For Goodness Snakes

The snake turns in the direction of the mouse, forked tongue sensing the presence of a warm-blooded mammal. In a blur, the taut spring of a spine thrusts forward, snatches up victim in mouth, coils around it, and suffocates it.

Like most everything else about snakes, the mechanics of their eating illustrate one of nature's crowning achievements -- jaws that unhinge, teeth that curve inward for grasping and locking, an esophagus that expands like a balloon, and a digestive system capable of dissolving everything. It's a pretty nifty show, too.

Beyond ministering to the infirm, Zlatkin devotes much of his snake time to breeding, as well as lecturing to community groups and providing advice to other collectors. "I love questions," he says. "I got a call from a kid. I had sold him two red rat snakes, both females, and he said something was wrong with one of them. I found out he had gotten a third red rat snake from someone else. A male. I told him his snake was not sick -- but that there were babies on the way. I told him how to set up an incubating medium, and he got eggs. He was thrilled."

I know that thrill. As a kid I spent many a summer day trodding around the Everglades, going from spot to spot and finding snake after glorious snake. Red rats and kings and water snakes. Garters, greens, rattlers. That was years ago, though, and this summer I wanted to see firsthand if my friends the snakes had endured the human abuse of the Glades. Encouraging reports had filtered in: Miccosukees residing in the Everglades had said snakes are so plentiful right now they have to guard against home invasions. An accountant in Pembroke Pines was recently delayed entrance to her apartment by a porch-dwelling serpent. An advertising salesman lucked into possession of a gorgeous red rat snake while visiting the aviary at Cauley Square. Miami's environs seemed to be crawling with the things. That aside, I was afraid the increased traffic, overdevelopment, and droughts and fires had depleted my old snaking grounds.

Okay, so that's not entirely true. What I really wanted was to recapture the rush of spotting the secretive reptiles in the wild, and controlling them. During several July and August road-cruising expeditions, I was sickened by the number of snakes I saw killed, victims of the automobile. But I was also heartened by the number of live specimens I encountered.

The experts -- herpetologists, collectors, gamekeepers -- offer two important facts about the status of Everglades snakes. First, they say rampant development of the eastern front, pollution, natural disasters such as drought, and the predominance of ferocious predators with names like Chevrolet and BMW must be cutting into snake -- and other wildlife -- populations. Secondly, they say no one really knows. Simple observation gives support to the first point: Drive down the Tamiami Trail before sunrise and you'll see dozens of dead snakes. The second is obvious: No one can hope to know with any accuracy the number of snakes alive and well in the Glades.

One source of solid, if limited, empirical data can be found in a two-year study conducted by Frank S. Bernardino, Jr. The FIU graduate student staked out a seven-mile section of road just past the southern entrance to Everglades National Park for his research into roadkill and seasonal snake activity. Bernardino didn't set out to provide a sweeping, definitive analysis (The State of the Snake), but he did record sixteen different species in his limited area. That was the good news. The bad news was predictable: "Over seventy per cent of all snakes found on [that segment of] Main Park Road between February 1987 and January 1989 were either dead or injured." He also discovered that during the dry spells, 80 per cent of the snakes found had been injured or killed by automobiles. "I don't keep pet snakes, or any other nondomesticated wildlife," Bernardino says. "But I have a professional opinion: Snakes are an often overlooked component of an ecosystem, and they provide a valuable function both as predator and prey. As such they should not be overlooked."

Jon Palmisciano, like David Zlatkin and Frank Bernardino, does not overlook snakes, and he's offered to take me road cruising in western Broward County, near U.S. 27 and Alligator Alley. We've arranged to meet at a rest stop in an area that, on a steamy July evening, looks like the Serengeti during flood season. The flat green is endless, its shimmering natural beauty marred only by the busy expressway cutting through it.

Part Two

A sales rep for a paint company by day, Palmisciano finds leisure in watching stock-car races and snaking. A year and a half ago he formed the Sawgrass Herpetological Society, which now boasts 35 dues-paying members, and though he doesn't go hunting as much as he used to, he agreed to guide me to some of his old haunts in order to prove there are still plenty of snakes in the Everglades. And to lobby on their behalf. "What purpose is this article supposed to serve?" he had asked. "There are too many stories in the papers about boas and pythons being found next to people's houses. People get terrified." (Yes, Jon, but then again, people can sometimes be stupid.)

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