Plant whisperer, reptile rescuer, amphibian aficionado

Meet the Future: Calder Burton

Calder Burton breeds some reptiles and amphibians, and plans to sell them for college money

Creative, innovative, imaginative … Many of today’s students are all that and more in a vast variety of interest areas. This series features students with exceptional and unusual gifts.

Name: Calder Burton
School: Junior, Northview High
Jam: Plant whisperer, reptile rescuer and amphibian aficionado

High school teacher John Wojciakowski calls Calder “a very unique young man with a passion for all things science.”

This turtle was hit by a car, and Calder Burton repaired its shell

What’s the story there? “He’s been into science since he was like a year old,” said Calder’s mom, Shannon Burton. “It’s been his life since he was tiny: plants, bugs, reptiles. Anything to do with the outdoors.”

The plants in Calder’s house include the rare, the exotic and the carnivorous. He pulled a sequoia seed from a pinecone a friend brought him, and is now growing one of his own. He also is a guerilla native plant disseminator. “If I go to a park I’ll grab seeds and spread them around. I also pull a lot of invasive plants. Garlic mustard is awful, but it’s not the worst one. Japanese honeysuckle and chokecherry, those are way worse.”

Regarding plants: “I feel like they’re underrepresented, like a lot of people just think of them as static organisms. Their evolutionary history — how they grow and react to the environment — is actually kind of crazy. They’re keystones; without them, nothing else would be alive. There’s so much to learn about them.”

Calder Burton breeds some reptiles and amphibians, and plans to sell them for college money

Calder keeps many, many reptiles, amphibians and a handful of fish in what his mother calls “the zoo” room of their house. His menagerie are kept in bioactive enclosures he constructs that are as close to their natural setting as he can make them.

He has a 76-year-old desert box turtle named Speedy who previously was a school classroom pet. Calder has been working for more than a year to build the turtle’s trust so he can file Speedy’s “messed up beak.”

People know to bring Calder injured turtles, and he has “a girl who was hit by a car, and I rebuilt her shell. She’s doing good, but she likes to bite.”

On amphibians and reptiles: “I really liked reptiles when I was a kid. They’re fun to keep and to work with (he means handling, care and breeding — the latter of which he plans to do as a means to earn money for college).

A few related accomplishments:

  • Scholarship recipient to attend and participate in the Midwest Reptile and Amphibian Symposium.
  • Member of one of the first groups of youngsters at Calvin University’s summer nature center camp, and has been a junior counselor himself.
  • Participated in the Van Andel Research Institute’s summer student academy.
  • Volunteers at Calvin’s Bunker Interpretive Center greenhouse, and helps raise native plants for their annual community sale.
  • Young Herper Award from the Midwest Herpetological Society, presenter at Midwest Herpetological Society Annual Symposium in Fall 2018. “My presentation was on tiger salamanders — which, I’ve got one — and efforts in captive breeding.”
Calder Burton in ‘the zoo’ room

Other hobbies/interests: Calder also is an accomplished jazz band member at school, and plays several instruments including guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin and ukulele. Also, “I like political humor a lot, and I use a lot of sarcasm.”

Is there a teacher or teachers who have had a big impact? Calder called out Crossroads Middle science teacher Theresa Czarnopys, and high school teachers Wojciakowski, anatomy & physiology, and Brian Bollone, forensics, as especially supportive of his interests.

Also, “my grandpa was a teacher at (the former) Rogers High School in Wyoming. He would drag me out in the woods and we’d learn about plants and things. I eventually caught onto it and really liked it.”

Do you plan to pursue this professionally? “I want to go to school for ecology, and probably minor in botany or entomology, and become a pollination ecologist or work in forest management. Preferably research, though.”

The biggest lesson you have learned from your involvement in this is: “People take advantage of wild places in general. Like, they exploit them or just don’t care enough. You should pay attention to what’s going on in natural areas around you, and study it and learn to appreciate it. Because it’s valuable.”

Speedy is 76 years old. ‘Count the rings on his shell,’ Calder says
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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