Courtesy of the San Antonio Zoo
Vice President of Conservation and Research, San Antonio Zoo
Los Gatos, California
Saving the world — one amphibian at a time
He once removed a botfly larva from his own face with a razor blade. (Don’t google that, and don’t try it at home.)
“No ego. No projects for personal glorification. Only efforts that give wildlife a better chance.”
In 2003, Danté Fenolio was a decade and a continent away from San Antonio, suspended above the Madagascar rainforest on an inflatable green raft. Tiptoeing across netting through which leaves poked at odd intervals, he’d climb into a “sled” suspended from a blimp and slowly float above the treetops, collecting various samples for study.
Fenolio’s career is one of extremes. From rainforest canopies to remote cave systems, he seeks out species rarely seen by people. Remember that recent viral video of the giant squid in the Gulf of Mexico? He was on that expedition, which also captured footage of deepsea wildlife such as the bioluminescent light show of a live Threadfin Dragonfish.
“It’s awe-inspiring to be part of something that goes globally viral like this,” he says. “Humanity cannot afford to lose the wildlife that lives in our oceans without the subsequent collapse of many human populations.”
But Fenolio’s toughest work hasn’t always taken him to far-flung places.
When he joined the San Antonio Zoo in 2013, the first order on the docket was a major renovation right on premises — the development of a new conservation center. Crews tore down walls and ripped out wiring, replaced insulation and electrical components, installed a “self-starting generator” to protect against power outages and two shipping containers were repurposed as new labs. In short, it was a project that a doomsday-prepper would die for.
But why did he need such a fancy facility? Why, to save the world — one amphibian at a time. Many of the species Fenolio works with are facing apocalypse, so much so that scientists have dubbed this the era of “Anthropocene extinction,” as in a mass extinction caused by humans.
Fenolio and his zoo research team have filled their labs to the brim with specimens, from the only captive colony of the Mexican blindcat to the Texan blind salamander and other species native to San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer. The conservation department is run like an academic lab with data-based projects regularly written up for scientific publications.
“We are able to share with the greater conservation community whatever it is that we have been able to develop with our efforts,” Fenolio says.
Courtesy of Danté Fenolio
To be sure, Fenolio is all about the team effort. At every turn, he gives credit to his collaborators, from legends like marine biologist Edie Widder to the zoo employees that help him at every level, scientists and facilities managers alike. This level of trust is especially important because his conservation efforts take him out of San Antonio for remote field work much of the year.
“Their jobs are complex; I ask much of them,” he admits. “They all handle it with enthusiasm and skill. I’m so proud of all of them and what they accomplish. These are the folks fighting in the trenches for wildlife, day in and day out. Our motto in the department is that if a project doesn’t put wildlife first, we won’t do it. No ego. No projects for personal glorification. Only efforts that give wildlife a better chance.”
Travel to exotic locales isn’t all fun and games, though. Not only can the work be grueling, Fenolio faces myriad dangers in the field.
During a 2018 speech at San Antonio’s Argyle club, he calmly recounted a near-death experience that happened while on an excursion to Thailand. Deep in a cave to study the waterfall climbing loach, he and his colleagues began to suffocate. They were inhaling air but had become enveloped in a cloud of carbon dioxide. One researcher even passed out. Suffering from CO2 poisoning and encumbered by their unconscious colleague, the group had to trudge up a neck-deep river to reach fresh air.
“It got down to the point where I had to say each one of my kid’s names when I took a step to make sure that I could get out,” Fenolio said.
In a less deadly but no less disturbing close encounter, Fenolio once discovered that a parasite had made its home in his face. During some downtime in a hotel in Santiago, Chile, his quiet day turned into a creature feature when he “felt something wiggling below the skin,” then peered into the mirror to find a swollen bump containing the larva of a human botfly under his eyebrow. Rather than scream piteously like a coiffed blonde in a ‘50s B flick, he simply evicted the creature by cutting it out with a razor blade.
To Fenolio, such risks are par for the course. In fact, he considers himself fortunate to have avoided many of the serious illnesses he could have contracted in his travels. His mission is worth putting life and limb on the line, because he stands guard against ecological apocalypse.
With his team at the zoo, he is taking concrete steps to help species both in Texas and abroad. However, he doesn’t think this interest should only be limited to experts.
“Let’s all work to secure a future not just for wildlife, but for future human generations,” he said.
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