As a child, Dr. Christopher Jenkins, CEO and Executive Director of The Orianne Society, grew up in a fairly rural area of New England, and spent a great deal of time outdoors, but arrived at being a career herpetologist in a unique way.
Like most children, he was always interested in everything outdoors, including most reptiles and amphibians, but was a little uncertain about snakes. It’s still easy for him to recall a couple of seemingly terrifying childhood run-ins with snakes. But a series of life events, most notably his college years, ultimately took him from a fear of snakes to being dedicated to their conservation.
Chris began his college education studying art history, imagining himself someday working in a museum. However as he began to spend more time outdoors, something triggered inside, reminding him of his younger days spent hiking and hunting… something he’d always loved. With that, he took a wildlife biology class, taught by Professor Todd Fuller at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Jenkins found the class was completely captivating, and he began to transition away from art history, aiming “full bore” into wildlife biology.
Although Chris felt he’d ultimately be researching charismatic and high profile species such as bears and lions, a summer project with the Student Conservation Association landed him in the Sierra Nevada range of California, working with reptiles and amphibians. Returning from that project, Dr. Jenkins found himself going to amphibian breeding ponds and snake hibernacula rather than going into the woods to look for deer and bear tracks. And so began a lifelong goal of conserving reptile and amphibian species.
His education stayed true to heart, earning him a Bachelor’s Degree in Wildlife Biology and a Master’s Degree in Wildlife Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, and a PhD in Biological Sciences at Idaho State University. His early work experiences included stints for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Massachusetts and for National Geographic, where he was part of a South American research expedition. Later, Dr. Jenkins worked in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for the Wildlife Conservation Society. In 2008, Chris created The Orianne Society, headquartered in Rabun County, Georgia, where he oversees the day-to-day operations of a wide-reaching global snake conservation mission.
When recounting those years since The Orianne Society was formed, Dr. Jenkins recalls the “huge strides” in the conservation of Eastern Indigo Snakes and other imperiled snake species and their ecosystems. The Orianne Society’s comprehensive approach to conservation including habitat restoration and management, captive breeding and reintroduction, and inventory, monitoring, and research is carried out by a team of some of the most experienced and dedicated scientists in the world.
Part of The Orianne Society’s holdings include the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve along the Ocmulgee River in South Georgia, and the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation in Eustis, Florida, a state-of-the-art captive breeding facility where Eastern Indigo populations are bred to be later released into their native habitats.
As the Year of the Snake (2013) approaches, Dr. Jenkins is working on a book concerning Indigo Snake biology he is planning to have in publication in the coming year. He makes clear the Orianne organization’s goals of increasing the size of the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve, continuing to learn more about the best approaches to endangered snake breeding and conservation, and continued growth in public engagement and support, all high priorities in the upcoming year.
“Snakes are a critical part of an ecosystem. You can say that about any animal. Every part is important.” Dr. Jenkins relates the analogy of the integrity of the airplane – if you were to start taking pieces off, one at a time, that plane is going to eventually crash. Likewise, Dr. Jenkins says, snakes are an important piece of our world. Without them, our ecosystems would cease to function properly. Dr. Jenkins adds, “Whether benefitting our world medicinally, recreationally, or simply as an iconic part of what makes such a fascinating world of fascinating places, people and creatures, snakes do have value.”
What can one person do to help? Dr. Jenkins is big on seeing public perception transformed from the typically learned negative stigma concerning snakes. Dr. Jenkins hopes for continued interaction directly between the public and The Orianne Society via public engagements, social media, and citizen science activities from which data sharing can benefit the snake and herpetologist alike.
Dr. Jenkins adds that as a non-profit organization, the science-fueled, boots-on-the-ground work that we do every day at The Orianne Society is perhaps best supported through our membership program. Donations are fully tax-deductible and go to a cause close to his heart – the conservation of imperiled snakes.