I can’t imagine that anyone wakes up one morning and thinks, “Gosh, I’m going to devote all of my free time to swinging a metal stick at a diminutive dimpled ball for fun!”, or “Gee, I think my new hobby should include spandex shorts, profuse perspiration, and riding a bicycle up the side of the mountain.” Regardless of the hobby one chooses, I figure that we all must have had some defining moment that caught us a little off-guard and sparked in us, an undeniable appreciation for, and curiosity to become more involved in that particular subject.
I am often quizzed as to how I got so involved in my snake hobby. “Why in the world would you intentionally get that close to a rattlesnake?” some inquire, while others pose well-organized questions such as “You’re an idiot!!!” The latter may sound like more of a statement than a question, but seeing the shocked and confused expressions on the faces of those who verbalize those heart-warming words, leads me to the conclusion that they are seeking explanation to what they perceive as recklessly dangerous behavior.
Well…Here’s the answer you’ve all been waiting for: “I don’t know.” All I do know, is that I have a vivid memory of seeing my first snake when I was two years old. My older sisters noticed it first, let out a couple of screams, and ran away in fear. I, however, was immediately mesmerized by the legless creature, that I now know was a harmless Pacific Gopher snake. I stood there in awe of the graceful serpent while confused by my sisters’ reaction to it. The snake, in the words of Renee Zellweger, “had me at hello”. I have absolutely no recollection of my first encounter with a cat or a dog, a bunny or even a bird, but even after 35 years, I can picture the snake that crept its way into my life and left a permanent impression that could not be shaken.
It wasn’t until I entered elementary school, that I realized, that there were rooms full of books that I could visit and borrow from…some, about snakes! The three or four books in our school library on the topic of snakes may as well have never left my house. My name was neatly printed on every line (front and back) of each library card inserted inside the front cover of those books. The librarian worriedly steered me toward books on a variety of topics entertaining to youngsters, and I may have checked out a couple of them to appease her, but I rarely left without a copy of my favorite book on venomous snakes with a picture of a 19-foot King Cobra inside.
As a kid, I spent lots of time outside, and got pretty good at catching lizards and bugs, but it wasn’t until I turned 8, that my family moved to Northern Arkansas, and I quickly learned that our property was home to all kinds of snakes. My fascination rapidly turned into an obsession. If the weather was nice, I was outside on our 80 acres of property turning over every log and rock I could find. The first snake I caught there was a Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki). I was surprised by how calm they were immediately after having been caught. I caught one that had lost the tip of its tail at some point, and decided to keep it for a while. I could swear that the snake actually preferred to be held as opposed to being left alone. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a cage for him, so I kept him outside in a large upturned doghouse, which he escaped from a few days later.
Despite the unbearable experiences with ticks and chiggers, I fondly remember catching a variety of turtles, tarantulas, skinks, lizards, and frogs in addition to my primary target. While there, I managed to catch plenty of Speckled Kings, Rough Green snakes, Ringneck snakes, and insanely large, Black Rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta).
I once saw a shiny black tail sticking out of a large PVC drain pipe and decided to give it a tug. I pulled and pulled and pulled, and inches quickly turned to feet. I remember thinking the head should have appeared by now, and started feeling like a magician pulling the never-ending chain of handkerchiefs out of his pocket. I eventually got to the head, and was greeted by the largest snake I had ever before laid eyes on. It was extremely calm and was in the process of digesting a very large meal which I assume was either an adult rabbit, or one of my dad’s chickens. At seven feet long or better, it would have been a worthy prize to show off, but fearing that my father might also have the chicken notion, I quickly released it so that it could keep its head a while longer. Surprisingly, that ended up not being the largest Black Ratsnake I saw there, but I’ll save that story for another day.
In addition to being home to all the previously mentioned harmless snakes, Arkansas is also home to a couple of venomous serpents. My family had only been there a month or two, when I decided to walk the half mile to the nearest neighbors house to visit Shane, who was a few years older than I, but shared my fascination with snakes. On my way through the grassy expanse, I happened to look down and saw an amazingly beautiful species of snake I had never seen before. I was practically standing on top of the thing, and though my curiosity piqued, instinct took over, and told me not to touch it until I knew what it was. I ran the rest of the way to Shane’s house to tell him what I saw, and he confirmed that what I had almost stepped on, was a venomous Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix).
A logical person would assume that the knowledge that something is venomous would deter one from pursuing it, and in most cases, it likely does. However, my brush with potential disaster only intrigued me more, and my favorite snake became the Copperhead.
Over the decades, my desire for knowledge and experience with snakes has grown instead of diminished. Thanks to the world wide web, I had countless new sources of education, information and photographs. I discovered message boards full of others who had the same interests I have, which only added fuel to the fire. I now take several trips a year to a different destinations around the country looking for the critters I enjoy, hoping to occasionally add yet another new species to my ever growing list of lifetime encounters.
Though I like all kinds of snakes, my passion is forever allied with the venomous species. Darwin’s theory would have been proven multiple times already, but for his fatal flaw of wildly underestimating the determination of a controlling wife in preventing her loving, if somewhat reckless husband, from doing ANYTHING fun or moderately life-threatening.
Most venomous snakes (to me) are more beautiful than their harmless cousins. I am fascinated by the shape of the viper’s head, the crisp pattern of the coral snake. The heat-sensing capabilities of the pit vipers, and the vast variety of color schemes of the arboreal species world-wide. Perhaps I have added respect for the animals that could potentially end my life or maybe I’m a sucker for the way evolution has designed a snake with fold-able fangs and a rattle at the end of its tail. No matter the reason, these are the animals I prefer, and am fascinated by. I couldn’t change this preference any more than I could change my favorite flavor from cookie dough to worm slime. It’s a part of who I am and it is part of what defines me as a person. I embrace it, and hope that the people I care about will be accepting of this part of me.
Despite my position, the question still remains…is this a fatal attraction? I guess time will tell. For now I guess it is simply an attraction with inherent risk similar to that of countless other hobbies the masses of “normal” people enjoy. Rock climbing, sky-diving, hunting and scuba all come to mind. Plenty of people have accidentally gotten too close to the sharp end of a venomous critter and have sadly passed to the next existence. However, my primary objectives are conservation, education and personal enjoyment, and I feel that I am contributing in some small way to these goals every single day. While I do come into close contact with venomous snakes on a fairly regular basis, I am focused on doing so safely. I arm myself with a snake hook, a zoom lens and educated and experienced associates that all help keep me safe. If heaven forbid I ever do have an accident, I know exactly what to do to give myself the best possible chance of survival. If for some reason, all attempts for survival fall short (hopefully when I am very old), I will be satisfied knowing that I died doing what I love and will hope to have left somewhat of a legacy behind that may further perpetuate my goals of education and conservation.
In summary, I hope that all of you will find (if you haven’t already) a hobby that you enjoy as much as I enjoy mine. Everyone deserves an added element of joy and satisfaction that a true hobby can bring. Regardless of your hobby, do it safely, responsibly, and enjoy it to the fullest.
Your fellow Snake Buddy,