For Goodness Snakes

The deep freezer in David A. Zlatkin's one-bedroom apartment is stocked with chilled corpses, the macabre by-product of a hobby that has consumed him. Frozen to their bones are three red rat snakes, a scarlet king snake, a closely related scarlet snake, a cottonmouth water moccasin, a couple of mud snakes, and a plastic sandwich bag stuffed with gassed mice. Born, reared, and still living near Tropical Park, Zlatkin is the sort of person some folks might call a weirdo. In truth, though, he's just an outdoors type who snorkels, stargazes, and regularly practices something known as "road cruising."

Which is what we're doing here, trekking through the deepest Everglades, far from civilization, in the dead of night. The only sounds are the chirps and buzzes of wildlife. We are alone as humans. Zlatkin, his round face devilishly accented with a goatee, mutters something about a disdain for homo sapiens, about people being a poor excuse for a species. He mentions Jason, the slasher from Friday the 13th, and spookily points out that there might be butchered teen-agers right over there.

Until you get to know him, David Zlatkin does seem a little weird. "I am sorry I had to cut short your earlier phone call," he had said the day before. "There were people on tables bleeding all around me, and they could not wait." He tends to speak like that -- formally, without contractions or slang. And sometimes without explanation. "I am a vampire." Pause. Eerie chuckle. "I work in a blood bank."

Out to the Tamiami Trail we head on a perfect night -- warm, dry, very little moonlight. Some road cruisers like to get off the highway and spend their hours zigzagging through the access roads. Zlatkin prefers simply driving up and down the Trail itself. When he eyeballs something interesting, he'll quickly pull off the road and whip his car around. If traffic doesn't allow that, he'll slam to a stop, leap out, and run back to his heart's desire: snakes.

This evening we're prowling for the serpents, in particular for banded water snakes, which are abundant in this part of the Glades. Among road cruisers, water snakes are not the most desired species. They're too common, too dull looking, and too difficult to tame. Few South Florida snake people, for example, bother to breed them. But that is exactly what Zlatkin wants to do. "They are good cheap pets," he insists, "perfect for a kid's first snake. Plus if they happen to escape, they are a native species and can find a canal and survive."

The first live snake we see looks like a big banded water snake, and Zlatkin abruptly jerks his 1987 Chevy Sprint to the shoulder. We run toward the snake, hoping traffic doesn't beat us to it. It's alive, but it's not a simple water snake. It's the feared cottonmouth water moccasin, one of the few venomous snakes found in the United States, and a somewhat dangerous species thanks to its large size and corresponding amount of hemotoxic venom. This one is a handsome specimen. Zlatkin uses a thin, four-foot-long metal rod to prod the viper off the road and into the grass. While this is taking place, the snake flashes its fangs several times and strikes out at thin air, but within inches of Zlatkin's blue jeans. He pins the cottonmouth's head with the rod and grabs it at the neck, holding tightly as the snake desperately tries to twist around and sink its fangs into Zlatkin's bare hand. We admire the white of its mouth, then toss it into the Tamiami canal. "I might have kept him," Zlatkin says as the cottonmouth swims away, "but I do not have a proper cage set up for it."

That's not to say Zlatkin doesn't have snake cages. His apartment is crammed with them -- in the living room, the bedroom, the closet. More than 60 snakes in all, some of them resting temporarily in knotted pillow cases. Many of the creatures are couples that Zlatkin hopes will start families. He's already had some major successes, such as the time he wound up with so many infant red rat snakes he was able to fill a pillowcase with them, travel far out into the Glades, and deposit handfuls of the youngsters every few yards -- the Johnny Appleseed of the reptile world.

He's also suffered some disappointments. "I had an especially unusual strain of scarlet snake, a specimen I acquired from someone who had bought it from someone else," Zlatkin recalls. "It got sick and then sicker and then it died. I found out it had been caught by a person using gasoline [to drive it from its hiding place]. That is what killed it. And now that strain is gone forever."

At the moment, Zlatkin is nursing another serpent that hasn't been feeling well. The California king snake rests in a plastic container out in the living room, where freshly captured specimens and those in ill health are quarantined. Zlatkin removes a small gray mouse from a cage full of them and drops it in with the snake, wiggling his finger against the side of the container to help the king locate its meal. "Watch my finger," he says in baby talk. "Come on snakey. Over here, over here."

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