Every June, Lou Perrotti packs his bags for Nantucket, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts known as a summer beach destination.
He isn’t going for the beaches. He’s going for the beetles.
Over the past 25 years, Perrotti, the director of conservation for the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, has worked with partners to release thousands of American burying beetles on Nantucket in an effort to reestablish a self-sustaining population of the species on the eastern edge its range.
Once widely distributed as far west as Montana, the beetles’ numbers plummeted in the 20th century due to rapid land-use changes that fragmented its habitat. By the time the species was listed as federally endangered in 1989, it was hanging on in just few places in the Midwest, and on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island.
The beetles Perrotti releases on Nantucket are descendants of beetles captured on Block Island starting in the early 1990s to seed a groundbreaking captive-rearing program, which he has led for more than two decades.
“When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approached the zoo to ask if we wanted to rear American burying beetle, we said: ‘Yes! This is amazing,’ ” Perrotti recalled. “We knew invertebrate conservation was going to be the future.”
Since then, he has collaborated with the Service, state agencies and local partners to ensure a future for this species. This spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized Perrotti with a Recovery Champion award for his dedication to advancing conservation for the American burying beetle, which was downlisted from endangered to threatened in 2020.
For Perrotti, who has always been drawn to overlooked or underappreciated wildlife, working with the beetle has been a dream come true.
“I was one of those kids that instead of playing baseball, was flipping over rocks and stones, looking for critters,” he said.
Soon, he was raising critters at home, with support from parents who encouraged his passion — and made space for snakes. He bred his first boa constrictor at age 11, and gradually matured into a self-made reptile expert in the days before online tutorials, forums, and wikis.
As an adult, he began to lead educational outreach programs with snakes at libraries, schools, and even at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, in his spare time. He wasn’t a professional herpetologist. He was a retail manager working to support his young family, while finding outlets for his expertise in hard-to-love creatures.
“I was the guy who would get a call when the state police found a boa in an abandoned apartment or an alligator in a parking lot,” Perrotti explained.
Eventually, his passion paid off. When the zoo was looking to hire a keeper with reptile experience, friends encouraged him to apply.
He got the job, and soon after, got the life-changing assignment to raise beetles.
No stone unturned
Perrotti’s dedication to the American burying beetle has earned him renown in the international conservation community, regular hand-written notes from Dr. Jane Goodall — she wrote about his work in her book “Hope for Animals and Their World” — and an inspiring career.
He is the only person in the history of the Roger Williams Park Zoo to go from zookeeper directly to senior management and the only person to hold the position of director of conservation without an advanced degree. He is probably the only person anywhere with a larger-than-life American burying beetle tattoo on his arm — a badge of honor acquired when he was designated as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan coordinator for the species in 2006.
Perhaps most impressive, he has converted countless others into admirers of a giant insect whose claim to fame is burying carcasses of dead animals to feed its young. After he introduced a local third-grade class to the beetle in 2015, the students spearheaded a successful campaign to have the species named as the official state insect of Rhode Island.
“When I saw what those third graders did, I thought, there is hope for this world,” Perrotti said.
He considers nurturing hope in the next generation the most important part of his work.
“I remember as a kid looking through National Geographic at these amazing, beautiful places throughout the world, and worrying that by the time I grew up, they would be gone,” he said. “Now here I am in a position where I can help save species in those beautiful places.”
He has found opportunities to do just that, thanks to his unique expertise. When a conservation group in Panama was struggling to sustain a native amphibian rescue project, he helped set up a local food system. “I traveled there to learn what the frogs eat in the wild, set up the infrastructure for captive rearing, and helped them secure funding so they could breed colonies of native insects,” he explained.
As a result, the frogs’ natural reproduction increased, as did their lifespans.
But Perrotti remains dedicated to overlooked species closer to home. In addition to working to conserve the American burying beetle, he has captive reared New England cottontail, timber rattlesnake, and Karner blue butterfly — all species that are native to the Northeast and elusive by nature.
Now Perrotti is focusing on another Northeast species that needs attention. He was recently named the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan coordinator for the North American wood turtle, which like many other turtles species, is gravely threatened by illegal collection.
“People tend to think turtles are everywhere,” he said. “But poachers who know what they are doing can remove an entire population in a weekend.”
In his coordinator role, Perrotti will work with partners to find solutions to the new challenges illegal collection creates for animals that are already threatened by habitat loss,, and car strikes when crossing roads.
And knowing Perrotti, he will leave no stone unturned.