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Reptiles' Rescuer : Collector of Injured Animals Helps Educate Campers About Them


Julian Gonzales gingerly held up a gopher snake, displaying a large gash running down its side for a group of fourth-graders on a camping trip in Matilija Canyon.

The snake had been rescued from a neighbor who mistook it for a rattler and tried to bash its head with a shovel, Gonzales told the horrified students.

For five years, Gonzales, 34, has opened his home on Matilija Canyon Road to hundreds of indigenous reptiles that have fallen victim to careless or frightened residents, campers and hikers.

Now the house is crawling with turtles, lizards, toads and snakes on the mend. And Gonzales is adding a new dimension to his effort: educating campers about the animals to stop the damage before it happens.

"I'm not interested in keeping all these animals for myself," he said. "The goal is to get them healed and back into the wild, or better yet to keep them from getting hurt in the first place."

To do that, Gonzales decided to devote himself to animals full time. He recently quit his job as a construction worker and became an interpreter naturalist for the Matilija Environmental Science Area, a nonprofit organization that leads educational camping trips in Matilija Canyon.

On Thursday, Gonzales addressed one of his first audiences: 41 fourth-graders from Ventura's Pierpont Elementary School on an overnight camping trip.

The children gathered on low wooden benches shaded by oaks as Gonzales showed one reptile after another. He explained the differences between rattle and gopher snakes--rattlers are darker and have bigger heads--and discouraged them from taking wild animals home as pets.

"I've never seen a snake this close before," said Tawny Main, 9, shrinking back a bit as a snake was offered for her to pet. "I thought they were all the same anyway."

Classmate Persian Austin was a bit more confident, explaining that he has a boa constrictor and another snake as pets. "But I'm still a little scared of them," he admitted.

Tia Temple, director of the science program, said Gonzales' approach complements the organization's efforts to acquaint campers with wild animals.

"Julian brings these animals to the children so they can get up close to them without harming them," Temple said. "He teaches them to respect wildlife and leave them be."

When the campers go home, Gonzales turns to caring for the hundred-plus wounded and abandoned reptiles he keeps at his one-story bungalow.

He calls his house and the surrounding 2 1/2 acres County Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation. He does not need an animal rehabilitation permit from the California Fish and Game Department because the agency does not regulate reptiles, district captain Roger Reese said.

That's fine with Gonzales. "I'm out here by myself and I work my fanny off," Gonzales said. "Taking care of these animals is my life and I'd rather keep out of all the bureaucracy."

He lives alone--unless you count the glass cases filled with scaly, slithering creatures that line the walls of his home inside and out.

The most ominous: a dozen Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes he has removed from the yards of neighbors. They accumulate, Gonzales said, faster than he can release them into less-populated areas.

Gonzales reached into the case and pulled out a baby rattler. Instead of hanging in a graceful curve, its body veered unnaturally, like a stretched paper clip.

"Somebody hit it with a garbage can," he said. "I don't know if it's going to make it."

Six leopard lizards baking under a sunlamp may fare better, Gonzales said. A woman who had captured them and hoped to keep them as pets took them to Gonzales because they had developed sores.

Gonzales quickly determined the cause: The crickets she was feeding the lizards were themselves not being fed, so they were nibbling on the lizards.

"People have this problem of collect, collect, collect. They go out on a hike, grab everything they can find and take it home, and then they don't know what to do with it," Gonzales said. "I'm doing my best to let people know that the best thing they can do is just let things be."

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