For Goodness Snakes

As Palmisciano steers his Bronco down one of several paved access roads we'll visit this night, he spots another car coming out and flags down its driver, a wiry young guy with a woman and a boy in the car. "Seen anything?" Palmisciano asks vaguely. The man in the car cocks his head slightly: "Like what?" Snake hunters are generally as secretive as their reptilian quarry.

Along this road, Palmisciano stops several times and moves into the bushes. He knows there are boards lying on the ground there, and he knows snakes often hide underneath flat things. He finds nothing, so we drive to another road. As we slowly cruise along, I spot something in the brush 50 yards ahead. A brown blur, large mammal. Palmisciano has also caught sight of it, but neither of us wants to be the first to suggest the impossible. I give in first: "If that was a Florida panther, it makes up for any lack of snakes. But we'll never know."

At the end of the road we turn around and head back. The big animal suddenly runs across the pavement in clear view a couple of dozen yards ahead of us. An oversize bobcat, a fearfully framed beast within dying distance of a major thoroughfare. I silently wish him Godspeed.

It's getting dark and still no evidence of snakes. We've flipped trash such as discarded washing machines -- a common method of snaking -- and we've cruised. On our third run, Palmisciano observes a car stopped with both front doors open. "He's got something," Palmisciano says excitedly as he accelerates to the other vehicle. A husky man with wariness in his eyes is climbing back into his car. Jim Smith, veteran snaker, tells us ruefully that three years ago he'd be alone at these spots, but "now I see twenty cars out here on the weekends." Smith has just caught a banded water snake. Removing it from a pillow case, we can see it isn't much to look at, but any catch is encouraging, a signal that we're looking in the right place.

Smith likes snakes, of course, but what he truly loves is snake hunting. The Cooper City resident and South Florida native is out road cruising three to five times each week, usually with his fiancee Teddi. "We get to spend time together," Smith notes, adding other reasons: "I've always collected reptiles. There's the cash factor -- you can make money. But it's more a way to get out in the woods at night. I fish, hunt, trap. But snake hunting is year-round and inexpensive. I'm an outdoors person."

He's also meticulous. Smith keeps a journal in an effort to analyze the effects of weather on reptile-gathering. The best results, he says, occur when it's warm and dry, and when there's not much moonlight. Apparently his method works. "I rarely get skunked," he boasts. No one, however, can discount the role of simple good luck. A few weeks ago Smith got lucky. He was snaking near Alligator Alley when he spotted yet another banded water snake. He grabbed his bag, shined light on the snake, casually picked it up, dropped it in the sack. Then, peering into the pillowcase, he realized it wasn't a banded water snake at all. With the same sense of surprise David Zlatkin and I experienced that night on the Tamiami Trail, Smith discovered his harmless snake was really a cottonmouth water moccasin. "But it didn't bite me," Smith recalls with an appreciative laugh. (Contrary to myth, most snakes do not like to bite humans. They prefer other varieties of vermin.)

There are two types of snake hunters. One type may keep certain specimens as pets, releasing what they don't want. Or they might catch them, keep them a few days, then release them. Or maybe they'll catch one, snap a photograph of it, then let it go. If they have the expertise, they might also use their snakes for breeding -- replenishing the species, helping ensure survival. David Zlatkin, Jon Palmisciano, and Jim Smith fall into this category, even though Smith confesses that he does sell some of his finds. "There are collectors who are interested in the long-term benefit of different species," Palmisciano explains, "and most everything they catch gets released. They have a moral problem with selling the snakes."

The second type of snake hunter faces no such moral dilemmas. He is a sales machine, grabbing anything that moves and turning a profit through wholesalers. (Catching snakes in the wild is legal, with a couple of important exceptions: protected lands such as Everglades National Park, and protected snakes such as the legendary indigo are off limits. Selling snakes is another matter. The state requires all sellers, amateur or professional, to have a permit.)

Too often, this second type of hunter has little interest in science and no patience for luck. One favored, and reprehensible, short cut is the use of gasoline: Pour a can of gas on a pile of rocks and any snakes hiding within will immediately slither out to save their lives -- if they're quick enough. Wayne Hill, whose Central Florida Herpetological Society has become the umbrella group for a dozen of the state's reptile societies, says this about the business of snaking: "Some people collect not as a hobby, but as a living. Once they base their income on it, they don't get real selective about how many they take from what areas. There's a thin line between being a professional snake hunter and a nature raper.

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