By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Lou Perrotti spends much of his time working to protect threatened and endangered species. It’s surprising then when one discovers the lifelong Rhode Islander could be the last of his kind.
The 52-year-old West Greenwich resident is Roger Williams Park Zoo’s director of conservation programs. Every zoo in the country has a similar position, but most, if not all, are filled by people with at least a master’s degree. On Perrotti’s office wall, if he chose to display it, would hang a diploma from North Kingstown High School.
“I’m just a high-school graduate with no formal education,” Perrotti said during a recent interview with ecoRI News. “Most people in my position have a Ph.D. I’m lucky. I went from washing dishes to saving species.”
His journey didn’t follow such a direct path, but the trip has been interesting, and it’s far from over.
Perrotti began his employment at the Providence zoo two decades ago, working as a zookeeper for the first nine years. But his interest in animals, especially snakes, began has a young child. He grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” and reading National Geographic. His parents allowed him to keep and study “crazy things,” like snakes.
Today he describes his responsibilities at the Roger Williams Park Zoo as such: “My job is to utilize the zoo’s resources, staffing, space and means to protect wildlife habitat.”
Perrotti is good at his job. For instance, he is a leading expert on the plight of the American burying beetle. The insect once populated 35 states, the District of Columbia and large parts of Canada. Today, the burying beetle can only be found in five states, including Rhode Island, and in one Canadian province. In fact, Block Island is the species’s only natural home on the East Coast.
American burying beetle numbers have dropped drastically — habitat loss and dwindling diversity are largely to blame — and conservationists, such as Perrotti, are engaged in efforts to help save this colorful insect. Perrotti directs the zoo’s burying beetle breeding program. The 2-inch-long insect derives its name from its penchant for burying dead things and feeding them to its young.
Perrotti said recyclers, such as burying beetles, millipedes, ants and dung beetles, and pollinators need protection. “These are the species that break down dead tissue back into the environment,” he said. “They keep ecosystems balanced.”
In 1989, the American burying beetle was added to the federal list of endangered species. Five years later, under the supervision of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Roger Williams Park Zoo began breeding the beetles. They were then introduced to Nantucket, a Massachusetts island with similar conditions to Block Island.
Perrotti said New Shoreham’s beetle population has survived because the island has remained largely unchanged. There also are no scavengers such as foxes and skunks competing with the beetles for carrion.
By 2006, nearly 3,000 zoo-bred burying beetles had been released on Nantucket, which had seen its last American burying beetle in 1927, according to Perrotti. Perrotti has been helping to monitor the island’s beetle population since then. He said the introduced population is working toward becoming self-sustaining. He estimated the island is home to 700-800 American burying beetles.
He’s working with zoos in Ohio and Missouri to develop breeding and release programs in the Midwest.
In 2011, Roger Williams Park Zoo partnered with New England biologists and conservationists in a collaborative effort created to save the region’s remaining timber rattlesnake populations. The project aligned perfectly with Perrotti’s passion and experience.
Perrotti believes it’s the responsibility of state wildlife agencies and other stakeholders, such as zoos, to protect every species considered to be threatened or endangered, no matter how big or small. They all, even venomous snakes, play a role in ecosystem health.
For example, research has shown that timber rattlesnakes help keep the incidence of Lyme disease down by preying on deer mice, the first host of the Lyme-carrying deer tick.
The Northeast’s population of timber rattlesnakes is in serious decline, because of habitat loss, indiscriminate killing and road mortality. Perrotti said this species historically had a bounty on its head, which was a significant cause of its extirpation from Rhode Island in the late 1960s.
Timber rattlesnakes are protected at the state level by all six New England states. A handful of native populations still exist in the region, including in the Berkshires.
The Timber Rattlesnake Recovery Program included the establishment of a rattlesnake population in Massachusetts, on an island in the Quabbin Reservoir, to help ensure the survival of this native species. Perrotti said he couldn’t believe “some of the moronic reasons” given in opposition to the project. He shared a few of his favorites:
“How do we keep the snakes on the island when the reservoir freezes?”
“If the snakes swim in the reservoir, their venom will leak into the water supply.”
“It’s tied to a terrorist plot to easily obtain poison.”
While much of Perrotti’s work is local, he regularly travels the globe to help zoo partners protect threatened species and preserve vital habitat. He’s worked in Panama and Chile on amphibian protection projects. He’s been to Africa to help protect the world’s most trafficked mammal — an estimated 100,000 pangolins are removed from the wild annually.
Perrotti and his employer are actively involved in elephant conservation efforts. A total of 96 elephants are killed daily in Africa for their ivory, according to Perrotti.
“There’s huge money in ivory and it’s financing terrorism,” he said. “The penalty for poaching is less severe than for human or drug trafficking. Ivory needs to be devalued.”
When he’s not working to protect and preserve ecosystems, Perrotti is helping to educate citizen scientists. He leads the zoo’s popular FrogWatch program, and runs the reptile tent during the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s annual BioBlitz.
“We can’t just keep stifling science,” Perrotti said. “Collectively, we can save habitats and species.”