Como Friends’ new “Conservation Champions” program gives zookeepers a ground level perspective on the animals in their care

As the lead reptile keeper at Como Zoo, Ruthie Schneider has no problem getting up close and personal to Como’s turtles, tortoises, snakes and other slithery, scaly critters.

But climbing into a Texas river to catch and track turtles on their home turf was, at first, way outside her comfort zone.

“In a river, the turtles definitely have the home field advantage, so I did encounter a big learning curve,” says Schneider, who recently donned a wetsuit, mask and snorkel to volunteer with The North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG). An affiliate of the Turtle Survival Alliance, a global conservation group committed to turtle and tortoise species preservation, NAFTRG volunteers spent several days in the Comal River outside of San Antonio last fall surveying native turtle species, capturing and collecting data from as many animals as they could pull out of the water and release back into the wild. Volunteers with the group found four species—the Eastern musk turtle, Eastern snapping turtle, Texas river cooter and Red ear slider turtle.

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“It’s hard to find them at first, but once you start thinking ‘Where would a turtle hide?’ it gets easier,” says Schneider, adding that a flash light and good gloves are essential gear for “herping” (conservation speak for tracking amphibians and reptiles in the wild). “If you’re going to stick your hand into a crevice, it’s really good to have gloves on.”

Learning experiences like that are all part of the plan behind Conservation Champions, a new initiative funded by Como Friends. Launched in 2017, the program allows Como keepers, horticulturists, education specialists and others to take part in conservation initiatives of their own design, from retrofitting water fountains around Como’s campus to encourage recyclable bottle use, to traveling around the world to take part in species preservation efforts in the field.

“Quite a number of Como’s keepers are experts in their field, and over the years, Como Friends has invested in some special projects that have allowed them to share their expertise with conservation partners around the world,” says Jackie Sticha, President of Como Friends. “The goal of the Conservation Champions program is to encourage and cultivate even more relationships like that, by encouraging Como’s staff to apply their knowledge in the field, and bring home lessons and first-hand experiences that they can share with visitors.”

Schneider hopes the data collected from this and other turtle conservation efforts can contribute toward a deeper understanding of these ancient animals, which have roamed the earth for more than 220 million years. Field research can also shed light on why turtles are now in trouble, with nearly half of the world’s 300 turtle species now threatened by extinction. “I think it’s important for the public to know that zoos are closely involved with conservation projects to preserve species,” she says. “We’re not just taking care of the animals that reside here, we’re also partnering with organizations that are working with their wild counterparts.”

As a reptile keeper, Schneider says earning a Conservation Champions award has also helped her call attention to animals that may not have fur, but are just as fascinating as the other animals Como Zoo visitors know by first name. “I like being a voice for animals that aren’t as popular,” she says.“Reptiles have a silent mystery about them that I like. Unlike mammals, the general public can’t interpret their behavior by looking at their ears or how they position their tails, which makes them an interesting challenge.”

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