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Author Archives: Josh

Men, Not Beavers (A Christian’s Response to Pyron)

If you want to become famous overnight, just say something controversial and foolish on a big enough stage. Not that I disliked everything about Dr. Alex Pyron’s recent piece in the Washington Post entitled “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution.” – he managed to avoid the thinly-veiled contempt of human life that is, unfortunately, multiplying in the scientific community. However, in avoiding an error on one side of the boat, he jumped headlong off the other.

I have a couple things in common with Dr. Pyron – I’m a scientist, and more importantly, I’m also a herpetologist: a rare breed of biologist that will put 50,000 miles on their car in a year to see a handful of rare species only to decry corporate carbon emissions. As far as I can tell from this piece, though, that’s where the similarities cease. Dr. Pyron begins with an account of a rare species of frog in the genus Atelopus and states: “…they will go extinct one day, and the world will be none the poorer for it.” In a piece full of unscientific value assertions about biodiversity, his thesis is plainly stated: “The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings.” Put another way: we don’t need biodiversity – we like it and should save what we can (if it doesn’t inconvenience us). But let’s be honest: we need to be looking out for number one.

The piece ends with the gem-of-a-question “How will we live in the meantime?” Evidently selfishly, unambitiously and with a defeatist depression.

As a Christian, I couldn’t disagree more.

Now, of course, admitting I’m a Christian brings up a recent history of failures. We followers of Christ certainly don’t have a great reputation for being defenders of the Earth in the 21st century… But if my readers could look a little deeper into history, they would see the likes of St. Francis of Assisi or King Solomon the Wise – who could speak of plants, animals, birds, reptiles and fish with great wisdom (1 Kings 4:33). Look even farther and you might find a man who was tasked with naming every living animal – the first taxonomist (Genesis 2).

But, in the long run, I can’t answer for any of my brethren’s failures (or success): I can only speak from my own point of view. I’m an ecologist and a Christian. My work on Burmese Pythons was the first canary in the coal mine that they were having negative effects of mammal populations in the Florida Everglades. Later, in grad school, my research examined the effects of fish on reptile and amphibian diversity – work that has been used by the state of Florida to advise fish stocking practices. Before I began to teach at Montreat College nestled in western North Carolina (the salamander diversity capitol of the world, if you care), I worked training missionaries in sustainable, no-till agriculture practices – ones that are worlds better for biodiversity than traditional methods. Conservation (or “creation care,” as we Christians often call it) is of great importance to me.

As a scientist, I applaud many of the responses (summarized at Living Alongside Wildlife,) that extol the intrinsic value of biodiversity, as well as the unforeseen consequences of apathy toward it. Other authors have pointed out that if we do continue on our current path, known as the Anthropocene Extinction, the Earth’s biodiversity may one day return: but that day will not be in this Age of the Earth. My science-based reasons to reject Pyron’s argument (amorphous though his argument may be) are similar to the ones made by these authors. But more important are my reasons as a theist generally, and a Christian specifically[1].

Dr. Pyron’s view is unapologetically anthropocentric. And though the Bible is from the point-of-view of man’s interaction with God, its viewpoint is not the same as Dr. Pyron’s. Christianity is a religion built on giving yourself, primarily, to things which are outside of yourself. Of course, Christ tells us that the two main objects of this giving are: 1.) God, and 2.) other people. But even then, we often show love to these two entities by proxy. One of the ways we love God by caring for creation. In fact, I can think of at least three reasons why any Christian (indeed, any person) should care about biodiversity:

Firstly, animal life does have intrinsic value. Especially for a Christian. The Christian faith allows for interpretations ranging ‘Young Earth Creationism’ to ‘Theistic Evolution,’ but all of these views acknowledge that it was God who did the creating, and that creation was out of His goodness. This was by either special creation or an orchestral procession of billions of years – resulting in plants and animals about which it says, “God saw that it was good,” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21 & 25).

Secondly, to a Christian, wonder and awe are an end to themselves, and few places exude this wonder and awe like the natural world. In the end of the book of Job, God takes several chapters (38-41) to extol the wonders of His creation: speaking of mountain goats, deer, wild asses, oxen, and many other animals. Who knows: had Job known what they were perhaps God would’ve spoken of one or another ornate species of Atelopus. Jesus himself struck many a botanical note in His teaching. In one instance He tells us: “Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.” Not even the wisest of kings was clothed like they: truly awesome.

Finally, it is mankind’s duty to care for the diversity of Earthly life. Dr. Pyron evidently disagrees with this sentiment, stating that “…conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.” To a Christian, though, the care and ordering of creation is one of our primary directives. In the creation poem, we are given the place of rulers of the creation on Earth – Kings and Queens of the animals and plants. This idea has been at times (our own time especially) misinterpreted to mean we can abuse creation. Nothing could be further from the truth: we have a word for a King who destroys and abuses his kingdom and people: a tyrant. God did not create us to be tyrants over creation, but kings and queens – good like Himself.

My points are from a theistic perspective, but many non-theistic scientists intrinsically believe these things too – that is, whether or not scientists believe in God, the majority would say we have an obligation to care for the Earth. We wouldn’t have conservation biologists if it were otherwise. The motivation, of course is different: for a non-theistic conservationist the impetus is this: we screwed it up, it’s our obligation to do something about it (never mind where that obligation came from…) The biblical word for this sort of thinking is repentance. To repent is to turn back around and get going in the right direction.

Dr. Pyron argues that we should temper our expectations and be satisfied with the fact that, eventually, biodiversity will rebound: “There is no return to a pre-human Eden; the goals of species conservation have to be aligned with the acceptance that large numbers of animals will go extinct.” Perhaps he should take some advice from any Christian who has ever fought to abstain from some-or-another sin: you don’t get anywhere by setting low expectations. Set them high, so that even if you fail to meet them, you’ll still be better than when you started. I argue that we, whether we be theists or not, need to repent and start working back on all the destruction we’ve wreaked with all the chutzpa we can muster.

But in the end, we Christians share Pyron’s optimism, but not for the same event. He looks past the Anthropocene bottleneck to the bumper crop of new species that may come thereafter. We Christians look to the restoration of all things: a New Heaven and a New Earth. But that doesn’t mean we should stop working now. For a Christian to give up on his or her job to be a good steward and ruler would be akin to ‘giving up’ up on our job to abstain from any other sin. We believe our bodies will be renewed one day, but still find it our duty to take care of them now.

At one point, Dr. Pyron mentions the fact that beavers may be detrimental to certain riverine-specialist fish – subtly making the point that it’s not just us that cause habitat degradation and extinction. But, that’s the point: we are men (I mean this in the sexually nonspecific sense, of course) not beavers. We know our actions, we can see their ramifications, and we can repent.  And we can change our ways and do better. The creation is worth saving – even the least of these that have been crafted by the hand of God – no matter how insurmountable the odds.

 

Joshua Holbrook

Dept. of Natural Sciences

Montreat College, Montreat NC

 

Authors note: From a purely-scientific point-of-view, I found Dr. Pyron’s argument of Florida’s exotic reptiles being positive for biodiversity altogether unconvincing. My work with Pythons and small mammal populations points to the likelihood that Pythons may, regionally, persecute some species excessively, perhaps driving extinctions in imperiled populations such as the Key Largo woodrat or the marsh rabbit.

[1] I say that my viewpoints are theist as well as Christian, because I know that many other theists will agree with my reasoning – in fact, where I cite scripture here, I’ve used mostly quotes from the Hebrew Bible to appeal to my Jewish friends.

 

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Posted by on 13/12/2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Coastal Mangroves: Protection, habitat – what’s not to like?

When someone thinks of southern Florida, they might think of beautiful, vast beaches and harsh, sunny weather – but my research often takes me to a habitat that, though not as picturesque to most, is vitally more important. It’s no secret that Mangrove Saltmarsh Snakes (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda) are one of my favorite study organisms, but the Mangrove swamp habitats they inhabit are worthy of significant attention as well.

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Some of the dense (and herp-filled) mangrove forest in Everglades National Park.

I was reminded of mangroves as plants (and a “vegetative habitat,” as we ecologists call them) when talking with a friend, Heather Stewart, who is working on her PhD with mangroves in Panama and the United States. They’re an interesting and extremely beneficial plant group. They keep to the southern Florida coast because they are relatively cold-intolerant (keeping them south) and relatively poor competitors when compared to our freshwater swampy trees like cypress (keeping them to the salty zones where cypress can’t establish.) But, for a heat-loving, poorly competing group of organisms, Mangroves do wonderfully in the high-disturbance wild-west of the world’s tropical coastlines.

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Mangrove bays are some of southern Florida’s most picturesque habitat, but they can be quite a trifle to hike in – Mangroves trap all sorts of sediment and that substrate is deep mud, not sand.

That’s great and all, but what have mangroves ever done for us? Wouldn’t southern Florida be better with more beach and less mangrove? Not a chance!

 

Of course, given Irma’s track in the Caribbean and Florida, perhaps the most timely benefit of mangroves is the benefit they provide during catastrophic events. Mangroves can provide significant protection from storm surge and erosion – especially one of our most common mangroves in Florida, the Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). Beyond flood protection and erosion protection during catastrophic events, mangroves provide day-to-day erosion protection from the tides and waves that can wreak havoc on our beaches.

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Black and Red Mangroves mix near the northern end of their range on the Gulf Coast.

Not only do they protect us from erosion – they can make erosion work backward. Mangroves, especially our friendly neighborhood Red Mangroves, can trap sediments in their roots and, over time, build entirely new islands – many of the islands in Florida Bay and the keys can trace their history back to a few helpful Rhizophora.

 

Then, of course, Mangroves provide great habitat for other organisms – whether that be fish, epifauna (stuff that lives on the mangrove roots), or even the friendly Mangrove Saltmarsh Snake – mangroves provide an enormous ecological benefit. That’s some of the research my friend Heather is working on – what other living things are calling the mangroves home. Mangroves give a sizable economic benefit as well: much of the sports fishery is supported in some way by mangrove swamp.

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An Everglades mangrove swamp gives way to freshwater marsh…

So, next time you’re in southern Florida or the tropics, take some time to appreciate the fertile, protective wonderful mangrove swamp. Its secrets are still being probed and its beauties open to anyone willing to visit and invest their time in it.

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We can thank mangroves (and ancient reefs) for much of the landmass of the keys.

 
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Posted by on 11/09/2017 in Uncategorized

 

A NatGeo chameleon hunt and more Ventures ahead…

Hey folks,

Its been almost a year since my last post – it has been a turbulent year, but the posts will be picking up again – starting here. I’ve started this semester as a full-time professor at Montreat College – a small Christian liberal arts college in western North Carolina. I’ll be teaching biology and environmental science classes, and of course bringing students out to look for reptiles, amphibians, and all sorts of other creeping things.

 

In the meantime, I’ve got another book in the works and some collaborations with other universities. And, of course, the occasional wildlife filming. Just this past spring I got out with NatGeo and some friends from the Souh Florida Herpetological Society to look for some chameleons. They ended up putting out a well-put together video (of course – it’s NatGeo!) and we had an excellent time that had us out until morning broke in southern Florida. Check it out here, with the accompanying video: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/06/chameleons-ranching-florida-invasives-pets/

 

the best is yet to come,’

JDH

 

 

Equipment Review: Lumintop IYP365

Hi again folks – we’ve got a few more light reviews on the way. A couple months back Lumintop sent me the IYP265. Because I’ve been, more and more, getting flashlights in that simply aren’t the typical “workhorse handlight/headlight” type that I so often review, it would be somewhat unfair to compare them with these lights by doing my typical review style. That said, I’m going to keep the 100-point review system I have in place for normal lights, and just do a review and thoughts for some of the more niche or novelty flashlights I get for review. This light was graciously provided by Lumintop in China, on the condition that I give it an honest review, so here goes…

 

Pros:

The IYP is a good looking light – I was happy about that, because the last Lumintop light I reviewed did not share that distinction (https://fieldventures.wordpress.com/2016/06/28/equipment-review-lumintop-td16/) – but this one is beautiful… Fancy-pantsy even – which is a colloquialism I don’t typically apply to flashlight. It’s got a anodized matte-black finish, which is lovely, and two gold-plated spacer rings that make for a very nice touch. It also has a clip that isn’t impossibly difficult to put to practical use (it’s a common problem in the flashlight world). Lumintop definitely did some good work with looks on this one. Finally, it’s got a click-switch (always better than a twist on/off), with one important feature: this one is stainless steel, and when compared to a typical rubberized click-switch, I like it a lot. I’m actually surprised they were able to make the unit waterproof with this click switch (but evidently they did.)

I have a love/hate relationship with AAA’s, so I’ll actually be including them in both the ‘Pros’ and ‘Cons’ – they’re a ‘Pro’ because they’re widely available, they’re a “con” because they’re not as cheap, and it can be a drag to but them when everything else you have runs off of AA’s. Finally, it’s a bright light, considering it’s power source and size. The reflector is well made for a wide variety of application – it makes the beam tight enough to give some decent throw, but doesn’t have too much spot – the IYP reaches a good balance. The price point on this light is also great – $25 on Amazon currently – it’s hard to beat!

 

 

Cons:

For what the light is, and what intends to do, the IYP365 doesn’t have many cons. Like it’s little brother the Lumintop Tool AAA (https://fieldventures.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/equipment-review-lumintop-tool-aaa/), it shouldn’t be expected to be your main light; but it’ll make a good secondary. Like I said before, AAA’s are a blessing and a curse for me – in my view, making the IYP run off AA’s would’ve made for a brighter light with only minimal added width, but this is only a problem if you’re as nit-picky as I am, and even then it’s only a miniscule one and it only lasts until you shell out the cash for some rechargeable AAA’s. The only other con is that with such a pretty flashlight, it can easily be made un-pretty with a good amount of time in one’s pocket, a few drops, etc. So far, I’ve kept mind looking great, but it is a consideration if you’re tough on your stuff.

 

What it’s good for:

The IYP365, in many ways an upgrade from the Tool AAA (with twice as much light), is a good light to keep around for an emergency – in a glove box, in a field bag, in your pocket, by the front door to walk your dog at night. I keep mine in my iPad case, so it’s always there when I need it.

 

What it’s not:

Don’t expect more than it was made for – this is a good light, but don’t expect it to be your main light for night exploits.

 

Conclusion

Lumintop is really trying to be a successful up-and-comer in the flashlight world – and from my view, they are succeeding. It seems that, so far, they’re doing their best work with niche lights like this little IYP365, and I look forward to see what they come up with in the future.

 
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Posted by on 07/09/2016 in Uncategorized

 

Species Profile: The Common Mole Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster rhombomaculata)

 

I have spent more time and money than I care to discuss on finding some species. Not that I regret the time spent on the road with friends or audiobooks to keep me company, but nevertheless, searching for that one animal can be dismaying at times. Mole Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis calligaster) were, until recently, one such species for me. Admittedly, I spent most of my time searching for the rarer South Florida variety (L. c. occipitolineata) – but even the ‘common’ Mole King (L. c. rhombomaculata) gave me a hard time after over a year of living in their range. I have the benefit of living right on the edge of the Piedmont (foothills) and Mountain region of North Carolina, which gives me quick herping-access to both a plethora of salamanders, as well as many interesting snake species. One road I found soon after moving looked like good Mole King habitat: mixed vegetation, sandy and loamy soils, and little traffic. I hit it hard the first year and found a single DOR (dead on road) specimen. While a DOR is never fun to find, it did tell an important tale: this road did indeed have Mole Kingsnakes.

Mole Kingsnakes are primarily fossorial in nature, that is, they spend much of their life underground, mostly nosing around for their varied food sources: rodents, lizards and other snakes. Living in a place such as N.C. that has some pretty wide temperature variation, they must bask at some point, but I couldn’t yet guess when or how this happens. So, the best way that I’ve so-far come up with to find them is to road cruise them in the evenings. As I said, up until recently this method was fruitless – I turned up plenty of corns (never documented in this county), copperheads (the omnipresent venomous), and a few other species (quite a few, actually) here and there. But no Mole Kings. It should be a surprise to no one, though, that species go through cycles. Booms and busts. Years of high population, years of low population. Years of high activity, and years of low activity.

Short of some very robust and extensive study, it can be difficult or impossible to figure out what, exactly, is occurring – were Mole Kingsnakes not showing up because the population was down? Because the population was up so there was less need to move to find mates? Might the population be the same as ever, but the snakes had plenty of food or water nearby and didn’t need to migrate (cross roads) to find it? There were several dozen possibilities I could think of, but they all expressed themselves in the same symptoms: in 2015, Mole Kingsnakes were nowhere to be found in McDowell County (at least by me and my herping bud for the county, Steve.)

 

Then summer 2016 hit. It had been dry – really dry – and we got a brief spit of rain, just enough to give the road that mottled wet-and-dry patchwork. I was frustrated enough with the lack of snake productivity that I wasn’t really looking for snakes that night – I was just testing out a couple of review lights I’d been sent (reviews coming soon!) But, sure enough, as I drove with peals of lightning in the distance my long-awaited goal was revealed: a small Mole King! Ten or fifteen minutes later – another, larger Mole King! ‘Well,’ I thought to myself, ‘No need to get greedy – time to get home anyway.’ Within a month and a half, I had seen two more Mole Kings, one a large adult.

Strangely enough, I don’t think I’ve road cruised too much more than I did last year… So what gives? Who knows, but it is my hope to know eventually. The first stage with any herp species is to find the species for yourself – if you recognize the awesomeness that has been put into them, and you have the ‘herper maturity,’ you might just find yourself moving on to the second stage: knowing the species. That’s where I’m at with the Mole King. I’ve found a few – great, they’re beautiful – but, now it’s time to know them. Over the coming months (and years) I intend to lay out artificial cover for them. To figure out when they’re under cover, when they’re on the crawl, their movements and how those relate to weather, climate and habitat. The first stage is where the adrenaline lay; the second stage is where the joy lay.

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Posted by on 02/09/2016 in Uncategorized

 

Equipment Review: Lumintop TD16

 

Greetings everyone! Forgive the lack of posts in recent history, but the life of a father working two jobs has kept me very busy until now. But, on the bright side (pun intended, sorry) I’ve got a few flashlight reviews on the way, and hopefully some other new material too.

 

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I’ve had the pleasure to review one of Lumintop’s lights before, the capable (if poorly named) Lumintop Tool, so I was excited to test out the Lumintop TD-16 when I got a review light in the mail from one of the US Lumintop distributors, Lucky Light Bank.

 

On first look, the light isn’t the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen – the business end is wider than the rest, sacrificing some of the sleek look of other lights in this range. The torch is powered by a single 18650 battery, and when I first turned it on, I was genuinely impressed by the light output from such a small light and minimal power source. The light is purely a spotlight – no floodyness here, but the light has some real punch. At a recent camping trip at Hopeville Pond State Park in Connecticut, I was able to easily shine the opposite site of the pond (~600 feet) and amply light up the trees. It’s got two click switches, one on the tailcap toggles the light on and off, one near the head changes between the light’s three intensities (35, 220, and 1,000 lumens). With that said, let’s jump into the rubric:

 

 

Overall Brightness – 10/10

It could be brighter, but why? The light’s 1,000 lumens provide all the illumination needed for the vast, vast majority of foreseeable circumstances. The only brightness complaint I have is the big jump between the medium and high mode (e.g., I wish there was another level at 500-700 lumens), but I docked it points for that in the “other” rating (below.)

 

Width of beam5/10

Without mincing words: this isn’t the light for floodlighting scenarios. This is obviously a drawback for some things, but it does allow the light to have superior throw. I’ve used it mostly for road cruising purposes, and it suffices for that to be able to hold in my lap easily and pinpoint the snake, salamander, or other critter from a ways away. I haven’t used it for much night hiking yet, but I would imagine a floodier light would be best for such a scenario if you’re the type who scans everywhere (as opposed to pin-point searching) when hiking.

Throw 10/10

I’ve already lauded the throw for the TD16, but simply put one more time – this light has a long reach. I’m confident that one could shine up small animals in trees from hundreds of feet distance, and it’s extremely useful for spotlighting mammals.

Water/Light Penetration 9/10

A tight, bright beam like this means more water penetration – the only caveat is that in murky water the light might be too bright and catch floating particles too readily and obscure ones’ vision.

Battery 7.5/10

This is my second light that uses CR123’s or a single 18650, and I understand the benefit of the battery (from what I understand one 18650 is about as powerful as 3 AA’s), but I’m still not sold on it because it’s limited availability- That is, if my flashlight dies, I can’t stop at the corner gas station I will likely find AA’s, but I’m not likely to find 18650’s, especially when traveling abroad.

Size9/10

It’s much more pleasurable having this guy sit in the side pocket of the car or in my lap during a road cruise than some of the bulkier parts of my arsenal (Fenix’s TK41 and 45), so a good score here for size. My only critique is that the flashlight’s head seems excessively large compared to the body size. I don’t think that’s necessarily a reflector problem, but I think the head may’ve been made bulkier to accommodate the strike bezel head, which I don’t foresee ever having a use for – But I suppose some people like the sort of gimmicks like strike bezels.

Price7/10

The normal retail price, is, I think, overpriced considering Lumintop’s relatively-newcomer status. It retails right around $100. That said, Lucky Light Bank did send a 20% code, and $80 isn’t a bad deal for the ’16.

Dependability – 10/10

I’ve had no problems in over a month of use – I will update appropriately if something changes with that.

Ruggedness 8/10

The TD16 comes with a nice looking holster. That holster fell to tatters mere hours after opening the box. Now, this isn’t a problem with the ruggedness of the light – but for a $100 light, a decent holster would be of benefit.

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Arrrgh!

Other 8/10

Ok, this is where the light loses some points, but it may only be an issue for some folks. First, I’m just going to come out and say it: there’s nothing sleek or attractive about this light – it’s ugly. Despite the fact that it’s really bright, and an overall well made light; it looks like one of the cheap Chinese lights you’d get off ebay for $3.99 that works for a few weeks before breaking. It’s none of these things (except Chinese), but there you have it. If ugliness isn’t an issue for you (and it really isn’t much of one for me, but it’s worth mentioning), you should be fine. The other minor problem is the fact that there are only 3 brightness modes – a forth somewhere between the mid and high setting would be desirable. For some uses, the light cycling goes from ‘not enough’ to ‘way too bright.’ The light also comes with an anti-roll O-ring around the outside, and despite my initial dubiousness that it’d ever be useful, it does a good job of keeping the torch from rolling off my lap when I’m driving.

 

OVERALL SCORE – 83.5/100

Despite a somewhat low score, I’m not trying to say that this is a bad light – there are just some little things here and there that effect its likeability for my purposes in comparison to some other lights. That said, I don’t think it would be a bad purchase if you’re in the market.

One last thing – the folks that sent me this light also sent me a code for a 20% discount on any of their lights, and they’ve got a nice selection of lights (most of them prime eligible). Their store is at http://goo.gl/Lz7to9 – and the 20% off code is BLLJosh8 – They’ve got a nice selection, and I would particularly recommend the Lumintop Tool ( https://fieldventures.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/equipment-review-lumintop-tool-aaa/ )

 

Coming up in the coming weeks will be some other flashlight reviews, including some new offerings from Fenix, so stay tuned.

 

-Josh

 
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Posted by on 28/06/2016 in Uncategorized

 

Living with snakes

Hey all,

 

Sorry for the long delay in posting new content, but I anticipate some new stuff over this summer – one of which being this video I put together on living with snakes. I put this together for my day job where we train missionaries who will be going overseas – but in reality, the advice offered in it on living alongside snakes can be used anywhere. Please share with your friends, especially if they are the sort that comes in contact with snakes (and doesn’t think that’s a good thing!)

 

Enjoy!

 

 
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Posted by on 20/06/2016 in Uncategorized