• Jessica Evans

Cold, scaley, unloved, but adored by this guy

“I was quite scared of snakes,” he said, “when I was in preschool.” Now, Chad Keates is a PhD candidate in the Rhodes University department of Zoology. And guess what? He studies snakes.

“One day, some guy came up, he did a snake talk, and he put a rock python on my lap and then I was sold,” he explained. “I was like, wow, this thing’s enormous and cool and it’s got no legs, and from then on out I just liked snakes, I was just obsessed with them.” The snake’s sheer size and majesty sparked something in Chad that he never really outgrew.

Chad and a rock monitor, (Varanus albigularis). Photo by Javier Lobón-Rovira.

We’re sitting in the first-year lab at the Zoology department. It’s almost clinical, comprised of seemingly endless pristine white lab benches and black wheelie stools. There’s a white board at the front and a spot on the wall for projected presentations and videos. At the back, there’s a glass display case of various skulls and skeletons.

"Strangely, zoology isn't the only shared aspect of our pasts."

We both know the lab well. I did practicals in there at the start of my zoology journey, and Chad, although he did pracs in the old building, went on to help out in first year practicals in the new one.

Strangely, zoology isn’t the only shared aspect of our pasts. Chad came to university to study journalism, as did I, and, like me, Chad took Zoology because of a fondness for biology.

A lab assistant in a bright blue coat is laying out terrapins for the third-year dissection. I’m thrust back to my third-year terrapin dissection and the ghastly smell, and I pity the new third-year students. Unsure about noise, I ask Chad if this is a suitable venue for our interview. “This is the quietest place in the building,” he assures me, in his familiar speedy way of speaking.

Part of Chad's obsessive herpetology is photographing the reptiles he finds. This is a Hawaqua flat gecko, Afroedura hawequensis. Photo by Chad Keates.

Chad is a friendly guy. I always knew him as the chatty demi (that’s jargon for demonstrator – an older student who helps out at practicals and field trips), with friendly eyes and a wicked sense of humour. He’s always been the class clown, even though it wasn’t even his class.

When the time came to pick a path for his fourth year of study, after a lot of thinking and deliberation, Chad went with Zoology honours. That decision was defining for him. It was that year that Chad Keates was reintroduced to snakes, and almost totally redefined to become synonymous, in Makhanda at least, with snakes.

Many-spotted reed snake (Amplorhinus multimaculatus). Photo by Chad Keates.

Chad is a herpetologist. As misleading as the name might be, it means he studies reptiles and amphibians, not herpes.

"It's like a massive game of Pokémon Go"

Herpetology, as a discipline and as a hobby, involves quite a bit of travelling. South Africa harbours a small community of people who ‘herp’ for fun. “It’s like a massive game of Pokémon Go,” he said, his eyes big with emphasis. Chad travels to various places specifically to find the reptiles endemic to that region, capture photographs, and perhaps some data for his research, to add to his collection. His orange skin and rosy cheeks are a testament to his hours out somewhere in the bundus sifting through bush and burrow, all for a new snake or lizard.

Common long-tailed seps (Tetradactylus tetradactylus). Photo by Chad Keates.

When he’s not herping a new location somewhere in the vastness of the South African countryside, Chad is based at Rhodes University, Makhanda, Eastern Cape. He gives talks to local schools and game reserves (free of charge most of the time) all to raise awareness about snakes and dispel myths that threaten both humans and reptiles.

Chad's critter walks are popular for children's birthday parties. Photo supplied by Chad Keates.

He and a friend pioneered what he calls “Critter Walks”. He runs them on his own now and does his usual routine – a talk and a demonstration – then heads out, keenly followed by a small army of reptile enthusiasts, to somewhere he knows is safe and has permission to visit. There, he shows the entourage how to find reptiles out in the field, how to identify them, and how to do so safely. “The idea of it is to put people back in nature,” he said, his voice full of clarity. “So instead of looking at animals through a screen, try and let them see them with their eyes.” The mannerisms he uses as he speaks about the animals he loves so dearly remind me of my childhood icon, Steve Irwin.

Chad shows off a many-horned adder (Bitis cornuta) they found while out herping. Photo by Luke Kemp.

“When people see how diverse areas are that look completely barren, they tend to protect them a bit better,” he went on. The thought that Chad could see some reptiles out in nature, and inspire a love and respect for them in other people, absolutely thrills him, and you can see it.

"When I see someone who’s petrified I see someone whose opinion I have to change"

The little boy who was once petrified by snakes, now revolves around them. Chad is a busy man. He’s doing a PhD in reptile genetics; he does call-outs to remove snakes in close proximity to people; he does talks; and he does critter walks. Everything, to him, is a means to conserve reptiles and spark a love for them in other people. “When I see someone who’s petrified I see someone whose opinion I have to change,” he said, a crystal lucidity in his voice and his eyes. Sitting there, looking at him talk so passionately about some scaly little creatures, I couldn’t help but think he’s become the guy who changed his life when he was a trembling pre-schooler.

If you're interested in learning more about the reptiles South Africa has to offer, or if you want to know more about Chad, check out his blog.

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©2018 by Bite-sized Sci | Jessica Evans