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."

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.)

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.

"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."

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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