Friday, November 22, 2013

Snakes - Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

Snakes - Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?  Indiana Jones made this line famous in the 1981 movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.  As the Executive Director of the Center for Snake Conservation, I get this question a lot.  In particular people want know when I became interested in snakes?  It fascinates people to learn that I don't remember when my passion for snakes began but I do know that unlike Indiana Jones, I have never had any fear or anxiety when it comes to snakes.


Snakes to me are incredible creatures.  They go through life without arms, hands, legs, or feet yet are very successful across the globe.  They have many adaptations that have help them survive in many different conditions but a discussion about each one of those are separate blogs.  But as a quick example, check out the Spider-tailed Horned Viper's tail that is used to attract prey in the short video below. 


Snakes occur on all continents except for Antarctica.  There is even a species that occurs north of the Arctic Circle in Europe.  If you truly cannot stand snakes there are three places you can go and live snake free - the Antarctic (freezing butt-ass cold), Ireland (I can't understand their English), and New Zealand (the only problem with this island nation is that they don't have snakes).

Let's now talk about some of my early snake experiences and my current position so that we can prepare discussion about what the future is going to bring me.  I am not going to excite you some stories about real snake adventures - you will have to wait for future blogs for that.  This blog is about the impactful events that help fuel my passion and build my relationship with snakes.

I have two early snake memories and unfortunately I don't have any photos to share.  The first was walking in the woods next to a stream in Tennessee with my brother.  All of a sudden he yanks me off the ground and throws me on the other side of him.  I had nearly stepped on a kingsnake.  As the adrenaline spike subsided, he then found a stick, pinned the snake behind the head, and we took it home.  We no longer pin snakes as there is absolutely no need to ever do this to a snake - it is just cruel.  I had that kingsnake for many years and it even stopped my room from being ransacked by a burglar.  Our entire house had been turned upside down except for my room.  I had the snake on my dresser and the top drawer had been opened and emptied - that is when I think he/she saw the snake and got the hell out of my room.  Since I don't have any photos I will spare you the other story but will tell you it involved a gigantic watersnake and some freaked out friends.

Eastern Kingsnake as found in Georgia
My first solo snake capture came when I was 9 years old.  I was able to catch a large Black Ratsnake along the edge of an old field at Earlham College.  I spotted the snake out of the corner of my eye and my heart rate instantly sky-rocketed with the surge of adrenaline released from my adrenal glands.  I did not want the snake to escape (this was before I knew that most ratsnakes freeze to avoid detection and will not flee unless prodded) so I looked around for a stick to pin it with (again with the pinning).  All I could find was a short foot long skinny nothing of a stick.  Better than nothing I thought as I reached down to pin the snake.  The stick broke instantly and I was stuck with a dilemma - go find another stick and risk the snake getting away or picking up the snake freehand.  I chose freehand and with a lot of self talk, grabbed the snake behind its head.  My first SOLO snake capture!!!!

My first solo snake capture
The snake was longer than I was!
Here is my brother's account of the story as he includes my first teaching opportunity to a group of birders.

"When I was a freshman in College I was asked by my Ornithology professor to help lead a bird-watching field trip on “back-campus” around the time of graduation.   My family was in town because my older sister was graduating that year, and they happened to be staying at the Yokefellow Institute, which was situated in the middle of back-campus.  When the group of bird-watchers got out there, I noticed my brother – about 9 at the time – out exploring around the institute.  As the group of birdwatchers headed off on a trail through an old apple orchard, moving quietly to watch and listen for birds, I hear this loud whisper from behind us trying to get my attention.  “David, David – I caught a snake!”  On turning around to look, there was skinny 5-foot Cameron standing in the weeds holding about a 6-foot black-rat snake!  My ornithology professor – the late Jim Cope - also noticed the loud whisper and saw my brother and invited him into the group with his prized catch!  Jim was so impressed and excited with this young boy with the big snake that it became the highlight of the bird-watching tour."
Black ratsnake defensive posture
Not my photo
Although I already had a very strong interest in snakes, my solo capture of that ratsnake in Indiana ignited a passion that is still raging out of control 30 years later.  I went through a lot of phases in my snake passion to get where I am today.  While in high school, I wanted to breed snakes and come up with a new color or pattern morph of a cornsnake.  Cornsnakes are probably the most common snake in the pet trade (a close race with the ball python) and now there are over 100 different color and pattern morphs.  If I had stuck with breeding cornsnakes, I have been able to come up with one of these hundreds but my passion changed to field snake ecology shortly after going to college.  I did however take all my cornsnakes and my entire breeding mouse colony to college with me.

As a freshman in college, my academic advisor, Dr. John Iverson, invited me to join him for an entire semester in the Sandhills of Nebraska.  This meant taking an entire semester off from school without credits and taking more credits each semester in the future to catch up so I could graduate on time.  I of course agreed and was off to Nebraska with him.  In Nebraska I learn more about field ecology than I ever knew I could.  John quickly became my mentor and then an incredible friend that I still take for granted all too often.  Heather and I lived together off campus for our senior year of college and it still makes Heather laugh that a professor would call me on a Friday night to see if I wanted to go out and chase herps across the state.  We were and still are friends.

Photographing a pair of mating bullsnakes
In Nebraska I found bullsnakes - lots and lots of bullsnakes.  We were working on a National Wildlife Refuge and as part of our "rent" we ran a 7 mile drift fence around a lake system that was designed to catch bullsnakes to protect duck eggs from predation.  This fence caught more bullsnakes than I ever imagined possible.  I was in heaven.  I even kept a few bullsnakes in our bunkhouse and in true snake fashion they would escape their cages.  One night I woke up with one of my escaped bullsnakes crawling on my back - what a thrill!  I loved every minute of my time in Nebraska and it was worth the extra work to catch up with the rest of my class to graduate on time.

Really the hair!
It looks like I am afraid of that tiny bullsnake
I continued to work with snakes around the college campus but the real adventures started when I was awarded a contract in 1994 to study Copper-bellied Watersnakes on the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge near Seymour, Indiana as a sophomore in college.  Who would have thought that I would get a real contract to study snakes!?!  My job was to conduct a reptile and amphibian survey of the refuge and also find out what I could about the status and distribution of the copperbellies.  I spent hours and hours combing what I considered my own private refuge and got to know a species of snake that others rarely ever saw much less catch.  Copper-bellied Watersnakes are very beautiful snake which are an endangered species in parts of its range.  My study helped keep it from being listed in the southern part of its range because I ended up catching so many demonstrating the security of its status on a refuge.  I am proud to be a part of this effort but this is not the real story for today's blog.

Copper-bellied Watersnake
Anyone who has caught or handled watersnakes know two things about them - they bite readily and repeated when grabbed and excrete a strong smelling musk.  Every snake species can excrete musk and they all smell different.  I pride myself on my ability to determine a species of snake by just its smell.  After my first summer of catching copperbellies, I began to crave their bites and musk (strange addiction).  Even to this day the smell of a copperbelly does not disgust me but it turns me on - it reminds me of the pure pleasure I had while catching Copper-bellied Watersnakes for the next 3 years in college.

Catching baby watersnakes out of a bush
While in college I also got the opportunity to go to Kenya for an entire semester.  This program was sponsored by the college and we received credit while there so there was no making up school work for this amazing adventure.  While in Kenya, I did some REALLY STUPID things with snakes.  I mostly found and caught harmless greensnakes which were fun to torment and educate the children with.  The stupid snakes were the bush vipers I caught as well as holding some species I had no business even touching.

Bush vipers are small arboreal snakes found in the lower canopy of understory trees.  During our homestay in Kaimosi, I learned I could find them in the small forest preserve at the top of the largest hill.  One afternoon, Heather (I officially met Heather in Kenya) and I were using the shortcut trail through the forest when I spotted a bush viper about eye level that was catchable.  Heather tried to talk me out of catching it but I wanted to show this incredible little viper to the rest of the group.  I dumped out the water in my Nalgene water bottle, found a stick, and tried to corral the snake into the bottle.  No go - the snake just kept coming out of the bottle and climbing higher into the tree.  I was desperate not to let it get away so I hooked the snake with my stick and flung in to the trail so I could work with it in a (what I thought) safer place.  Well I flung the small venomous snake right at Heather's feet.  She expressed her displeasure with a few choice words despite my assurances that the snake could not bite her.  I then pinned (again!) the snake and put into my water bottle.  Mistake #1 in Africa - handling a venomous snake several hours from adequate medical care.

Green Bush Viper
Not my photo
Mistakes #2 and #3 were beyond stupid.  While on vacation with Heather in Diani Beach on the coast of Kenya south of Mombasa, we found a small reptile park tourist attraction.  As a budding herpetologist, I just had to go inside and see what they had.  This reptile park consisted of about 20 homemade cages on stilts filled with a bunch of cool critters in cages including a puff adder (mistake #2) and green mamba (mistake #3).  Well I just could not pass on the opportunity to actually hold these notorious snakes so I asked the caretaker/guide/owner if he minded if I got them out of their cages and held them.  He was very reluctant but then agreed.  I held both of these amazing snakes and even squeezed venom out to see the fangs in action.  The puff adder has long curved fangs that fold into its mouth when not in use and the green mamba has short fixed fangs in the front of its mouth.  Both sets are deadly in their own way as they transfer highly toxic venom deep into their prey.  These mistakes (#2 and #3) could have killed me.  We were a minimum of 8-10 hours from medical care that could have treated a bite from either one of these snakes.  Just Plain Stupid.  When I ask Heather why she allowed me to hold these snakes (she took the pictures below) in Kenya, she responds, "I didn't love you then".  Nice response Honey.

Stupid, stupid, stupid
While I have pinned and held venomous snakes since then, I have also begun to understand (more accept) the risks of handling venomous snakes.  There is a reason most venomous snake bites occur to men between the ages of 18-30.  Hmm.  Makes sense doesn't it (testosterone driven brains)?  I now have an absolutely no pin and grab policy with venomous snakes as there are many other ways to capture and process them without risking injury to the snake and a bite to me.  I also don't ever pin non-venomous snakes anymore.  It is just cruel and you run the risk of really hurting the snake.

One way to safely handle venomous snakes
I am almost to the present and future of my passion and relationship with snakes but you have to bear through a few more short stories.

Grad school - this is where my snake passion helped me and also destroyed me at the same time.  I attempted grad school at two different universities in about a 6-7 year time period.  Both times ended in failure.  Not failure as in failing classes but failure to follow through on research and complete a thesis.  Why?  Because I was chasing snakes.  The first grad school attempt was in Florida.  I should have seen this failure coming from a mile away.  There were tons of snakes that I had read about my whole life but had never seen in the wild.  It was my goal in Florida to learn the habits of each species and be able to target its capture anytime I wanted to.  Well this meant there was no time for research and there really isn't a thesis to be written on how good I was at catching snakes.

Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
Example of how hard snakes can be to spot but I got good at it.
My second grad school attempt was almost successful (well not quite but let's pretend it was).  I was personally invited to pursue a PhD with one of the world's premier herpetologists, Dr. J. Whitfield Gibbons after acing his herpetology class with a passion that may have surpassed his passion for snakes (Whit is technically a turtle biologist).  I was flattered - beyond flattered that I turned down a master's program that I was already accepted into in the wildlife school  Working with Whit was a dream of mine ever since I had read his book "Their Blood Runs Cold" 12 years earlier.  My dream come true.  Well two years into the program I was still taking classes and had no research completed.  I loved taking classes because it helped me avoid the research.  I probably have more coursework under my belt than any graduate student in history.  I then moved to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory to try and conduct research after agreeing with Whit that a PhD probably was not best suited for me and I should pursue a master's degree.

I failed again because all I did at SREL was catch snakes, catch more snakes, and catch even more snakes for other people's research.  Sure I tried to do my own research but I was much better at catching snakes.  I was so good that Whit complimented me many times as the "best snake catcher he has ever known".  I even have proof in my personal copy of Whit's book "The Snakes of the Southeast" which he signed for me with that compliment.  Too bad being good at catching snakes doesn't get you a degree - I might have two or three PhDs by now.

However, one good thing about grad school is that you get the opportunity to teach.  I was lucky enough to help teach the Herpetology course at UGA.  This was exceedingly fun and my ability to catch snakes was well received and welcome on our many field trips.  The outcome of all this teaching was that another passion was ignited inside of me - teaching.  This is a whole other blog topic.

Well after a long hiatus from the academic world, I have finally found something that being good at catching snakes is a huge benefit - the Center for Snake Conservation! 

It took me over 10 years working as an environmental consultant for the oil and gas industry to make me unhappy enough and push me towards a career that will mean something and make a difference for snakes.  While I still am working as a consultant, I am also working towards my goal of leading the world's most impactful organization for snake conservation.  The CSC has three types of programs - Education, Science, and Conservation.  My skill at being a very good snake catcher benefits my participation in all these programs.  During education programs at any venue for kids and adults, my field experience translates directly into stories about personal encounters with the snakes I am using to change human perceptions.  This is a unique approach that is very different than just telling the facts.  I have lived and breathed snakes since before I can remember and this passion can inspire someone who is fearful of snakes to have a new understanding about their role in our healthy ecosystems.

Being good at catching snakes is easily translated into our science programs.  The CSC conducts snake inventories across the country (a little exaggeration but we are growing to fill this need) and if you aren't good at finding snakes you are wasting your time conducting inventories.  Easy fit.  The CSC's conservation programs benefit from my being good at catching snakes because I can evaluate habitat quickly based on my experience with snakes in the field as to where and what we should focus conservation efforts on.

So in the end - being good at catching snakes does have its benefits even if it does mean I failed out of two graduate programs.

Marking a rattlesnake safely contained in a tube
There, I laid it out there.  This blog explains part of my history of "why did it have to be snakes?".  I have many, many more snake stories to tell you but I wanted to start in the beginning with the facts about the who, what, when, and where of my development as a snake person. 

Snakes are my passion.

Snakes are a HUGE part of who I am.

I have been blessed by amazing people encouraging my passion and incredible experiences which have made me good at what I do.  I plan on continuing pursuing my passion for snakes even when I am on my death bed.  I have gone so far as to joke with my boys that after I die, they had better feed me to an anaconda.  If you don't like it - tough!


  1. Thanks for being so honest and raw. I feel like I know you know.

    Justin Michels

  2. This is so great! I never heard about anyone with so much passion for snakes. Congratulations on following your dream and being so dedicated. I think snakes are cool but I haven't seen too many. It's amazing that you can catch them so easily. Thank you for sharing this post.