I know that catching critters is fun, educational and helps us to connect to the natural world. Kids do it, parents do it, even educators do it! I used to be the first one off the trail, pointing out the tadpoles/snakes/lizards, wanting a closer look, but while working here at Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, I have learned about the consequences of our meddling.

It turns out that collecting native species from their natural habitat not only threatens the individual frog, snake, etc., but also the entire population. By trying to deepen our connection to nature, we are putting the very animals we love at risk.

Simply the process of catching animals is extremely stressful for them and puts their lives in danger. Reptiles and amphibians are generally prey animals and assume that you are a predator about to eat them. The stress and trauma inflicted on these animals during capture is tremendous. If you then decide to keep the animals you’ve captured, you can receive a fine from a Conservation Officer no matter how well intentioned you are. It turns out that keeping native animals is actually against the law, as outlined in the Wildlife Act.

If you have illegally collected an animal without a permit, please return it immediately to where you found it. Releasing it in a different area adds stress to those animals who already live in the area due to increased competition for space, food and shelter.

Wild animals have territories and by moving them around—maybe from a park to your garden—you are displacing them from their homes and putting them at risk of injury or death from those already present in the new habitat. Animals already have everything they need exactly where they are and generally do not benefit from our interference. If you find a reptile or amphibian in the “wrong place,” please put it nearby where it will be safe—for example from your patio to a green space nearby.

The only exception to the “release it where you found it” rule is if the animal has come into contact with pet store or aquarium products. Pet stores and aquariums are common vectors for disease transmission and any animal that has been exposed to pet store/aquarium food or supplies cannot be released back into the wild due to the risk of infecting the entire population.

When animals are held in captivity they can become diseased due to the cage or food unbeknownst to the well-meaning care giver. If you then decide to release the animal, that disease may then be passed onto the wild population along with potentially invasive species, such as aquarium plants.

For information on how to proceed if you are not sure how long the animal has been in captivity and what it has come into contact with, please contact bcfrogwatch@victoria1.gov.bc.ca. The BC Frog watch program is a provincial initiative through the Ministry of the Environment and deals with any concerns about all reptiles and amphibians in the province. Attaching photos is highly recommended.

Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary is known for nature education, usually including live reptiles and amphibians. Since its inception, the Nature House has kept native garter snakes, exotic pet snakes, honeybees, and one or two freshwater turtles (Red eared Sliders). However, over the last decade not only have we accepted a red-listed Western Painted Turtle (collected illegally and suffering from a chronic shell condition) but also numerous other reptiles and amphibians brought to us by well-meaning folks concerned about their location/welfare or just wanting us to keep them on their behalf.

When you capture native reptiles and amphibians and bring them to the Nature House, you may think that they are like a pet that can be named and visited, but in general, native wildlife does not thrive in captivity. Staff have to work hard with limited resources to care for the animal and, at times, the animal may have to be euthanized.

Although we acknowledge that it is wonderful to be able to show visitors native animals up close, the Swan Lake Nature House is not a zoo or rehabilitation facility. And while we have accepted “salvage” herptiles from other organizations, we do not endorse the collection and keeping of native animals from the wild. We are required to obtain special permits to keep all of our captive native animals, which would otherwise likely have been euthanized.

If you find an injured animal (bird, mammals, reptile, amphibian), the best option is to contact Wild ARC, the BC SPCA Wild Animal Rehabilitation Centre located in Metchosin. They may be contacted through their website at spca.bc.ca/locations/wild-arc Wild ARC will care for and release all native animals, including reptiles and amphibians.

If you are not sure if the animal you found is native or an introduced invasive species, such as European Wall lizards and American bullfrogs, please phone Wild ARC and they will help you through the next steps.

The days of catching and collecting tadpoles and lizards are over. Our reptile and amphibian populations are small, fragmented, and over half of these species in the province are at risk of becoming endangered. Therefore, it is imperative that each one remains healthy and a part of the breeding population.

It is exciting to see a native animal up close in a tank, but it is so much more rewarding to witness the same animals in their natural habitat, finding all that they need and thriving with others of their kind.

Our need for “nature on demand” is not sustainable; please visit natural areas and see these amazing creatures out where they belong. Put on a snorkel and mask and visit the newts under the water at Lizard Lake, visit Spencer’s Pond to see a vast array of amphibians, or go on a tour of the Haliburton Wetland project. But please, do your part to help by leaving wildlife where it is, as it is meant to be.

Coral Forbes, Program Naturalist at Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary in consultation with Purnima Govindarajulu, the Small Mammal and Herpetofauna Specialist with the BC Ministry of Environment.