Lou Perrotti Protects Less-Than-Cuddly Species

In a concrete block cellar of the building that houses the moon bears and snow leopards at Roger Williams Park Zoo is a brightly lit room. Unrecognized visitors are welcomed by the clatter produced by some of the sixteen Eastern timber rattlesnakes that reside here. Heated to 82 degrees, the room is lined with large, clear plastic cages along two walls, each containing an adult rattlesnake about four feet in length, two of which are believed to be pregnant. A vertical rack containing twelve plastic tubs stands against a third wall, each home to a juvenile rattler less than half the length of the adults.

The snakes are unexpectedly attractive and strikingly patterned, some colored in yellows and browns while others are dressed in smoky gray and white. One adult male displays a yellow triangular head with chocolate brown chevrons along the length of his golden back, which blends into a velvety black tail that doesn’t stop rattling during the entire fifteen-minute visit.

Lou Perrotti, fifty-three, director of conservation at the zoo and an expert snake handler since his junior high school days, says the rattlesnakes are usually silent when their regular zookeepers attend them. “But new faces get the full treatment,” he adds.

The subterranean room is a captive rearing center for New England’s only native rattlesnake, an endangered species that disappeared from Rhode Island in the 1960s and whose few remaining colonies in the Northeast are declining precipitously due to habitat loss and poaching. A newly discovered fungal disease that causes skin lesions and blisters on their faces is contributing to the high mortality rate.

When Perrotti heard about the disease, he recruited the veterinarians at the zoo to study how prevalent it was in New England; they found it everywhere they surveyed. So he partnered with the Massachusetts division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a captive breeding effort. By taking rattlesnakes from healthy populations and breeding them at the zoo so their offspring can be released into the wild, Perrotti and his colleagues are augmenting snake populations that are barely sustaining themselves.

“And then we decided that creating a new population would be awesome,” he says. Biologists identified a small island in the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts as the ideal location. “We thought the site was brilliant. It has plenty of habitat, plenty of food, it’s off limits to humans. It just made sense to create a secure population there.”

It didn’t turn out that way. When the public got wind of the plan, their vocal objections — which Perrotti says were based on little more than fear and speculation — quickly scuttled the project.

“We were doing what we thought was the best thing to keep this endangered animal on the planet,” Perrotti says. “We can’t only protect the cute and cuddly animals. They all deserve to be protected. This project was going to become a model for the conservation of non-charismatic species. The zoo has an international reputation for doing that.”

That reputation is due largely to Perrotti’s efforts. While the zoo is justifiably proud of the large charismatic animals it exhibits, from elephants and cheetahs to giraffes and wolves, it has earned acclaim for its conservation efforts on behalf of rare and endangered species that don’t necessarily lure in visitors. For instance, Perrotti raised New England’s rarest butterfly, the tiny Karner blue, to restore populations in the Pine Barrens of New Hampshire. He’s done the same thing for one of the most endangered beetles in North America and for a threatened rabbit, and he’s beginning a similar project to conserve a rare toad.

“Lou can rear anything: caterpillars, beetles, monitor lizards, tarantulas, frogs, lungfish,” says David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, on whose board Perrotti serves. “He doesn’t sit around and wonder how to do stuff, he just tries something. He’s very practical and hands-on. He doesn’t overthink it. He just does it, and he does it successfully.”

A resident of Hope Valley and a drummer in a local rock band, Perrotti grew up watching “Wild Kingdom” on television and reading National Geographic magazine. The turning point in his wildlife education came when his family moved from Providence to West Greenwich as he entered the second grade.

“It was like moving to the jungle,” he remembers. “I explored every inch of that yard. I remember being crouched behind a rock one day and I got a feeling I wasn’t alone. I looked down, and curled up in the sun was a beautiful adult garter snake. That was my first wild snake, and I immediately grabbed it.”

Later, a visitor brought a boa constrictor to Perrotti’s school classroom, and it inspired him to follow in the man’s footsteps. “I wanted to be that guy,” he says. It didn’t take long before he achieved that objective.

With his family’s support, he obtained his first boa constrictor at age eleven, and a year later he was breeding them. “Breeding was mostly by trial and error, reading books, talking to others,” he says. “I had some mentors who kept snakes, but mostly it just came naturally for me. It’s all about knowing an animal and giving it what it needs.

“To this day I still get excited by snakes. You can’t build something as perfect as a snake: legless, colorful, great diversity, from giants down to tiny ones, venomous ones. I’m still fascinated by them.”

By the time he got to high school, he was known throughout the state as “the snake guy” for the free educational programs he offered at libraries, schools and birthday parties. Soon after graduation, he helped start the Rhode Island Herpetological Association to bring together like-minded people with whom to trade the animals they raised. And his reputation resulted in local police departments and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) asking for his assistance when they discovered pet snakes left behind in residences.

His reputation paid off when he applied for a job as a zookeeper at Roger Williams Park Zoo and DEM officials gave him a strong recommendation. For nine years beginning in 1997, Perrotti cared for penguins, flamingos and a variety of South American creatures, including snakes and other reptiles. It also gave him his first introduction to wildlife conservation, a career direction he found more and more appealing.

But when the job of conservation director opened up at the zoo, he found he was woefully underqualified. The position required a doctorate, yet Perrotti had never attended college. He applied for the job anyway.

“I felt I had nothing to lose,” he says. “I knew they thought highly of me, I told them I would never let them down and I would give them 150 percent every day. And I got the job.”

Jeremy Goodman, the zoo’s executive director, says that Perrotti’s lack of a college education was never a concern to him. “His life experience and on-the-job training and passion overcome any Ph.D. I’ve seen,” Goodman says. “He might not have the academic credentials, but he knows his stuff. And he has a craving to want to know more and be better all the time. That’s irreplaceable.”

Goodman says that Perrotti’s passion “oozes out of every pore. I’ve been around a lot of environmentalists and conservationists, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with that sheer passion,” he says.

While it would be easy to assume that Perrotti is most comfortable among snakes and other wildlife, Goodman says that Perrotti is also a master at collaborating with others in the conservation community.

“He’s a connector. He’s the type of person who will see what other people see as abstract points and find ways to connect them and make something better out of it,” Goodman says. “He uses his position at the zoo to make things happen between government entities, private individuals, land trusts and other not-for-profits. He brings everybody together so the whole can function so much higher than each individual entity.”

That’s not to say that he doesn’t occasionally make a misstep. Goodman recalls a day last year when Perrotti put his foot in his boot without realizing a black widow spider was inside, and the spider bit him.

“His foot swelled up incredibly, and it was incredibly painful,” Goodman says. “It was something that would cause the average person to miss days or weeks of work. But for Lou, he was back at work the same day doing what he had to get done. His attitude is that the animals rely on him. He was probably more concerned about the spider than about his foot.”

Perrotti’s ability to figure out how to successfully raise unusual animals in captivity and get them to reproduce was tested in 2008, the International Year of the Frog, when zoo officials encouraged him to find out how to support amphibian conservation without bringing tropical frogs to Providence. He knew that more than two-thirds of amphibians around the world are at risk from a fungal disease called chytrid, which has caused the disappearance of an untold number of species. So Perrotti went to Panama to see how he could help.

Since chytrid can be cured in animals brought into captivity, a group of conservationists was capturing thousands of frogs of twenty different species, housing them in hotel rooms and treating them for the disease. Because the frogs eat a varied diet of insects, the conservationists had crickets and fruit flies shipped from the United States, but most of the insects died while waiting in customs. They also attempted to catch local insects, but that took up too much of their time. When Perrotti suggested that they breed local insects to feed to the frogs, they asked him to show them how.

“Something like that had never been done to complement an amphibian rescue effort before,” Perrotti says. “But it was a cutting-edge project, and I love nobody’s-done-it-before things. So I went down, looked at what they were catching, identified the bugs to species, came up with the husbandry and caging they needed to keep them alive, and tried to get them to reproduce in a sustainable way. And we did that.”

The project has become a model for amphibian conservation efforts around the world, and Perrotti now serves as a consultant on rearing insects in Africa and the Dominican Republic. This year he is partnering with the San Antonio Zoo on a similar project designed to protect frogs native to Chile.

Back in Rhode Island, he uses a different strategy for rearing the American burying beetle, the official state insect of the Ocean State, which has disappeared from 90 percent of its range; its lone population in the eastern portion of its historic range is on Block Island. The thumb-sized, black-and-orange insect eats only small vertebrate carrion, and they only reproduce after burying an appropriately sized dead animal approximately two feet deep as food for its young.

So Perrotti, who sports a burying beetle tattoo on his arm, created a beetle room in a zoo storage and maintenance building on a dead-end road about a mile from Roger Williams Park. The room contains fifteen three-gallon buckets filled to the brim with soil, on which he places a dead rat or quail and two burying beetles. Within twenty-four hours, the beetles bury the carcass, and within a week they have laid their eggs and prepared the carcass to be fed to their larvae when they hatch. Six weeks later, the young beetles emerge from the soil as adults, and three weeks after that they are ready to reproduce.

The project has been so successful that about 3,000 burying beetles raised at the zoo were released on Nantucket between 1994 and 2006 to establish a new population in case a disease or other catastrophe wipes out the Block Island beetles. It’s a project of which Perrotti is especially proud.

“It’s a federally endangered insect, and Block Island has the only extant population, which, to me, is cool,” he says, noting that the burying beetle was the first insect in the world to have a species survival plan developed through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “To be able to expand its range is important to me, even if we just create an insurance policy for those on Block Island. We owe it to the beetle to do something.”

Not far from the rattle- snake room, in a small building that formerly held animals used in the zoo’s education programs, Perrotti oversees the captive rearing of another rare species native to Rhode Island, the New England cottontail. Two walls of the building are lined with eighteen wire cages stacked three high, each lined with hay and holding a single adult cottontail — except for one, which houses five baby cottontails recently weaned from their mother. Most of the animals are awaiting the February-to-August breeding season, when select pairs will be placed in outdoor pens for three days, during which time they will mate and then be returned inside to give birth.

The New England cottontail is the only native cottontail rabbit in the Northeast, but habitat loss, hunting, and especially competition from the introduced Eastern cottontail has pushed them to the brink of extinction. A multi-state effort to restore their population centers on DNA studies at the University of Rhode Island and captive rearing of the animals at Roger Williams Park Zoo and the Queens Zoo in New York.

“We had to write the book about how to rear this rabbit in captivity,” he says. “There were no established husbandry practices for them. We didn’t know how stressed out they would be or if they would eat. So we looked at their natural history and tried to replicate it as much as we could.”

Starting with just six rabbits collected from a population in Connecticut, Perrotti and his team kept them quarantined for a month while feeding them rabbit chow, apples, dandelion greens and other natural foods they collected around the zoo property. When they finally paired up the animals for breeding for the first time, they were immediately met with success: Every female became pregnant and raised her kits to weaning age. The program has grown every year since, with about 140 captive-born cottontails raised since 2012.

“All of our short-term goals have been met,” Perrotti explains. “We’ve built a hardening pen at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge with predator-proof fencing so they can learn to be wild rabbits. We created an island population at Patience Island in Narragansett Bay to establish it as a breeding colony. And for the last two years we’ve pulled rabbits from Patience and released them in New Hampshire. This year we’re releasing some in Maine, too.”

Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Cindy Corsair, who transports the rabbits from the zoo to Ninigret and Patience Island, has observed Perrotti’s approach to the captive rearing of cottontails and burying beetles, and she considers him as a mentor. “Lou thinks outside the box about what might be affecting the success of the program,” she says. “He’s very willing to try a variety of different solutions. It was his idea to vary the temperature in the building where we keep the rabbits to try to mimic wild conditions as much as possible and trigger their breeding period. And it worked.

“He’s very intuitive in how he goes about things, and that comes from being so intent on studying the animals he has in captivity,” Corsair adds. “He’s guided by his experience and his passion and everything he’s learned over the years of being in the middle of it all.”

Perrotti, who famed chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall calls a conservation hero, says that his objective at the zoo is “to contribute to the conservation of species in the wild and the wild places they live.” One part of his job that gets little attention, however, is his role in educating Rhode Islanders about native species. He says he enjoys sharing his knowledge and passion for wildlife with others, especially children, through a wide variety of shows, lectures and events.

At the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s annual BioBlitz, where 200 naturalists spend twenty-four hours on one property searching for and identifying as many species of wildlife as possible, Perrotti leads the reptile and amphibian team. Joined by a dozen enthusiastic volunteers, he wanders through fields and forests turning over rocks and logs, and he always seems to find more creatures than anyone else. Especially snakes.

“Lou could find a snake in an empty room,” says David Gregg, who organizes the event. “He intuits what would be a good place for a snake to go, and he looks in those places. And he’s not all wound up about whether it’s going to bite him. He has a perspective on grabbing stuff that most of us don’t have.”

“I don’t mind getting bitten,” acknowledges Perrotti, who calculates that he has probably been bitten a thousand times by non-venomous snakes but never by a venomous one. “I hardly notice it anymore. It’s almost a badge of honor. If you handle a lot of snakes, you’re going to get bit.”

At the end of the day, though, he says the bites and mortalities and obstacles to protecting rare species are worth it.

“What’s not to like about this work?” he asks. “I have the support of an amazing institution, I get to work with species many people never get to work with, and I’ll be able to say I contributed to keeping the planet as good, if not better, than I left it. I don’t want anyone to ask why I didn’t do anything to protect these species. I’m in a position to protect species for the quality of life and the quality of nature for the next generation. That’s why I do it.”

 

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Monday, January 1, 2018

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If he can show endangered rattlesnakes a little love, why can't the rest of us?