For Goodness Snakes

"Conservation through captive propogation, that's our motto," Hill continues. "What happens otherwise is these environmental terrorists, that's what I consider them, go out there with their gasoline. That can cause respiratory damage to the snake, but the wholesaler doesn't care because he turns 'em over in a few days. The snakes don't die on him."

Commercial sales, Hill says, have boomed in recent years as more people are introduced to the pleasures of keeping a pet snake, and as more serious collectors initiate their own breeding programs. "The percentage is not up to dogs and cats yet," Hill laughs, "but the percentage of snake sales to dealers keeps getting larger and larger. Companies that five years ago dealt strictly in crickets now also deal in mice [for sale as snake food]. A mink and rabbit breeder now has a reptile catalogue. The industry has grown in leaps and bounds."

Jon Palmisciano notes that the burgeoning interest in snakes, especially in their breeding, is a boon to those reptiles in the Glades. "Collecting has come so far in the past ten years," he says. "People now understand breeding. And people pay more for bred snakes, which reduces the strain on wild populations. In the long run, that will be the only savior for these animals. No one's going to stop people moving into Florida, and the state can only buy so much land."

During our July trip, Palmisciano and I have seen a half-dozen snakes on the shoulder of the highway. All dead, mashed by automobiles. But Palmisciano isn't about to give up this early. He is driven by the hunt, addicted -- just one more road, one more cruise, just one more, and one more. "It's such an adrenaline rush when you find one," he says. "If I get, say, a small water snake, I'm good for about twenty minutes, a half-hour. A big rat snake and I'll be set for an hour and a half." On this night, Palmisciano is desperate for a fix.

The ribbon snake is fifteen yards ahead, on the fringe of the road, about to disappear into the underbrush. Palmisciano leaps from the Bronco and runs full steam at it, snags its tail, brings it onto the pavement. He holds the three-footer in front of his headlight, and the snake begins "musking" -- emitting a foul odor that, like a skunk, discourages predators. Jim Smith passes by, and Palmisciano, who has no use for the animal, turns the ribbon over to him.

When he drives us back to the road where we began our search, Palmisciano immediately spots something at the entrance, and we assume it is another car victim. It's not, it's alive, a hefty banded water snake that goes into a cottonmouth impression -- spreading its head into a triangle -- as I pick it up. The three people we'd run into earlier at this spot arrive to check it out. This time the wiry young guy has a name, David Shaffer, and an answer to our "seen anything?" question. He unknots his pillowcase. Inside are two beautiful red rat snakes, a yellow rat, a ribbon, a green snake, and the amazing Everglades rat snake, which is a golden orange color that seems to glow. Palmisciano estimates Shaffer's catch is worth $50, with rat snakes going for four or five dollars per foot.

Shaffer, who was suspicious enough to ask if I was a game warden (even though he was doing nothing illegal), is coy about his intentions, mentioning that his brother is a breeder. "Do you keep any pets at home, Mr. Shaffer?" He looks up from his well-stocked bag, smiles, and says, "Well, I have a dog."

Palmisciano admires Shaffer's catch and indicates he's in the market for scarlet king snakes, but only if their coloration is perfect and the price is right. The scarlet king snake might be the most beautiful reptile on earth, a small species with bands of bright yellow, red, and black. We'd sure like to find one, but we'll take what we can get.

So we make a last run down this dark rural road, which is about 200 yards from U.S. 27. We find so many snakes that we don't even stop at each one. Palmisciano jumps from the car to handle another big ribbon snake. I'm standing next to him, and when I look behind me, I see yet another ribbon a few feet away. And a water snake over there. And another one.

Part Three

Back at the rest stop where we originally hooked up, Palmisciano waves his hand across the vast expanse of Everglades. "Do you really think we can deplete that?" he asks. He doesn't, explaining that only a few of the countless snakes of the Glades cross the road, and only the roads are reasonably accessible to collectors. On the down side, he notes that roads like the highway next to us divide the habitat, isolating groups of animals in smaller areas, which can lead to inbreeding and damage to the gene pool.

The banded water snake Palmisciano and I found -- the one we thought had been squashed but was actually just lounging in the middle of the road -- bit Palmisciano several times on the hand, drawing blood and leaving an indentation of curved teeth. He insisted it was no bother, that the mosquito bite on the back of his leg was much worse. He wasn't even concerned about infection. However, when I spoke to Palmisciano a few days later, he worried me. "I got a fever after that night," he said. Before I could ask him what caused it and if he'd been to a doctor, he added, "Yeah, I got the fever. I went back out collecting Saturday and Sunday."

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