Gibson: Animal sanctuaries aren’t just for the critters; they’re for people too

A student struggles with basic science because it’s “boring” and he can’t see how it applies to real life.

A homeowner steps into his backyard to find what looks like a rattlesnake and tries to figure out the best way to deal with it… without getting bit.

A law enforcement agency confiscates an alligator kept illegally and has no idea what to do with the animal, other than having it euthanized.

A child who is blind has little opportunity to “see” the natural world and discover its diverse creatures.

Debbie Gibson

Well-meaning people find injured animals or baby wildlife they think have been abandoned, and are desperate to get them help.

In situations like these, Phoenix Herpetological Society and other Arizona wildlife sanctuaries come to the rescue, helping people as well as animals.

Not just rescue, but conservation

PHS was founded in 2001 by three long-time, passionate reptile enthusiasts with a vision to make a difference for reptiles in the state of Arizona.

There was no such facility or refuge for unwanted or rescued reptiles. Reptile owners had no outlet to relinquish ownership if needed, nor was there a resource to acquire accurate, reliable information on the care of reptiles as pets. In addition, native and non-native species were being destroyed by state facilities and other animal rescue agencies solely because they did not have access to a holding facility that could properly care for them until the situation was resolved.

When people get that small snake or iguana from a pet store, and later become unable to care for it because of its size or unique needs, they turn to PHS.

Many of these animals become educational “ambassadors,” helping to teach both children and adults about their roles in the environment and how we can co-exist with them. This is critical for the survival of not only our desert but our planet.

After 17 years of operation PHS has provided education to more than 250,000 Arizona youth annually. The majority of these are conducted off-site at schools, universities, family expos, and animal events. Education programs range from choosing and caring for a reptile pet such as a snake, lizard or turtle, to advanced science and biology, career-discovery and even internship opportunities.

PHS is a resource for school presentations and field trips, and works with organizations serving special needs children, including Southwest Autism Research Center and Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

The sanctuary also removes and relocates over 450 snakes annually, mainly rattlesnakes, as well as other reptiles from private properties each year. PHS takes thousands of hotline calls for advice on coexisting and animal care. We advise the public on what to do if they encounter a rattlesnake and offer training on how to identify venomous vs. non-venomous snakes, as well as relocation techniques and ways to coexist.

PHS participates in reptile research that contributes to scientific and medical knowledge (for both animals and humans) and has become a respected resource for other reptile programs across the country.

PHS is not alone in terms of the tremendous contributions made to the Valley, state and beyond. Local treasures like Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center, Wild At Heart and Liberty Wildlife have operated for decades and have become nationally recognized rescue, research and education resources. We are committed to advancing an understanding of the world we all share.

Founders of these organizations do not take salaries. This is a labor of love and passion. Our organizations rely on donations and granting foundations to care for and house the animals whose lives depend on us.

Sanctuaries as an endangered species

So why do I feel compelled to brag about the work that we and our sanctuary colleagues do? Because we are increasingly at risk of becoming an “endangered species.”

Urban development is encroaching on wildlife sanctuaries that were founded decades ago and located miles from housing developments.

Although our immediate neighbors knew of our operations, they believe we should now move elsewhere, or even further out into the desert. At the same time, we want to be located close enough so that kids can easily be educated about the reptilian world.

Our sanctuary is permitted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. But, to continue educating and training the public, we need a conditional use permit from the city of Scottsdale. Our permit request is to keep only the programs we have in place, not expand.

We intend to make every effort to control traffic by only allowing small groups to schedule tours. We intend to identify the types of trips to the facility in the use permit so as to not impact surrounding properties. The trips identified in the use permit request are for educational purposes for children or training for government officials and local hotels on how to handle Valley critters.

Just as we can learn to co-exist with the wildlife around us, we hope that the nearby residents will see that we play an important role in our community and will find ways to co-exist with us.

Editor’s Note: Debbie Gibson is vice president of Phoenix Herpetological Society.

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