For Goodness Snakes

David Zlatkin's snake fever is a chronic affliction, and during our road-cruising expedition along the Tamiami Trail, I understand why. The thrill of the hunt, by definition, includes discovery of the unexpected. As when Zlatkin stops quickly again. "Don't get out," he says. He has found something, but it's not a snake. He steps onto the road and grabs a turtle, whose destiny Zlatkin has altered by removing it from the lethal asphalt.

We drive to a nearby levee to release the turtle and Zlatkin brakes hard, leaps from the car, places the turtle upside down on the roof, takes a few quick steps, and captures a large garter snake. As we bag the specimen, Zlatkin spots another garter coiled a few yards away. That one gets bagged, too. Zlatkin releases the turtle into the marshy pond, thanking the animal for bringing him to this fertile spot.

The road cruising continues, and we catch a tiny crayfish snake and a three-foot mud snake. Zlatkin suspects these two will end up being released in a few days; he has little interest in the former, and the latter does not, as a species, do well in captivity. Mud snakes are aesthetically pleasing -- black and shades of red divided top and bottom on a large body -- and they never bite. "I might keep it," he says as the snake tangles itself in the steering wheel. "I have experimented with mud snakes and I think I have found the secret to keeping them healthy."

So far Zlatkin's eagle vision and lightning reactions have brought us a decent lot, but we still haven't found a banded water snake, the species he's most interested in tonight. There's one! Zlatkin checks the rearview mirror as he swerves off the road. "That is a banded," he says excitedly, "but we have oncoming traffic." We sprint toward impending doom, Zlatkin footing the pavement, waving his flashlight, desperately trying to avert the collision of automobile and animal. The westbound sedan zips by.

Standing in the road, I feel sick to my stomach. The water snake is springing upward, as if trying to jump, snapping at the warm air in spastic motions. "I saw the tire of the car hit it," Zlatkin says in a shaken tone. He gently removes the injured snake from the road. An unnatural bulge protrudes from its side. "There is no way to tell the extent of the internal injuries," Zlatkin says as he deposits the victim in the swamp. "I could try to rehabilitate it, but it probably has a better chance out here." It is a sad moment. "Somebody did a test," Zlatkin says flatly, "where they put lifelike fake animals in the road. They found that people would avoid hitting bunnies, but would go out of their way, cross six lanes, to kill a snake."

The night is dwindling as we change course and roll slowly along a one-lane access road cordoned by pines on the north and jungle to the south. We see it simultaneously -- large brown mammal, another bobcat. During a half-dozen trips over a month's time, I've seen two of them. The sightings were 100 miles apart, completely unexpected, exhilarating. I screamed.

We had turned around and had begun moseying back when the bobcat bolted from the bushes directly into the front of Zlatkin's car. I see the animal in the right headlight and then I don't see it at all. Zlatkin has stopped on a dime. We get out and look underneath the car. Nothing. "There was no thump," Zlatkin offers optimistically. No blood on the pavement. Nothing in the engine compartment. "We missed it," Zlatkin says with audible relief. "Either that, or it was a ghost."

The Everglades might have been ruined for me had we injured or killed that big feline. Instead I'm overjoyed at the good fortune of having missed, and grateful for Zlatkin's cobra-quick reactions. Soon we're out of the car again. Zlatkin has stopped, though I didn't see a thing. Standing in the glow of his high beams, he pumps his arm and barks, "Yes! Yes!" In his hands is shining yellow-red-black beauty in a beast -- a seven-inch scarlet king snake. Zlatkin is exuberant.

It's a priceless find, but a reporter has to check the facts anyway. "This specimen is worth about $35 or $40 at $5 per inch," Zlatkin says for the record. "But it is not for sale." I tell him about Jon Palmisciano's eagerness to acquire scarlet kings for his collection. "Not for sale at any price," Zlatkin says firmly. He places the little creature in a pillowcase, knots it, places it in a second bag, knots it. "Just in case there is a tiny hole in one," he explains. "Scarlet kings are the best escape artists there are." We smile. Zlatkin, a bit of an artist himself, in his own weird way, is a happy man.

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