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Melissa amarello

Co-founder and executive director, Advocates for Snake Preservation

And - recognised as co-recipient of 2017 Jarchow Conservation Award

 

Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals

Ask yourself what you like to do, what are you good at, what does the world need? You will find your life's work in the overlap.

What do you do?

I run the non-profit organization I founded with my partner Jeff Smith, Advocates for Snake Preservation. We are a small and relatively new organization, so I wear many hats in this role: accountant, volunteer manager, graphic designer, social media guru… I am also primarily responsible for our outreach programs, so I give multimedia presentations to the public on snake behaviour and how to coexist with snakes. I also take friendly, captive snakes into local schools to inspire kids to appreciate their wild neighbours.

Why did you choose this field?

"Science was useless if the public didn't support the conservation of these species."

Even as a child, I had an affinity for the underdog (always rooted for the losing sports team) and it’s hard to pick a more universally feared and maligned group of animals than snakes. I spent more than a decade working in traditional conservation biology of reptiles, primarily snakes (investigating the effects of various disturbances, e.g., fire, urban development, agriculture).

 

As I worked on my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I assumed I’d eventually become a professor at a university and continue in this field of research. But while conducting that fieldwork, I often encountered the public, who were usually intrigued by the science, but horrified by the content. At best, they couldn’t understand why anyone would care how something impacted snakes and at worst, they thought we should be working to eradicate snakes.

 

So I decided to shift my focus from research and founded Advocates for Snake Preservation to use science, education, and advocacy to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence with snakes.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

When I first started working in conservation biology, I had a tough time getting used to inflicting harm on individual animals in order to learn something about their populations or species. But it was presented to me as the only way to do science, so I went along with it. However, my greatest contribution to science was documenting, in a quantifiable way, the complex social behavior of rattlesnakes; we barely handled them in the course of this work. This project was possible, not in spite of, but because we didn’t conduct science in the usual way. Younger me would have loved to know that it is possible to conduct rigorous science without harming the animals you’re trying to help and there’s an emerging field, Compassionate Conservation, which seeks to find ways to conduct conservation without harming individuals animals.

Why do you love working in STEM?

"I get to use my unique combination of science, technology and passion to inspire others."

I know that my love of these maligned animals is noticed by others and makes them question their fear or hate. Some of the most rewarding experiences of my life are a regular part of my work: using stories and multimedia (especially videos) to illustrate science that busts harmful myths about snakes and inspires appreciation; watching a kid go from afraid to touch a snake to refusing to let him go. I get to see attitudes change in real time and know that change will lead to behavior change and benefit snakes everywhere.

Best advice for the next generation

Be yourself and stay true to your values. Ask yourself what you like to do, what are you good at, and what does the world need? You will find your life’s work where those three answers overlap.

Role model 

Jane Goodall is my hero! Her unconventional methods were scoffed at by other (male) scientists, but she ignored them and made some of the greatest discoveries about primate behavior.