Collie Ennis has worked as a security guard in Trinity for 14 years. But his involvement in College extends far beyond just the security desk. Collie’s fascination for spiders and every variety of creepy crawly launched him into the Department of Zoology, where he works in public outreach. For zoology, he works at open days, young scientist exhibitions and helps encourage young women into science. Additionally, Ennis also helps with practical classes when students need to handle animals, or if a rare animal he owns is needed for students, he is more than happy to bring it in.
Ennis’s affinity with nature and unconventional animals began as a five-year-old collecting beetles and bugs in old biscuit tins. Ennis believes that all young people have an interest in creepy crawlies but, as he tells The University Times, “I just never grew out of it”.
His first exotic pet was a fire belly salamander that he bought from a pet shop in George’s St Arcade. Since then, Ennis’s family of four, six and eight-legged pets has expanded into thousands. “I have literally thousands of spiders because I have my main females and my main males and I am constantly breeding and they have a couple of hundred babies at time. I have a lot of vertebrates like frogs, toads, snakes and lizards. I have other invertebrates like giant African land snails and centipedes. In my garden, I have all the native wildlife and the rescued terrapins that I took in. The house has four tortoises running around wrecking the place. It’s like having pet rocks running around, pooing on the carpet and eating all the vegetables.” One pet he retains a lot of affection for is his blue-tongued skink called Quirks: “He’s like a bald cat, he’s a big lizard and is very affectionate.”
Poaching is terrible and it breaks my heart but when you go out there you can see why it’s happening
I met Ennis in his security booth at Lincoln Place gate where the heat was emanating from the radiator into the small room. Ennis was re-acclimatising after a recent field trip to Kenya with science students. Here, Ennis witnessed the harsh reality of conservation work. “In Kenya, my eyes were opened because I took a photograph of a zebra and in the background you had flats and slums encroaching right on top of the national parks. There’s so many poor people and they’re struggling to survive and if you have that magic unicorn with a horn that’s worth a million dollars and your children are starving, of course you’re going to jump over a fence and try and kill it. It just shows that these issues are not black and white.”
“Poaching is terrible and it breaks my heart but when you go out there you can see why it’s happening. It’s great that the students get to see this when they go out into the field. They’ll have a greater idea about the reality of the situation and not looking at it through rose-tinted glasses”, he adds.
As a teenager, Ennis never believed that his interest in small creatures could develop into a career. “Where I grew up, in working-class Crumlin, most people got a trade so I never thought of science as being an option for me. It just never occurred to me.” He applauds the Trinity Access Programme because, as he says, “it reaches out to people like I was when I was younger. It really opens doors to people who wouldn’t normally consider going to college”. Ennis’s knowledge – gleaned from reading copious amounts of books and monitoring thousands of pets – has towed him into the academic vicinity of animals.
For instance, he’s written a paper with the venom lab in NUI Galway. The research allowed him to get down into sewers and basements, collecting spiders and extracting venom from them for cancer research and for antibiotic bacteria.
Ennis also works with the Herpetological Society of Ireland. He has reached his fifth year of a 10-year study of the animals on Bull Island. “We have the native lizard out on Bull Island, which not a lot of people know about. They are very charismatic, very small little Irish dragons. We have our native frogs and we may have newts out there but we’re still looking into that.”
Fear is endemic among Irish people when they see the most unassuming of spiders. Ennis advises people to take the sensationalist newspaper articles about spiders with a “tonne of salt” because there have never been any fatalities.
The reason people are afraid, in my opinion, is genetic, because your monkey ancestors would have survived when they didn’t pick up that dangerous spider or dangerous snake
Rather, it seems that Ennis would prefer if people showed some admiration for these “aliens among us”. People’s fear of spiders, he believes, is unfounded, especially in Ireland where there are no spiders that produce life-threatening venom. “The reason people are afraid, in my opinion, is genetic, because your monkey ancestors would have survived when they didn’t pick up that dangerous spider or dangerous snake. I think it’s a learned fear as well. If you see your mammy jumping up and down on the couch when a creature runs past, of course you’re going to think that they’re bad.”
While in the past Ennis has found himself in a hospital waiting room with tarantula hairs in his eyes, his love for creepy crawlies remains undeterred. He is fascinated by their obscure outlook on the world and their ability to adapt and hunt. Fear never developed for Ennis in a way that it does for most people. Give him a scorpion or even a tarantula to hold and he’s perfectly comfortable.
Ennis has realised that he wants his fieldwork and research to be his profession. “It’s my dream now, over the last five years it has really snowballed for me because I’ve gotten out into the field and made contact with a lot of people. I didn’t know I could do this as a career and now I want to. I’m thinking of maybe going and getting the paperwork to back up the knowledge I have so I can get a proper job doing what I love. I’m in a Catch-22 situation because I have young kids and I have to pay a mortgage and I don’t want to jeopardise their future for my own dream but you never know what might come up.”
Ennis is a resolute person and his commitment to both his job as a security officer and to his work with animals and research is admirable. Ennis spends five or six hours every evening feeding, cleaning and observing his animals. His passion for these creatures will certainly find him delving deeper into fieldwork and research at a professional level.
He’s been dubbed “Hagrid” in the past and it’s certainly not an unfair comparison. His zeal for learning has led him into the scientific sphere and he is now surrounded with like-minded people and is involved in brilliant research. “You’re only the sum of the people you hang around with and I spend my time with some cool scientists and some really good reptile people. I get to chat with people in the zoology department and learn from them. It really enriches my life and makes it a lot more interesting than it would be if I wasn’t doing something I love.”