Come Fang Out at the inaugural Fang Fest!

What do native snakes, blueberries, and Williston have in common? UF/IFAS Extension’s inaugural Fang Fest!

Fang Fest is a new, exciting festival designed to equip guests with the skills and knowledge to coexist with Florida’s snakes and gain a better appreciation for them on the landscape. This event is a part of Dr. Steven Johnson’s Extension program “Mitigating Conflicts Between People and Wildlife”. It will be held at Amber Brooke Farms on April 27th, 2024 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. concurrent to their annual Blueberry Festival. Guests can expect snake-related activities for kids and adults, wildlife-related exhibitors, vendors, food trucks, blueberry u-pick, live music, and many other festivities! General admission is $15 and covers both events.

Read on to learn about the story of this novel Extension event from the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.

Christian Fernandez, senior in Natural Resource Conservation, came up with the event in the Spring semester of 2023 when listening to Dr. Steven Johnson, Professor in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, rant about rattlesnake roundups in a ‘Wildlife of Florida’ lecture. While learning about all the negative effects of these systematic killings of rattlesnakes, and equipped with a keen interest in the human dimensions of conservation, Christian asked himself the question that shaped the next year of his life, “…okay… But why do these roundups still happen?” The thought continued, “We know traditional roundups decimate native snakes where they still occur, and so many people have tried to shut them down. So why?”

Christian combed through academic literature to find his answer– coming up largely dry, a fact that will return later. So, with no other choice, he turned to the rattlesnake roundup websites themselves. He found that two things were the most common motivators for these events: money and community. In the small, rural towns where rattlesnake roundups still occur, they serve as big economic engines and an opportunity for the whole family to go out and have a great time.

Upon discovering this, Christian asked himself the next year-changing question, “…well… What if we pivot this economic and community drive to be for rattlesnakes instead of against them?” Thus was born the idea of Fang Fest–at least in its infancy. Christian had event planning experience from being the primary coordinator of the UF Chapter of The Wildlife Society’s annual fundraiser ‘Beast Feast’ for two years, so he had the confidence to approach Dr. Johnson with the snake event idea a couple weeks later.

Dr. Johnson was on board, and the planning for Fang Fest was set to kick off in the Fall semester.

Fast forward to August 2023, Christian was enrolled in ‘Environmental Education Program Development’ and ‘Program Development and Evaluation in Extension’. In these classes, he learned the profound importance of conducting a needs assessment to not only narrow a target audience, but identify exactly what needs to be addressed within your audience. At this point, the planning for Fang Fest was largely conceptual– filled with big, bold, and exciting ideas. But, after learning what he did, Christian decided that Fang Fest needed to be refined with a needs assessment.

Christian combed academic literature again, looking for anything on the human dimensions of snakes in Florida. As a matter of fact, he found nothing for the state, and only one other study from the southeastern United States. Other literature revealed the need to understand these dimensions on a local level due to the nuanced nature of relationships with snakes in different cultures and demographics. Realizing academia didn’t have the answer to Florida’s needs, Christian embarked on finding the answers under the advisory of Dr. Nia Morales, U.F. W.E.C. Assistant Professor of the human dimensions of wildlife conservation. The plan they decided on was to conduct semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders of snake conflict and conservation.

Christian interviewed fifteen stakeholders representing snake conservation at the federal, state, and nonprofit levels, as well as representatives from the pet trade, hunting organizations, and social science field. The results of the interviews revealed an incredibly complex narrative surrounding Florida’s snakes and the difficulty residents have coexisting with them. Of the many takeaways from the interviews, Christian was able to identify 7 recurring themes of educational need for Floridians:

· Biology: What makes a snake a snake?

· Ecology and Human Value: Why should I care about snakes?

· Identification: Which species and behaviors should I be wary of?

· Misconceptions: What do I think I know that isn’t true?

· Conflict Mitigation: How do I prevent encounters with snakes?

· Safety: What do I do when I encounter a snake?

· Conservation: How are Florida’s snakes doing?

After identifying these needs, Christian realized Fang Fest shouldn’t and couldn’t just be another wildlife festival that Gainesville is well known for. Fang Fest was an opportunity to address these needs in a way that was engaging and respectful of people’s backgrounds. Moreover, the gaps in academic literature needed to be filled,

and Christian believed that a survey distributed at the event would be an excellent way of collecting the novel data.

Fang Fest’s planning and development then took off with momentum.

Amber Brooke Farms in Williston was secured as the venue in December 2023. In exchange for providing the venue at no cost, Amber Brooke Farms would still host their annual Blueberry Festival concurrent to Fang Fest. This collaboration would prove advantageous for ensuring attendance at the new event, with the Blueberry Festival having at least 1,500 guests a day.

Christian firmly believed in the potential of Fang Fest as an Extension event since its conception. He spoke with representatives of Alachua County Extension and IFAS Communications on how the event could be implemented in perpetuity and whether Extension would have a role in such an undertaking. After multiple discussions, including with Dr. Johnson, it was decided that Fang Fest is an Extension event in February 2024, specifically as part of Dr. Johnson’s program “Mitigating Conflicts Between People and Wildlife”.

Multiple organizations and agencies have been involved with Fang Fest since the interviews for the needs assessment. Several of these will be present at the event as exhibitors and vendors: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Wildlife Assistance Program, Reptile Preservation Institute, Ashton Biological Preserve, Quail Forever, UF/IFAS Natural Resource Diversity Initiative, among others. Each will be promoting their own services or programs related to snakes or conservation, and some will have live snakes for guests to encounter if they choose.

As Fang Fest grew, tasks were delegated through the creation of three committees and recruitment of committee chairs. Lana Ng, Ciara Coulombe, and Lauren Haskins–undergraduate students in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation–chaired the Operations, Activities, and Marketing committees respectively. Lana and her committee oversaw the logistics of Fang Fest, from the coordination of exhibitors and vendors to the acquisition and setup of event infrastructure such as tables and chairs. Ciara and her committee worked diligently to develop and test seven activities, one for each educational need identified in the needs assessment. Lauren and her committee created and disseminated the promotional materials for Fang Fest and communicated regularly with IFAS graphics and marketing.

Today, Fang Fest is no longer the anti-rattlesnake roundup it aimed to be. It is…

· An answer to several gaps in skills and knowledge north-central Floridians experience when coexisting with snakes through targeted educational activities.

· An opportunity to fill the gap in academic literature surrounding the human dimensions of snakes in Florida through a mixed-method survey at the event.

· A uniquely fun event for children, adults, and the whole family with both snakes and blueberries to enjoy.

· A collaborative undertaking between university faculty, staff, and students, as well as numerous organizations and agencies.

· A part of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science’s Cooperative Extension Service.

· A passion project made reality.

Christian and Dr. Johnson are excited to see how Fang Fest does, but most importantly, excited to work on its continued improvement. Although Christian is graduating just days after Fang Fest, he intends to continue being involved in its annual implementation. Adopting it as part of his Extension program, Dr. Johnson will work with undergraduate students and student organizations to ensure Fang Fest will impact the community for years to come.


Posted: April 9, 2024

Tags: UF IFAS, UF Wildlife, UFWildlife, Wildlife Ecology, Wildlife Ecology And Conservation

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