For thousands of local students, Tony Mills has been the face of the outdoors for two decades.
His traveling outreach programs from Savannah River Ecology Lab brought audiences face to face with venomous snakes, salamanders, alligators and other creatures that often gave children - and many adult audiences - their first hands-on glimpse at our outside world.
Later this month, Mills is leaving the lab for a new position on South Carolina's coast, where he will coordinate education programs at Spring Island - a residential community that houses the nonprofit Lowcountry Institute.
"I'll be doing outdoor programs in Beaufort County schools and still get to work with turtles and snakes and lizards," he said. "We'll also study lemon and bull sharks in the Port Royal Sound."
It's not that Mills wanted to leave, but ongoing budget cuts have left Savannah River Ecology Lab's future far from certain. Mills is among many staffers forced to look elsewhere for jobs.
"I feel so lucky to have spent 20-plus years at the lab," he said. "It's been a wonderful job. In fact, my hobby is my job. The things I love to do are what I get to do for a living. It's amazing."
Mills estimates he's delivered more than 2,000 lectures over the years in hopes of educating people that snakes and reptiles are wonderful creatures that deserve respect and understanding - not extermination.
He's also been a perennial ally of reporters and photographers who covered his fascinating programs.
One of my favorite encounters with the "snake and reptile man" came during the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy's annual "Swamp Soiree," an outdoor gala fund-raiser held at a private home.
While a few hundred of Augusta's most prominent citizens sipped cocktails, Tony's 6-foot "demonstration alligator" crawled out of its container and decided to go exploring.
Tony calmly - and correctly - deduced his gator would head for open water, so he immediately walked to a ditch that opened into the nearby Savannah River.
Quick as a wink, he climbed down the embankment, bear-hugged the wriggling reptile and climbed back up the hill. Some of the guests who observed this feat thought Mills had seen the gator in the river and simply decided to jump in and catch it.
After his new role at Spring Island begins June 1, the Ecology Lab will still offer outreach programs staffed by his colleagues, including Sean Poppy and Whit Gibbons.
"They don't do this for a paycheck," Mills said. "They do it because it's what they believe in, and the work they are doing is important."
IT DIDN'T PASS: In yet another attempt to legalize shooting deer over bait, south Georgia legislators made a last-minute addition to a standard House bill that was intended to simply update existing game and fish laws for another year.
But once the House passed the legislation, it went to the Senate side, where an amended version was substituted, stating that state laws that ban shooting wildlife over bait would no longer apply for deer.
Although the amended bill survived a first and second reading in the Senate, it failed to gain final approval before the General Assembly adjourned, making it dead - at least for this session.
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or email@example.com.