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Friday, August 1, 2014

Legendary Kansas herpetologist Joe Collins dies

By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle

As far as Joe Collins was concerned, snakes have had a bad rap ever since the Garden of Eden.

Mr. Collins’ passion for herpetology inspired generations of students and outdoors enthusiasts.

“For 60 years, I have been obsessed with herpetology,” Mr. Collins said in a video shot by Dan Krull. “I make no apologies for it ... the thrill of discovery just can’t be beat.”

Mr. Collins, who founded the Center for North American Herpetology and was a former instructor at the University of Kansas, died Saturday of a heart attack in Florida. He was 72.

Mr. Collins and his wife, Suzanne, were on their annual five-week trip to document wildlife – such as snakes, turtles and alligators – when he was stricken.

“He was a great mentor to students of all ages, from the very smallest student who might come to him with a tiny little snake to Ph.D. students working on their dissertation,” Suzanne Collins said.

As news of his death spread, many of those who considered Mr. Collins a mentor offered tributes to him on Facebook.

“I remember all these excited kids (including me) running up to Joe with pillow cases full of snakes and lizards, and Joe being equally excited to educate them about what they found,” Mike Zerwekh of San Diego wrote in a forum dedicated to Mr. Collins. “Since then, I’ve made a lot of friends and had some great adventures finding the animals I love. If it wasn’t for Joe, I’m not sure any of that would have happened. He was a true inspiration ... ”

Snakes have a reputation for being evil, which Mr. Collins blamed on the biblical story. But he loved telling audiences how beneficial snakes are to the environment, Suzanne Collins said. They eat enormous numbers of insects and disease-carrying, crop-eating rodents.

“He considered reptiles and amphibians to be his animals,” she said. “He was so passionate and dedicated his life to it.”

Travis W. Taggart, curator of herpetology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University, said Mr. Collins’ enthusiasm was infectious.

“He really had an eye for people who were wide-eyed about herpetology,” Taggart said. “He was really good at nurturing it and feeding those interests.”

Most people have hobbies, Taggart said, but Mr. Collins didn’t. He was focused at all times on herpetology.

“He woke up thinking about it, and he went to bed thinking about it,” Taggart said.

While Mr. Collins often said he disliked writing, he wrote numerous books. By his own count, he wrote more books about Kansas wildlife than anyone in the history of the state. That’s because he knew books were a vital way to convey information, said Bob Gress, director of the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita.

Perhaps Mr. Collins’ proudest writing accomplishment was serving as co-author for a Peterson Field Guide: “Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America.” Snake enthusiasts consider it the bible of herpetology.

“He was one of those special people that could bridge the academia world with the hobbyist,” Gress said. “He brought interest to the masses.”

Taggart said he would talk to Mr. Collins frequently – about every other day – about one thing or another.

“I’ll miss those conversations,” he said. “You tend to take it for granted. There was a whole lot of wisdom there to tap into.

“It’s a little scary going forward not having that insight and that push.”

Taggart said his herpetology decisions will be guided by a simple question going forward: What would Joe have done if he were still here?

Mr. Collins’ legacy will continue to blossom in the years ahead, he said.

“He’s touched so many people, it can’t help but go on,” Taggart said. “He had so many great ideas and got so many things started.”

A memorial service will be held in Lawrence, Suzanne Collins said, but details haven’t been finalized.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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