February 5, 2012

Roy Wenzl: Joe Collins taught us all about life

Some of us, if we are lucky, get to spend time in the company of a person who somehow makes himself

Some of us, if we are lucky, get to spend time in the company of a person who somehow makes himself

more alive than other people. In appreciating some of nature’s most delicate creatures, in teaching

others to appreciate them, Joe Collins became relentlessly happy.

His death takes from us a first-rate scientist, and one of the leading herpetologists in North America.

Because of him and his photographer wife Suzanne, generations to come will know what Joe discovered

about snakes, frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles and other small and cold-blooded creatures of Kansas.

He worked mostly in Kansas, but spent several weeks every year studying snakes, including venomous

snakes, in Florida. It was on one of those trips this week that he died, at 72, of a heart attack. He died a

warrior’s death, one friend said, died on the job he loved.

In his books he was straightforward, factual. In person he made generations of scientists laugh. He

divided biologists into “the dry ones,” who studied mammals, and “the wet ones” like himself, who

studied frogs, salamanders and so on. He would point to painted turtles sitting side-by-side on a wet

log, and say “they are sunning themselves like students on spring break.” He called crows “reptiles gone

bad,” because scientists say that crows and other birds descended from reptiles.

He was bitten by venomous snakes twice in Florida years ago, and quoted with pride what the

emergency room staff told him. “They said I was the only sober snake-bite victim they’d ever seen.”

“It is okay to name your pet snake,” he told a child one day, with mock seriousness. “But never name

your hamster, or your guinea pig, or even your dog, because in a long winter, you might need to feed

mammal to reptile.”

From their home in Lawrence, Joe and Suzanne Collins traveled for decades, tramping through wetlands,

creeks, cow pastures and groves of trees. Joe turned over the rocks and logs, and Suzanne took the color

photographs, recording for all time the lives and habits of cold-blooded animals.

This was the serious work of science. They published dozens of books containing her photographs,

his descriptive text. They spoke to young people about how endangered these little beings are, and

how we endanger them to our own peril. But Joe respected the practicality of Kansans, and how most

of them are good stewards of the land. So he told the children of farmers and the children of agri-

business managers that it is bad stewardship to soak our farmland with herbicides, and then claim that

this practice should never be questioned. Endanger the frog and the polliwog, he said, and the laws of

nature will endanger all of us.

Happiness, Joe once said, is “an infection that I caught it as a child.” He became fascinated with snakes

as a boy. He got paid for this as a zoologist.

When you explore creatures and habitats up close, he said, you become more alert, more aware…more

alive. Groves of trees come alive as you see them, how they teem with life, including the intricate little

creatures who set up shop under the beds of leaves, or the old logs, or the stray piece of flat tin from a

barn roof long abandoned. He said that as you become more aware of land and grass and wetlands, as

you realize with joy what might live under all those flat yellow rocks strewn around the Flint Hills, you

become less dull, more entranced with the song of life all around us.

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