Frank Groves, 84, reptile curator for zoo

April 07, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Michael Francis Groves, a well-known Maryland herpetologist and former curator of reptiles at the Baltimore Zoo, where his career spanned more than four decades, died of cancer Sunday at his Eldersburg home. He was 84.

Known to generations of reptile lovers as Frank, he was born in Baltimore and raised on Covington Street in Federal Hill. He spent his boyhood in pursuit of snakes, amphibians and lizards that inhabited nearby fields and streambeds.

"When he was a kid, his boyhood room was filled with snakes. A cousin told me every time they went for a walk in the park, he had to lift up every rock to see what was underneath," said a daughter, Deborah Batchelor of Owings Mills.

As a youth, he joined the Natural History Society of Maryland and later the Maryland Herpetological Society.

He was a 1934 graduate of Calvert Hall College High School, and during World War II served as a Navy pharmacist's mate in the Pacific aboard the cruiser USS Lyons.

After his 1945 discharge, Mr. Groves was determined to pursue a career in herpetology. He went to work at the Baltimore Zoo in 1948, and was head keeper of birds and reptiles before becoming curator of reptiles. He retired in 1992, but continued to work there as a volunteer.

His responsibilities included caring for more than 100 snakes, along with assorted other creatures including lizards, turtles and crocodiles.

He instituted breeding programs using snakes borrowed from other zoos. He bred Burmese pythons and Gulf Hammock rat snakes.

"He was definitely a pioneer. He bred animals that had never been bred in captivity before, like the Madagascar boa, which is a fairly large snake," said Vickie Poole, curator of reptiles at the Baltimore Zoo.

"Frank had a national reputation in herpetological circles and was very well respected in the field," she said.

"He took us out snake hunting to Patapsco State Park when I was 5 years old, looking for copperheads and black snakes, which he'd take to the zoo. I guess it was a case of father worship because then I got interested and made his work my career," said a son, John D. Groves of Asheboro, N.C., who was curator for 20 years of the Philadelphia Zoo's reptile department.

"He taught me how to safely handle snakes. and when he started there weren't a lot of tools available. If I wanted to go on a snake hunt in Florida, he'd let me take off from school and go," the son said.

The elder Mr. Groves' job wasn't without its liabilities -- especially when handling creatures that strike fear in most people who encounter them.

"He actually spent his career telling people not to worry about these animals," said the son, now reptile curator at the North Carolina Zoo and Park in Asheboro.

Mr. Groves did not recommend keeping reptiles as pets.

"I don't think reptiles should be kept at home. I don't condemn keeping snakes, but I do discourage it," he told The Evening Sun in 1979.

In an interview with The Sun, Mr. Groves was fairly casual about being bitten by snakes, which he explained was a routine occupational hazard and occurred at least once a month.

In 1973, while attempting to give a 2 1/2 -foot crocodile a vitamin B-12 shot, Mr. Groves was bitten on the finger. "I guess I'm a little out of practice," he said.

In 1960, while Mr. Groves and a fellow attendant were transferring a 17-foot-long python named Rickie to a new cage, the snake bit him.

"The older a snakes gets, the more rambunctious he gets," he told The Sun.

Mr. Groves wrote widely on reptiles and was co-author with the Rev. William H. McClellan and Romeo Mansueti of The Lizards of Southern Maryland.

Mr. Groves' idea of the perfect vacation was combining his love of the outdoors with a little snake hunting in Garrett County at Deep Creek Lake.

"Mom would sit in the car reading while he went hunting," his son said.

Jack Norman, a boyhood friend and member of the Maryland Herpetological Society of Maryland, hunted snakes with Mr. Groves for more than 60 years.

"One of our favorite places was Patapsco State Park, where until recently we conducted population studies," Mr. Norman said.

For the latter half of the 1990s, the friends conducted a herpetological survey of Carroll County wildlife.

Mr. Groves also volunteered for years at Piney Run Nature Center near his Eldersburg home. He was the park's Volunteer of the Year in 1997.

He was Piney Run's "in-house reptile veterinarian," said park naturalist Elaine Sweitzer.

Mr. Groves was a member for 39 years of the steering committee of the Maryland Herpetological Society.

He was a communicant of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, 9531 Liberty Road, Randallstown, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9 a.m. today.

In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Groves is survived by his wife of 49 years, the former Estelle Hinkleman; another son, Richard D. Groves of Hampden; another daughter, Eileen Ayres of Hampden; nine grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren. Two other sons are deceased: Michael J. Groves, who died in 1977, and Edward G. Groves, who died in 1999.

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