Save the snakes, for goodness' sake

SPRING HILL, Fla. (AP) — Floridians who encounter rattlers in their yards, carports and bedrooms sometimes track down Jim Mendenhall, the last of the snakemen, who arrives shortly with his flashlight, his pillowcase and his trusty pole-and-hook.

"Where's the snake?" he asked an anxious Hernando County woman a while back.

"I saw the tail when it crawled under my bed."

During dry weather it had slithered through a broken patio screen to drink from a swimming pool. Then it had started exploring. The sliding glass door to the bedroom had been left open.

"Mind if I lift your bed?" asked the snakeman.

As the snake began rattling, Mendenhall dragged it from underneath the bed with his trusty pole. A giant, the rattler measured more than 7 feet.

Later, in the woods, the snakeman dumped it from the pillowcase, pleased he had saved still another eastern diamondback from gun or shovel, automobile tire or bulldozer.

"They're beautiful animals," he always tells people. "And they're disappearing."

Florida once had a lot of snakemen, usually grizzled fellows who caught, bought, sold and often displayed their wriggling inventory on roadsides from the Panhandle to the Everglades. Now they're as endangered as their snakes.

The showman Ross Allen opened his famous theme park, the Reptile Institute at Silver Springs, in 1929, where he wrestled alligators and milked rattlesnakes in front of awestruck tourists. Bill Haast, a former carny who developed an international following, displayed his cold-blooded wares at the Miami Serpentarium starting in 1949.

Allen died in 1981 and Haast a few months ago at age 100. Jim Mendenhall, who caught snakes for both legends, is still standing. He is 69 and has a bad finger, the result of an unpleasant encounter with a cottonmouth. But his hands are seldom free of wriggling reptiles.

Next weekend he will carry his rattlers and moccasins and cobras to San Antonio, in Pasco County, for the 45th Annual Rattlesnake Festival. On Saturday and Sunday he will milk the rattlers and the moccasins of their venom and display the 9-foot king cobra that "would like to kill me if it could."

Mostly he will talk about the loveliness of snakes. He will ask the spectators to enjoy them at a distance, and if the worst happens, if something with fangs and a poison sac shows up in the yard, to give him a call. If you live within an hour's drive — Mendenhall resides in Hernando County — he will catch it before anything bad happens either to you or one of those precious snakes. He charges $25 to $50, depending on distance.

Rattlesnakes aren't classified as endangered but probably should be. About 98 percent of their historic habitat, the long-leaf pine forests of the South, has been logged, developed, farmed and fragmented during the past century, resulting in a near-collapse of the population, according to herpetologist Bruce Means of Florida State University. Many rattlers are shot or are run over by vehicles.

In Georgia, Alabama and Texas they are collected by the hundreds during "rattlesnake roundups," butchered and eaten. At the San Antonio Rattlesnake Festival, no snakes appear on the menu. They're celebrated for keeping Florida's remaining pine-and-palmetto country wild a little bit longer.

"Snakes keep nature in balance," Mendenhall tells all who will listen. "They eat rodents, birds and other snakes."


Reptilian rhapsody

His life as a snakeman began early, in Miami, near the edge of the Everglades, where so many wild things once slithered in cold-blooded glory. When he was 7 he picked up his first snake, a colorful rope of beauty, and rode home on his bike with the prize stashed in a pocket.

"Don't move," said his mother when she saw it. "We need to find out what it is."

At the Miami Serpentarium, Bill Haast told them.

"Coral snake. Its venom is more powerful than even a cobra's. Either let it go or give it to me."

The strong-willed boy kept the snake. By 14 he was cleaning cages for Haast and learning all he could.

He quit school after eighth grade and repaired cars to pay bills. At night and weekends he was a full-time snakeman, roaming the Everglades to catch moccasins and rattlers. Sometimes he climbed pines and snatched yellow rat snakes from tree limbs. As he descended, the snakes sometimes struggled free enough to bite him on the face. They weren't venomous, but the teeth drew blood.

Near the Apalachicola River he caught his first copperheads and timber rattlers. Sometimes he traded his native snakes for bigger, more dangerous snakes from foreign lands, built cages, sold antivenin, showed snakes off to his new wife, Michele, and taught their children to respect snakes. He served in the military, become a cop out West and caught western diamondbacks. Three decades ago he returned to Florida and built a house next to a swamp where frogs sang sad nighttime arias and where the cottonmouths never went hungry.

Most young snakemen want to catch every snake, keep every snake, sell snakes, trade snakes, buy snakes and brag about close calls while handling dangerous snakes. But as they mature, many notice the diminished world around them and seek a higher purpose.

"I speak for the scaled ones who have no voice," Mendenhall often says. "For me it's all about public education now."

He puts on snake shows throughout the South, lecturing at schools and nature centers. He regularly meets with golf course employees and teaches them what to do if they encounter a cottonmouth at a water hazard. When sheriff's deputies discover something dangerous, they keep their pistols holstered and call him instead.

In an average year, an estimated 7,000 Americans are bitten by snakes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mendenhall wonders about the reliability of that figure, since some people never seek treatment or competently identify the snake or even develop symptoms. Fewer than 10 people die.

"Still, lots of people are irrationally afraid of snakes," Mendenhall says. "They automatically want to kill them. Why? Because they fear them, and we kill what we fear. We kill them because they're alive and because they happen to be here."

Sometimes when he thinks of the injustice, he fumes. "Can they hurt you? Absolutely. Can they kill you? Absolutely. But the chances of it happening? Very small if you leave them alone."

He walks across the high-security room in the back of his house. Windows are barred; the only door is made of reinforced steel. The alarm system is worthy of Fort Knox.

He removes a plastic box, decorated with a skull and crossbones, from the shelf. Something inside the box begins moving ominously.

He opens the box.

The type A kind

"I was going to play golf that day," he says, staring at the cottonmouth, now raising its head and flicking its tongue. "I was in a hurry. I was moving this very cottonmouth from the sink to its box. You know how I told you that most snakes aren't aggressive? Well, this one is. This is the most aggressive cottonmouth I've ever seen."

He lifts the cottonmouth from the box by the hook. It lunges, recoils, tries to bite.

They're water snakes mostly. Heavy-bodied with a diamond-shaped head, cottonmouths eat fish, birds and whatever else they can catch. A giant might measure 5 feet. They're usually dark, a chocolate brown. A black lateral stripe stretches from each eye. When alarmed, a cottonmouth will open its jaw and display the cold white mouth.

"That day I picked it up with the hook. I was going to drop it into its box. It fell off the hook. On the way to the floor it struck at me from midair."

He knew that one fang had punctured his left index finger.

"It felt like I was being burned by a hot poker." He caught the snake, put it away, went into the house, told Michele the bad news, said he was going to ride it out at home.

"No, you're not," she said.

At the hospital he was thirsty and swollen and sick. No painkiller killed the pain. His doctors started an IV. During the next 24 hours they administered six vials of antivenin. He had insurance; otherwise he would have been out more than $60,000.

Three years later the finger still tingles. Some cottonmouth victims lose their toes and fingers and gobs of flesh. He was lucky.

There. The cottonmouth is back in the box.

Lid closed.

The laid-back kind

TV snakemen drive Jeeps, have tattoos and strange piercings, listen to heavy metal and come across as macho showoffs. Mendenhall drives a Chrysler Town & Country van and listens to Carole King sing about the earth moving under her feet.

It's an hour after dusk. His blue eyes look for movement along the side of a lonely country highway. He's road hunting.

In the Everglades he once hit the brakes, jumped out and grabbed a 12-foot Burmese python, an alien species bedeviling South Florida. On road hunts he picks up cottonmouths and corn snakes, coachwhips and kingsnakes, pine and bull snakes. At home he gives them a medical checkup. If they're hurt, he performs surgery. Later he releases them far away from the roads.

Fall is his favorite time of year for road hunting. It's mating season for rattlers. They're on the move. A moonless night is better than a moonlit night. A rainy night is better than a dry night.

He likes to look for snakes where frogs and toads are abundant. He remembers walking Big Cypress roads as a teenager and listening to the deafening roar of frogs and seeing hundreds of snakes there to eat the frogs.

"We don't have as many frogs as we used to, so we don't have as many snakes," he says. "We don't have the woods and the swamps either. I want to write a book for my grandchildren and tell them the way Florida used to be. It makes me very sad. We humans have found a way to destroy everything."

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