When herpers go on to public or private lands, we should already be aware that we are subject to rules and regulations imposed on us by State and Federal governments regarding the pursuit of reptiles and amphibians. You can see the California State rules on our California Herping Regulations page. But there are also some simple rules of etiquette and ethics that herpers should observe in the field to ensure that the animals and their habitat will persist, allowing future generations of herpers to observe them. Most of these are just plain obvious, and they have been repeated elsewhere in guidelines regarding behavior outdoors.
I have compiled many of these rules from various sources that deal with observing animals in the field - herp books, internet forums, and from organizations such as the North American Field Herping Association and the American Birding Association, which has an excellent Code of Ethics. But ultimately these guidelines reflect my opinion and not those of any group or organization. If you disagree with something here, or have something to add, feel free to let me know and I'll consider making additions or changes.
Do No Harm - Respect the Animals and the Environment. Always be aware of the effects your presence and actions have on the land and its inhabitants.
You can easily destroy habitat and animals accidentally even without knowing it.
The Chytrid fungus which is devestating amphibians worldwide, was probably spread initially by field biologists moving from one wetland into another, before the fungus was recognized. They follow procedures to sterilize their gear now, to avoid spreading it further, but a lot of damage has already been done.
Don't Harm Any Animals, including those you're not hunting.
This is worth repeating. There is no such thing as a "trash" species. Everything has its place in the scheme of things, even insects underneath a rock you roll. I have seen dozens of "trash" snakes at some sites that were smashed under rocks by herpers who were looking for other species and killed them in their hurry to roll over the next rock. Be careful when catching and handling lizards that have fragile skin, such as geckos, or detachable tails. Don't try to catch any lizard by the tail. And, again, don't crush animals when you roll rocks back as you found them!
Don't Handle Herps Unnecessarily.
Try to minimize the stress they endure from contact with you.
Always remember that to them, you are an enormous predatory monster.
Herpers usually want to catch and handle animals they find. It's often the only way you will be able to look at and photograph wary and secretive animals. And noosing lizards is an enjoyable pastime not unlike catch-and-release fishing. But sometimes it can be more rewarding if you just observe herps in their environment. You can see more interesting natural behavior that way. I have taken to following frogs and lizards around with a video camera and I have been amazed at how tolerant some of them become to my presence and how close they let me get to them once they seem to figure out that I am not a threat.
Herps are generally very tough and resilient, but to be safe, it's probably best not to handle them longer than is necessary to observe and photograph them, and handling frogs and salamanders with thin sensitive skin should be avoided when possible. They should be kept moist and your hands should be clean of all chemicals or you should wear plastic gloves when handling them. If you pick up an animal that has just eaten, chances are good it will regurgitate that meal - a meal which might have taken the animal many days to find and catch.
Lizards and salamanders may drop their tails in defense when they fear for their life, or you may accidentally break a tail off when handling them. This can hinder their ability to survive and to breed, since energy may be stored in the tail and tail-less animals may be seen as a bad choice of a mate. Some frightened desert animals, such as toads and tortoises, will release their stored water supply as a defense, which can kill them from dehydration well after you release them. Keeping a herp in direct sunlight for too long while you photograph it can cause it to overheat and die.
Unfortunately, it is nearly always necessary to pick up herps you find underneath rocks or other heavy objects so you don't crush them. After picking them up, you should return the object then release the herp and let it crawl back under it - often you can dig a small channel to let them use. So don't go around randomly
turning over heavy rocks if you don't have the time to put in the effort to protect whatever you find.
Don't Destroy Natural Habitat or natural features of any kind.
Do not break up rocks, logs, stumps or other natural features (which is illegal in California) and leave the habitat as close to the way you found it as possible.
Replace all the cover objects you turn over as close as possible to the way you found it, (and make sure you don't kill anything when doing so!) Rolling over a rock will change the microhabitat underneath, where the humidity is higher than the surroundings, and where small invertebrates, which are food sources for herps or their prey, have been established. Re-seating the rock as you found it will lessen the time needed to restore this microhabitat. This even applies to artificial cover such as boards, tin, and trash. It takes time for AC to get "seasoned" with no vegetation beneath it, and cracks and holes which allow herps to shelter effectively. Replacing AC into its original position will let it continue to be good herp habitat, and an effective animal trap.
Use Tools Only With Caution
Tools such as crowbars, potato rakes, claw hammers, and Stumprippers make it very easy to quickly flip and run, and leave without replacing the cover, so if you use a tool, don't get overconfident. I have seen too many herpers flip something with their tool that they couldn't flip with their bare hands, then they are too lazy or unable to put it back the way they found it because they used a tool to begin with. (This is even more of a problem when several herpers are competing for a limited number of cover objects to look under so they try to move from one to the other too quickly.) Never use a tool to break up stumps and logs or to rip bark or dig and tear up rocks or duff. I use my "Stumpripper" to overturn boards and tin and to pick up snakes and I find it an excellent lightweight tool for those uses, but I wish it had a different name.
Follow All Laws that Apply to Herping and Do Not Collect More than the Legal Limit.
These laws include rules about which animals you can pursue and capture, how many you can collect, and by what means. A lot of herping is done at night on roads using the lights of an automobile. In some states there are laws regarding "spotlighting" at night, including auto headlights, so be aware of these laws. In some states, such as Texas, it may be illegal to hunt at all on the public right-of-ways, which means you cannot handle any herps found on roadways, day or night.
While I agree that it is absurd to make a photographer buy an expensive hunting or fishing license, or both, just to temporarily restrain an animal for pictures, you need to be aware if you decide not to buy a license because you aren't collecting but only taking pictures, that "I'm just taking pictures" is a common excuse which is also used by illegal poachers, and wildlife law enforcement officers may not believe you even when you are telling the truth. If you decide not to buy a license, it might be best to observe and photograph herps without handling them.
The longer I herp, the more I prefer not to capture animals to photograph them when possible. (This is rare, especially with snakes, but sometimes it works.) While it is easier to get a great photograph by capturing an animal, cooling it down, and photographing it with a controlled background or set, I find these staged shots less interesting than those taken in situ. When I do capture an animal, I like to pose it at the point of capture. I also find it more challenging and rewarding to follow and observe an animal without capturing it. There's also the possibility you'll observe behavior other than just defense and escape behavior, although I guarantee you'll see mostly escape behavior - lots of tails going down holes and splashes in the water.
Think About All of the Consequences Before You Take an Animal From the Wild and make it a captive.
Make sure you can house and feed it and provide it with all the care it needs for the rest of its life (which could be many years.) Many captives do very well and might be better off in a cage for the rest of their life than they would be risking basking on a highway every day, or buried under a housing development, and there is a lot one can learn from keeping and breeding herps, but many captives do not survive and end up suffering a slow and painful death from uncontrolled parasites, inadequate environmental conditions, or improper nutrition. Many don't even survive the trip home due to overheating or dessication, and some escape from improperly closed containers and probably die later from ending up in inhospitable habitat. Make sure you have containers or cloth snake bags that will not harm animals if they are left in them for an extended period, and remember to close them properly. (Zip-lock plastic bags are best used only to restrain a herp temporarily, not for long-term storage. After use, the bags can be thrown away so no two animals are put in the same container.)
Some traveling herpers collect animals to trade or sell (legally or illegally) to defray the cost of their herping trip or of the licenses they had to buy. This is hard to argue with, considering the high price of licenses, gas, and lodging, (and the outrageously high price of hunting and fishing licenses for out-of-state residents only encourages this behavior) but I would urge these herpers to try to consider these expenses to be part of the costs of their herping vacation. You don't go to Hawaii planning to sell tropical fruit when you return to pay for the trip, do you?
Return Herps to the Exact Place You Found Them.
If you pick up a herp to photograph it, return it to the place you found it. Many herpers take an animal to their motel or campsite to photograph it in a controlled environment, then return it the next day, or they pick up a snake off a road at night and drive to a safe place to pull over, which could be miles away. (I am not advising that you do this. You need to determine the legality of it yourself.) Unfortunately, many of them don't bother to record the location where they found it, or are too lazy to go all the way back the next day or whenever they release it. Either mark the mileage or write down the gps coordinates or a nearby landmark or somehow mark the spot so you can find it again. Also, when returning a nocturnal animal during daylight, make sure you can put it somewhere it can get out of the sun, prefereably a hole or rock pile or under some kind of cover.
Don't Return Long-Term Captive Animals to the Wild.
It's illegal, and immoral, but it's becoming more and more common due to the popularity of herps in the pet trade.
Unless you return it to exactly the same spot where it was found soon after finding it, the animal will probably have trouble surviving where you dump it. Even if the habitat is suitable, it will probably end up in the territory of another animal which will force it to move away. There is also the possibility your captive can spread parasites or disease into wild populations. The Chytrid fungus, which is devestating amphibians around the world, is thought to have been spread initially by the release of captive African Clawed Frogs. It is also frequently reported (but not substantiated) that a virus was spread to wild Desert Tortoise population from released captive tortoises.
Respect Private Property
Don't Tresspass! Enter private property only with permission. But also be aware that you can legally enter a lot of public land even if it is fenced off. Watch for signs, or the lack of them, indicating access restrictions, and check maps released by organizations such as the Bureau of Land Management or the National Forest Service. It's easy to be fooled into thinking your public land is private and off-limits.
Don't Collect Herps from Public Land Where Collecting is not Allowed.
Every time someone is caught doing this in a park, it maintains the image that is so common among public park employees that anyone interested in herps is a collector.
Educate People You Encounter in the Field About Herps.
This gives the non-herping public a better view of herpers and herps. If people find you holding an animal and ask you questions, try to take some time to give them a better understanding of the animals and of the people who are crazy enough to want to go search for them. You might also explain to them that you have purchased a license that legally allows you to handle the herp when you encounter someone who thinks you are breaking the law. But don't use herps to scare or intimidate people, or to prove how macho you are.
Don't Disturb Research Sites and
Don't Get Upset When Artificial Cover You Laid Out is Removed Like the Unsightly Trash that it Is to Non-herpers.
If you find some buried or covered-up pitfall traps or a line of intentionally-laid-out cover (a board line) or any other type of study equipment, don't mess with them. I usually do look underneath any artificial cover that someone else has laid out, but I don't move it around, and I always replace it as I found it. If a site looks like an unauthorized dump site, then moving tin or boards into better locations is not unethical, in my opinion. That's how most board lines were set up to begin with - they are essentially just improved illegal dump sites. And don't get too worked up if you find that your board line has been moved or degraded. It's easy to immediately blame other herpers (for some reason, herpers love to attack each other) but there can be many other explanations for what happened, including the fact that your boards are simply garbage to 99.99 per cent of the people out there who encounter them.
Be Careful When Sharing Information About Locations, in public, and in private.
You should always realize that when you tell someone about a good location to find herps, or a location of arificial cover that produces herps, even if you tell them not to tell anyone, they WILL tell someone, and that someone will tell someone else, with the caveat not to tell anyone, etc. etc, and soon everyone will know the location. It's just human nature.
Don't get too territorial about "your" herping spots.
This is an emotional topic for many herpers. You might think a board spot is your spot or a specific road is your road, but chances are other people know about it, and probably knew about it before you did. If you find your AC has been moved or rocks have not been replaced, it's easy to get angry and assume it was done by other herpers, but the damage could be caused by animals or others such as bug hunters, mushroom hunters, rock collectors, and even homeless people who collected the boards and tin to construct a shelter (I've seen this happen.) I once put an angry note under one of a group of rocks I used to find rolled over and not replaced year after year, hoping that someone would read it and start putting the rocks back. The next spring the rocks were rolled over again and the note was gone. Some people just don't care. Every time I see them, I return these rocks to their original position. I always feel angry that I'm just helping the morons find herps the next time they come, but ultimately I know that it's the herps I'm helping. I almost never find any herps under these rocks anymore, probably due to the fact that they do not stay in one place.
Whenever I come across a nicely laid-out aritficial cover (A/C) site I mentally thank those who came before me and paved the way with their boards and tin. I make an effort to respect the A/C and put it back the way I found it so the herps will continue to use it as shelter and so that others can enjoy it as I have. The herps don't need it - they will survive very well without it, but without A/C we may never see them.
When road cruising at night, pull as far off the road as you can when you stop and turn off your brights!
This one should be obvious, but it isn't. And don't block the entire road with more than one vehicle when you stop to look at a herp on the road! Lately I have been wearing one of those reflecting vests that bike riders and construction workers and the people who bring in the shopping carts at supermarkets wear. Yes, I know I look stupid. But wearing these vests will be the law in Texas soon and it's a good way to keep from getting run over and from terrifying other drivers who suddenly drive up on a person on a deserted road at night. I even put out one of those reflective triangles behind the vehicle as advance warning that there's a car there if I'm going to park for longer than a few minutes.
When road cruising at night, don't intentionally race in front of another herping vehicle, then slow down in order to be in front.
Turning around and going in the other direction is probably a better option than pulling in front or dropping back. Of course, sometimes you don't know if a slow vehicle in front of you is herping or not, so don't get upset if someone passes you then you find out they're herping ahead of you.
Stop and talk to other people you see road cruising.
I know you're in a hurry to see as much as you can, or to find an uncommon snake before someone else gets it first, and you don't want to share your secrets with anyone else, but finding out what has been seen on the road on a particular night can be helpful, and you can meet some interesting people - and maybe some not so interesting. Learning that a certain species that I was seeking had been seen on the road on a particular night has encouraged me to continue searching until I found it, even when I was losing interest. Unfortunately, you may also find out that everyone else is finding the good stuff when you're not, which is a drag, but other times you may be the one finding everything good.
Be aware that road cruising for herps looks suspicious.
Driving slowly, starting and stopping and making U-turns on a desolate road at night is not normal driving behavior. It is suspicious behavior to both law enforcement officers and to non-herpers. If you expect to be stopped and questioned and have your license plates checked out then it won't come as a shock. Politely tell them what you are doing and don't take it personally. Sure, it sucks to be stopped and detained, but they're just doing their job so don't take it out on them. The quicker you convince them you're not drunk or a smuggler, the quicker they'll release you and you can get back to herping.
When road cruising at night in areas near the Mexican Border you will be watched and followed by the Border Patroland other Law Enforcement agents.
To them, it looks like you are slowly searching for someone or something to pick up, which means criminal behavior. They will tailgate you with their bright lights and if you pull over to let them go by, they'll put their red lights on and ask you if you know why they pulled you over. Resist the urge to laugh and tell them that it was you who pulled them over. (I have never gotten a good response to that joke.) I have found most Border Patrol officers to be nice and polite, (but there are exceptions, such as many of those at Organ Pipe or other high-stress high-crime border areas) but nevertheless, even when you explain to them what you are doing, you are likely to be pulled over again and again by different officers. It's their job, which means it's your job to understand and expect it to happen. One night near the border in New Mexico, I was pulled over six times by four different vehicles - the Sherriff, the DEA, the Border Patrol, and some plain clothes guy in an unmarked vehicle who wouldn't tell me who he worked for. One agent eventually told us that we looked extra suspicious because we were driving a rented SUV with smoked windows, which is apprently the drug-smuggler's preferred vehicle. Then he told us about a different road where he had seen a lot of snakes. Sometimes you can get good herping tips from these guys, and if you see any suspicious behavior or encounter immigrants who want to surremder, let them know.
What should you do when you find a dead snake on a popular herping road?
This one is not easy. Most herpers remove dead herps from the road so they don't stop for them again, but if you know that there are other cars on a road at night, you might want to leave a DOR on the road for others to see it. This one is up to you. I saw several snakes lined up across a well-used road in Texas once, put there by someone who picked up and kept every dead snake they found. This was more a practical joke than it was an attempt to communicate, but it let me see a couple of species I hadn't yet seen that night.
Herping is not a competitive sport.
Not yet, anyway, unless you count Rattlesnake Roundups. (I remember seeing a roundup covered on one of the weekend sports shows many year ago where they competed to find the most snakes.) But many herpers are very competitive when they are in the field.
I believe that a lot of habitat damage and unreplaced rocks, logs, and AC is caused by herpers who are in a hurry to find animals before someone else gets to them first. Animals are sometimes killed because of it and habitat is ruined. This hurried behavior comes from the collecting mentality, which has been carried over into the life-listing mentality.
Every herper has his or her own rules for "counting" herps they see and putting them on their life list. Some only count an animal that they see first, others must find and catch something to count it, others have to be there when an animal is found, even if they didn't find it, etc. etc. This competition can lead to speed-herping behavior that can be damaging to the habitat. It's also part of the fun and challenge of herping, so just remember to replace everything when you're done and all is good. If you're not competitive, you can also use the competitive behavior of other herpers in your group to your advantage: Sometimes I let the others run ahead and do the climbing and heavy lifting, and wait until they find something good to photograph, then I take my turn photographing it, because I don't care about the bragging rights of seeing it first. You can also help your companions by understanding the rules they play by by letting them go ahead or by not grabbing an animal they need to see and calling them over to grab it for themselves.