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Lake Erie Snakes Foster Unexpected Friendship | Ohio Sea Grant

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Lake Erie Snakes Foster Unexpected Friendship

12:00 pm, Tue February 13, 2024 – When Stone Lab educator Sue Bixler first met four-year-old Spencer Knisely at a Stone Lab outreach event, he was a shy kid with sensory issues. But thanks to the love of Sue, Stone Lab, and snakes, Spencer is now a confident 13-year-old, teaching others the importance of snakes

Spencer Knisely, age 13, remembers the first time he ever touched a snake.

He was 4, and his mother, Holly Knisely, took him to a local festival about 15 miles south of Lake Erie where one of the booths featured Susan Bixler, an education and outreach specialist from The Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, and some snakes.

Learn more about Spencer’s Stone Lab story.

“My mom thought I was going to skip right over the booth, but I was like, ‘Ooooh, these are cool,’” Spencer said.

a young boy holding a snake in one hand

During his first visit to Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island at Lake Erie, Spencer Knisely, 5, makes a new slithery friend. (Photo courtesy Holly Knisely)

He held a snake, watched as it crawled up his arm and even allowed Bixler to place one around his neck.

“He kept circling back to hold one. I couldn’t believe it,” said Holly, noting Spencer’s sensory issues and social anxiety.

That first festival experience has evolved to an enduring relationship between Spencer and Sue Bixler and the snakes, with Bixler visiting his classroom annually and Spencer making frequent trips to Stone Lab to participate in presentations and help other visitors interact with the snakes.

“Sue told me the steps to do it,” Spencer said. “People don’t always have to hold them, and it’s OK. What I usually do is I’ll hold the head and they can pet it around the body. If they get comfortable, they can hold half and I’ll hold the head. If they’re more comfortable, they’ll full blown hold it. Some kids come back and let me put it around their neck. It’s cool.”

Spencer said his classmates ask him every year if the snakes will return to the school, and he looks forward to those visits.

“It’s fun,” he said. “Because she taught me everything I know about snakes, and it’s fun to double-team it when we’re there. I always enjoyed that part.”

“When he’s with those snakes in the classroom,” Holly said, “I feel like he opens up. It’s kind of neat to watch. He has less fear each time, and it’s trickling over elsewhere.”

“Science at Stone Lab can be so transformative. When you see kids like Spencer achieve things they may have never thought they could do, you realize how impactful teachers and science education can be.”
Susan Bixler

The more Spencer interacts with the snakes, the calmer and braver he’s become, said Holly, adding that he now socially interacts without hesitating. He’s even joined a travel baseball team.

“Usually we have to be the first boat that goes over for the Stone Lab open house,” Holly said. “He stands by Sue and the workers. He will take a snake up to people and try to hand it to them. He doesn’t like to talk to people much; he’s shy. (But) it opens a new part of him when he’s got a snake. He acts like he works there. And then we’re always on the last boat to leave.”

A school science teacher in Michigan before joining Stone Lab, Bixler has a Great Lakes focus and brought hundreds of students to Stone Lab over the years. “Science at Stone Lab can be so transformative. When you see kids like Spencer achieve things they may have never thought they could do, you realize how impactful teachers and science education can be,” she said.

a woman holding a snake in front of a boy

Susan Bixler, left, education and outreach specialist from The Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, discusses a snake with Spencer Knisely and his mom, Holly, at Stone Lab in 2023. (Photo by Jodi Miller, The Ohio State University)

“I’ve had lots of moving moments in my 35 years in that classroom, special things that happened, but I have to put how this happened with Spencer as one of the top things that moved my heart,” Bixler said.

a boy posing for a photo with a snake wrapped around him

Spencer Knisely shows no fear when he’s visiting his slithery snake friends at Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island at Lake Erie. (Photo courtesy Holly Knisely)

Bixler said it’s not unusual to have children crowd around to see the Stone Lab snakes. Once they learn more about the snakes — how they eat insects that damage crops or eat invasive fish in Lake Erie, for example — children become ambassadors for the reptiles.

Spencer even has a slithering buddy of his own: a corn snake named Taz — after the Tasmanian Devil of Looney Tunes fame.

“He’s been my favorite one. I’ve had two in the past. I like him. He’s nice. It’s fun to watch him eat; I enjoy that. He’s getting ready to shed pretty soon,” said Spencer. “I always like to keep the skins to look at them and keep track of them. On the ends he gets a little bigger every time he sheds. You can tell because you hold him and say, ‘Holy crap, dude, you’re getting bigger.’ Now he’s putting on little weight in middle, so that’s exciting.”

Spencer, the only snake lover in his family, helped his mom get used to the pets.

“I wanted to show him that it’s OK to be scared, but then you can overcome your fear too,” Holly said. “It was a learning experience for both of us. It’s neat watching him be the teacher himself.”

Holly appreciates the extra effort Bixler has put into building a relationship with Spencer.

“That friendship between those two has been wonderful. It’s an extra friendship for Spencer that he feels comfortable with. When we finally got our snake, she’s been a lifeline to ask questions. Those two are just so special together. I just love it,” Holly said. “I feel like we were in the right place at the right time.”

Ohio Sea Grant is supported by The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) School of Environment and Natural Resources, Ohio State University Extension, and NOAA Sea Grant, a network of 34 Sea Grant programs nation-wide dedicated to the protection and sustainable use of marine and Great Lakes resources. Stone Laboratory is Ohio State’s island campus on Lake Erie and is the research, education, and outreach facility of Ohio Sea Grant and part of CFAES School of Environment and Natural Resources.

ARTICLE TITLE: Lake Erie Snakes Foster Unexpected Friendship PUBLISHED: 12:00 pm, Tue February 13, 2024 | MODIFIED: 12:40 pm, Wed February 14, 2024
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Joan Slattery Wall
Authored By: Joan Slattery Wall
Writer/Editor, Ohio State University - John Glenn College of Public Affairs  FIND MORE TAGGED as EDUCATIONAL, STONE LAB