Wild and wonderful

By William Thompson

Many Portales residents remember local televison shows “Mr. Hank” and “Exploring Nature” on KENW. The host delighted children and adults alike with his knowledge of exotic animals. Today, former TV show host and wildlife biologist A. L. (Tony) Genarro still helps out with the specimen collection he helped found at Eastern New Mexico University’s Natural Science Museum, and he is putting the finishing touches on a new book, “Raptors of New Mexico,” due out in 2007.

Genarro said his love of nature began as a boy in Raton.
“My house was at the edge of the mountains,” Genarro said. “I saw all kinds of animals, birds, lizards and squirrels.”
He said he didn’t know wildlife would become his life’s focus until his first year in college at New Mexico State University.

“I took my first biology class in college and I did well in the class. I felt, ‘This is it,’” he said. “I knew that I wanted to inform people about what I was learning.”

Genarro said despite his decades of work with animals he doesn’t keep pets at the home he shares with his wife Marjorie who has been his editor and companion for the past 25 years.

“I don’t believe in cages for animals,” Genarro said, “and I don’t want the responsibility of taking care of an animal. I want the freedom to be able to go places whenever I want. I am thoroughly against cages for animals.”

Genarro spent a chunk of his college career watching animals, birds and plants in the Chihuahuan Desert from Central Mexico all the way up near Albuquerque.

“We studied animals like the desert kangaroo rat, the grasshopper mouse and lizards like the whip-tail lizard, and birds like Scott’s oriole and the cactus wren,” he said. “We watched them move north from Mexico.”

In order to fire children’s interest in wild animals for the TV shows, Genarro has had to come into contact with some deadly reptiles.

“ A good teacher has to be a good actor. I made my TV shows exciting by teaching about exciting animals and birds,” Genarro said. “I didn’t teach about bunny rabbits.”

James Findley, a former curator of the Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University of New Mexico, said Genarro’s impact on learning will be long-lived.

”It seems to me he had a tremendous impact on simply acquainting people with lots of knowledge about wildlife,” Findley said. “That TV show he had was really a big impact.”

Tana Gares was a high school senior in 1981 and appeared on the show “Exploring Nature where she was interviewed by Genarro.

“Dr. Genarro was absolutely wonderful to us kids,” Gares said. “He talked to us on our level. He didn’t try to show how smart he was. He gave us all experiences of animals we would not have exoerienced.”

Somewhere along the line, Genarro acquired a measure of fearlessness around deadly animals, although he said he hasn’t been foolhardy around poisonous snakes.

“I would never just grab a poisonous snake with my bare hands,” he said. “In working with animals you come to have a fearless but cautious attitude. You have to have the enjoyment of risk.”

Some poisonous snakes, black widow spiders and “violin spiders” are about the only species hikers and campers in eastern New Mexico need to be wary of, according to Genarro.

“Centipedes can sting but they aren’t deadly. Tarantulas aren’t deadly,” Genarro said. “I still shake my shoes out in the morning, though.”

Genarro’s hiking advice is to walk slowly and in daytime, and don’t just listen for rattlers, but keep the eyes peeled for the cold-blooded predators.

“How is the snake going to shake its rattler to warn you if its rattler has broken off?,” Genarro asked.

Genarro’s most recently-published book, “Wildlife Falsehoods” explores a number of common misconceptions about animals. For instance, he says in his book that elephants are not really afraid of mice and a rattler is not likely to crawl into a camper’s sleeping bag although a rope around your campsite won’t keep a rattler from exploring your campsite. He writes in his book that a rattler crawls over cactus so there’s no reason to believe the rattler wouldn’t crawl across a rope.

“I slept a total of 365 nights out on the desert and no rattler ever crawled into my sleeping bag,” Genarro said.
Genarro’s main wildlife contacts these days are inside ENMU’s Natural Science Museum where he is only too happy to show anyone all the specimens, from preserved gophers to falcons to foxes, and about every kind of snake one can think of.

Looking at a milk snake in a terrarium inside the museum recently, Genarro grimaced and said too many farmers are killing non-poisonous milk snakes in their barns thinking they are poisonous coral snakes.

“Coral snakes have black on yellow, milk snakes have yellow on black,” Genarro said. “’Black on yellow can kill a fellow’ is the rule to follow.”

Genarro’s books are available at the ENMU bookstore and can be purchased online at: http://www.amazon.com and http://www. internetbooks.com