News - April 16, 2015

Sterrin Smalbrugge wants to give snakes a new image

Linda van der Nat

Since her sellout evening talk on snakes in mid- March, Sterring Smalbrugge is a well-known face at the university. The second-year student of Forest and Nature Management shared her fascination with snakes with an audience of 225 from around the country. She had brought several snakes along, including a King Cobra, the longest poisonous snake in the world.

Wageningen could use a bit of excitement

The lecture made an impression. Sterrin: ‘People often just say “Cool, a little girl with a big snake”, but luckily I have also heard that people were really inspired by my lecture. At a meeting recently a girl came and sat down next to me, and said: ‘I am still enjoying the memory of it”. I didn’t know her at all, but it was so nice to hear that.’ Giving snakes a more positive image: that is what this 21-year-old student has made her life’s work. In her view, the widespread hatred of the scaly creatures is unjustified. ‘The fear of snakes is ancient, but it is mainly based on misinformation. Not all snakes are poisonous, slippery or dangerous. They are fascinating animals and very useful for the ecosystem but people don’t see that. I’d give anything to be able to change that negative image, and to really change the way someone feels about snakes in their heart.’

On the door of her room in Rijnveste student residence hangs a yellowing newspaper cutting with Steve Irwin on it. A Discovery Channel advert placed one day after the Australian ‘crocodile hunter’ was stung by a poisonous stingray and died. ‘I was a huge fan of Steve Irwin,’ says Sterrin. ‘I always watched his TV show with my dad. Even as a child I didn’t understand why people loved puppies and even tigers, but not reptiles. Steve Irwin could get people enthusiastic about snakes and crocodiles like nobody else. I thought that was really great. The day after his death that poster went up on my door and I cried. I remember that well. I vowed I would carry on his work. I was 12 at the time.’

Ever since she left home, she has had a snake of her own: Fleurtje, a 2.5 metre Madagascar boa. ‘My parents would never let me have a snake. They thought it was too dangerous. So almost as soon as I left home, I chose one. It’s much nicer to have one, because then you can really study their behaviour and your whole world expands. Although the best thing is of course to see these creatures in their natural habitat. My housemates gulped a bit at first. But once they saw her, their eyes lit up with amazement. Now they think it’s totally great and it’s fine for me to take Fleurtje downstairs. It sounds really crazy, but I think she’s really very sweet. When I look at their little heads, I get real motherly feelings. They just look so sweet.’

It bothers Sterrin that so little research is done on snakes. ‘Snakes are the poor relation in science, and yet a lot of research is needed. Snakes play a crucial role in an awful lot of ecosystems, but their habitat is getting smaller and smaller. They just get overlooked, whereas they are extremely important. I hope I can inspire people to start doing research. If you change public opinion, there will be more attention to conservation of the species which are so crucial.’ In order to achieve that goal, Sterrin is putting her social life on the back burner: she has stopped her membership of student society SSR-W and she cannot remember the last time she went out in the evening. She uses her weekends to learn from big names in the snake world such as Richard Mastenbroek and Romilly van den Bergh. ‘There’s no problem with taking a constrictor such as Fleurtje on your lap, but poisonous snakes are another matter. There is an art to dealing with them, and everything is more difficult. You can’t just throw some prey into the cage or remove a scale. Those are all things you have to learn, so you need several mentors.’

Freek Vonk
One of her mentors was TV biologist Freek Vonk’s right-hand man Romilly van den Bergh. A friendship which blossomed into romance. ‘Boys often see me as “that little girl with the big snake”. I get such feeble jokes about girls and snakes, it really isn’t original anymore. So I really wanted someone from the snake world. The first time I went into Ro’s house, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The whole house was full of animals. His collection of poisonous animals is unmatched. You won’t find a better one in Europe, so big and extensive.’

Sterrin often goes along when Romilly helps Vonk on a TV show. She is full of admiration for the Leiden alumnus. ‘People like him and Steve Irwin have a tremendous influence on young people and that is really how it starts. One of Steve’s mottos is ‘Conservation through Education’. That is something Freek does too, and which I stand for as well. By educating people you can change the image they carry and that in turn has an effect on conservation. If you look at how many people Freek has found that way, and how many people Steve reached: that’s what I want. I want to be the new Freek Vonk. I’m not out to become famous, but in the end I do think that helps you to really reach people. I want to be a researcher and I also think it would be fantastic to be the face of something. To have your own TV programme must be very nice, I think.’

It would be a great advert for the university as well, she thinks. ‘I would very much like to do my PhD in Wageningen: that is my dream. Wageningen could use a bit of excitement too, something that really attracts attention; the university still has a bit of a hippy-dippy agriculture image.’ She realizes she could probably learn more about snakes at another university, but ‘my heart is in Wageningen. So I hope the university will be open to the idea.’ She is not afraid of snakes, Gila monsters or crocodiles. Never has been. ‘They make me feel happy in fact. I think in me, fear gets turned into alertness. I am very focussed and always calm. My heartbeat may go up, but I don’t feel afraid. Of course it sometimes crosses my mind that it could go wrong. But this is my mission, it’s as simple as that. I know I could be paralyzed or die, but I’m willing to take that risk. If I die of snakebite, that is OK. I might even prefer that to fading away somewhere.’ She glances at the poster of Steve Irwin on her door. ‘But I hope that doesn’t happen any time soon.’

Photo: Sven Menschel