By Jaykob Storey 
BELLEVILLE – There wasn’t an empty seat in the house Wednesday night as Matt Ellerbeck the salamander man and reptile advocate Kenny Ruelland came to Quinte Conservation  headquarters to give a presentation.
Many families and small children turned out to the event.
Ellerbeck founded his Brockville-based Save the Salamanders  organization six years ago. Ruelland joined the group a few years ago after coming to one of Ellerbeck’s presentations.
Throughout the evening, Ellerbeck and Ruelland stressed that habitat destruction is leading to the decline of many species and that acquiring protected status for them has been difficult.
“It’s so much easier to get people to conserve the cute and cuddly animals,” Ellerbeck said. “It’s an uphill battle when it comes to slimy and creepy snakes and salamanders.”
Both presenters had brief slideshows to explain the dangers that the animals in question face. Ellerbeck produced a slide that featured a salamander on the end of a fishing hook. “Some people are using salamanders as bait, but they are vertebrates. They can feel pain. This is animal cruelty, but because people think of salamanders as gross, they don’t care. But if I were to show you an image of a dog on a hook, it would upset everyone.”
Once the slideshows were over, the animals came out. Ellerbeck and Ruelland pulled out numerous snakes and salamanders of varying sizes, along with a large, docile snapping turtle they had named Bowser, after the turtle-like villain of the Super Mario video games. Young children swarmed around for a chance to hold the creatures, letting snakes coil around their hands and petting the turtle.
One child inquired if the animals bit. “I hope not,” said Ellerbeck, with three snakes wrapped around his hands.
Ellerbeck said he believes the work he does with Save the Salamanders is making a positive difference.
“This grandmother came to me once and said that because of me, her grandkids have a much deeper appreciation for nature. That’s the kind of change I hope to see come out of what I do.”