River talk

Remembering Kathy Michell

Posted 6/21/23

There are those who talk, and those who walk their talk. Without question, Kathy Michell was the latter, a fiercely dedicated licensed wildlife rehabilitator whose graceful physical appearance …

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River talk

Remembering Kathy Michell


There are those who talk, and those who walk their talk. Without question, Kathy Michell was the latter, a fiercely dedicated licensed wildlife rehabilitator whose graceful physical appearance offered little clue of the force she wielded on behalf of the reptiles and amphibians that were her passion.

Up until the time when her own life concluded in 2022, Michell studied the lives of animals in the woods, fields and streams where she encountered them, launching a lifelong effort to help them survive and thrive.

So when a wood turtle wandered into view in early May 2023, sporting what appeared to be a tracking device, it was a reminder of the outstanding legacy left by Michell, who served the Upper Delaware River region’s fauna throughout her life. That support included her ongoing radio telemetry study of wood turtles, which focused on gathering important information about their critical habitat needs and the threats to their survival.

I’m being intentionally vague about the location of the May turtle sighting after learning from Michell years ago about the hazards posed by those seeking to profit from the illegal trade in such species.

Michell had invited me to write about “Operation Shellshock,” an extensive undercover investigation into the poaching, smuggling and illegal sale of protected reptiles and amphibians by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

The sting uncovered a lucrative, international black market for poaching and selling native, protected New York species online and at herpetological shows. Investigators found thousands of New York turtles being laundered through “middlemen” in other states, then getting shipped overseas. Michell served as president of the NY Center for Turtle Rehabilitation and Conservation, and was involved in several studies with the DEC on behalf of reptiles and amphibians. A wood turtle in one of her studies helped to nab the poachers caught by the DEC.

That is just one of the many reasons Michell was selected by the Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (NEPARC) to receive the NEPARC Award for Excellence in Herpetofaunal Conservation in 2020. It recognizes an individual who has made significant contributions to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles while working collaboratively with partners to prevent loss of species or their habitats along with educating others.

Describing Michell’s “broad skill set,” NEPARC noted, “She is a biologist, naturalist, EMT, surveyor, teacher and innovator, and she brings all that and a superb, rational mind to her work—which is to say, her life. Her understanding of these animals and their natural history is thoroughly grounded in observation, not simply academia. Her ability to speak to and work with both governmental and corporate/industrial factions makes her an effective bridge between two often opposing sides. Aside from family, there is almost nothing that consumes her time more than her tireless drive to help these creatures.” (Read the complete details of the award at (northeastparc.org/neparc-conservation-award/ ).

Two years after receiving the award, Michell’s active work in this realm would conclude, but the impact of her efforts continues through those she helped, those she trained and those who now carry the work forward. In a NEPARC announcement about Michell’s passing, the “esteemed colleague and storied veteran of herpetological conservation” was lauded: “Kathy served both the organization and the broader conservation community in every capacity she had.

“As a wildlife rehabilitator for more than three decades, she taught countless rehabbers not only critical techniques, but also the critical natural history needed to heal and repatriate injured herpetofauna and other taxa, generously sharing skills and knowledge informed by a lifetime of observation in the field. Her efforts on behalf of turtles and snakes were extraordinary, from developing new techniques for implanting transmitters in timber rattlesnakes and contributing to the writing of the USFWS Timber Rattlesnake Conservation Action Plan, to personally purchasing 18 acres of critical wood turtle habitat to protect a threatened population.”

When faced with her own terminal health challenges, Michell never stalled in her commitment to the animals she served with such devotion. The NEPARC tribute confirms her colossal will and energy. “She was an undaunted and dedicated presence until the end, never allowing physical limitations to get in the way of her work on behalf of what she called ‘an outstanding organization of dedicated people who actually work to promote conservation and not just talk about it.’ Kathy was both a true inspiration to the human lives that she touched and a true lifesaver to countless animal lives.”

Read the full tribute, prepared by Pam Meier and Jim Julian, at groups.google.com/g/ne-parc/c/Otxv3dFJsgY .

My favorite memory of Michell captures a classic example of what it means to walk your talk, and even sometimes to run with it. Some well-meaning folks puzzling over the plight of a black rat snake spotted along Route 97 probably didn’t believe the petite woman running toward them in a dress and heels as she cried, “Hold on! I’m a snake expert!” That is, until she plucked the substantial snake—bare-handed—from its precarious position and relocated it out of harm’s way. That was Kathy, just doing what she believed in on behalf of those she cared about.

Kathy Michell, conservation, wildlife rehabilitator


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