dallas area, Gina Disteldorf lead the effort to help find homes for about 1,500 displaced reptiles and amphibians that would otherwise have been euthanized.
“The society has really increased the awareness of the population about reptiles and amphibians,” said Paul Freed, who is now a lifetime member. “In the early days, when there weren’t many places where people could go to get information, they got it here. And the society supplied care sheets to help people better care for their reptiles and amphibians.”
“We’ve nurtured the curiosity of youngsters, and some have become biologists, or vets, or zoo keepers,” David said. “If you look at our list of goals, we’ve achieved them all,” said Russ. And they’re not finished yet …