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Call of the wild

Naturalist Scott Shupe has committed his career to educating others about nature and wildlife. Photo: Scott Shupe

Scott Shupe nurtures the natural world—and the next generation

It’s interesting how a random occurrence—something like noticing a sign on a door and knocking on that door—can shape a life for decades into the future.

Take, for example, young Scott Shupe, and the spring of 1971.

Shupe had two years under his belt at Murray State University in western Kentucky. He had always been interested in nature and the natural world, so he was working toward a degree in biology.

Then, like countless thousands of college students across the country, he headed to Florida when the school closed for spring break. Because of his interest in nature, he skipped the beach parties and found himself at Silver Springs and Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute.

He had heard about the famous tourist attraction, with its alligators, lizards, snakes and—most interesting of all—a lab where venom was milked from snakes for research and the production of antivenom.

Kentucky is home to 34 salamander species, such as this northern red salamander photographed on Pine Mountain in Bell County. Photo: Scott Shupe

“Just on a whim I went over and knocked on a door that said ‘Manager’ and asked for a job,” Shupe says. “So they gave me a job and I never came back from spring break.”

He also never earned that biology degree, but he has led a life that would be the envy of many biologists, not to mention herpetologists (who study reptiles), and ornithologists (who study birds). He has carved a career for himself delighting school assemblies, state park guests and other groups with programs that offer a chance to learn about and get close to wild animals such as snakes, turtles, eagles and owls, with a few mammals occasionally in the mix.

Kentucky Wild Life Encyclopedia

He’s now 68. The talks he gives are usually a preface to selling one of his eight published books. His latest publishing project began last year with the comprehensive, award-winning Kentucky Wildlife Encyclopedia. It has been followed in short order by encyclopedias in the same format for the wildlife of four other states.

Nature nurtured

Shupe was born in Graves County, but for the first several years of his life, his family lived in a travel trailer because his father, Kenneth “Jap” Shupe, was following construction jobs around the country.

By the time he was in the third grade, his family was back in Farmington in Graves County. Kenneth became a well-known local businessman who ran Shupe Nurseries in nearby Sedalia.

“My father was someone who was curious about life and … had a real interest in the natural world and loved the outdoors,” Shupe says. “And I guess you could say he nurtured the innate interest I had in natural things.”

Shupe discusses an African spurred tortoise during a presentation at Fort Harrod State Park. Photo: Harrodsburg Herald

That interest has taken him places. His stint at Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute was followed by a job at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. There, he wrote an article about the attraction’s bird rookery that greatly increased its popularity. Today, it is considered a must-see stop for birders from around the country and the world.

By the late ’70s he was back in Kentucky, where he founded the Natural History Education Co. He obtained permits that allowed him to possess the animals that he, and later his employees, used in wildlife presentations. That’s when the school presentations began. But, because he needed something to do in the summer months, he got in touch with Reptile Gardens, a tourist attraction in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Joe Maierhauser, Reptile Gardens’ president and CEO, remembers that day in the early ’80s when the people who ran the attraction were talking about how they might want to add a bird show into their mix.

“The next day, this guy calls randomly out of the blue from Kentucky and says ‘Do y’all want a bird show?’”

Maierhauser let him know that if he took the job, it would mean doing 14 shows a day, seven days a week.

“And he did it by himself,” Maierhauser recalls. “I think he took off one day to go fishing but that didn’t work out too well because that was the day his wife decided she was going into labor.”

Branching out

Shupe ran Natural History Education for a quarter century. For a decade, he partnered with the Knight & Hale Game Call Co. to operate Woods and Wetlands Wildlife Center, a private nature center that was open to the public in Cadiz in Trigg County.

Also with Knight & Hale, he became the host and narrator for a series of nature programs on The Outdoor Channel. For a while, he gave wildlife presentations around the country for a company called National School Assemblies. And he owned a 90-acre farm near Farmington that he turned into a wildlife refuge.

He guesses that, over the decades, he conducted more than 10,000 wildlife programs.

In the mid-’80s, Carey Tichenor, the naturalist at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, hired Shupe to do a presentation for a conference at the park.

“I was so impressed not only by his knowledge of wildlife but by his way of communicating it to the layperson,” Tichenor says. “Many times you get biologists who want to talk over people’s heads. He would try to make it interactive. He would keep people engaged.”

Tichenor went on to be state naturalist for the Kentucky Department of Parks, and Shupe got a contract to do his presentation at parks around the state. He also gave many reptile talks as a roving ambassador for the Kentucky Reptile Zoo at Slade in Powell County.

The great blue heron can be seen throughout Kentucky, but the particular pair above was photographed in Florida. Photo: Scott Shupe

Sometimes, his reptile presentations to schools would merit an article in the school or local newspaper, which usually described an event called “the snake test.” That’s when a principal or teacher was handed a non-venomous corn snake and had to hold it for a count of 10. One of the articles noted that the students did the countdown and did it ve-ry slow-ly.

When he does his income tax returns, Shupe puts “naturalist” on the line where it asks for his occupation. And that’s just the occupation he wanted.

“I sort of created a title and a position for myself in the world,” he says. “I decided when I was a young man that the last thing I wanted for myself was a job. It was never a question of what I was going to do with my life, it was how I was going to make a living doing it.”

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