My day among the reptiles
“Oh, you are sooo cute,” the visiting Dutch herpetologist at my side cooed.
It would have been nice if the pretty young scientist, wearing no more than a pound of clothing, shoes included, was enamored of me. She was not.
She was excited by an alligator snapping turtle weighing more than 200 pounds, with a head the size of a country ham, but less alluring.
The eyes in that head shared the color, texture and sparkle of a half-eaten marshmallow rolled in dirt.
But this, to a herpetologist, is sexy.
I know, because up until the age of 15, I was one. Had six reptiles in a five-room apartment. That was when my mother said, “You know, if the snake thing seems like a dead end, you could always get a job.”
Rob Carmichael, unlike me, stuck with it, and now the snake thing is his job. He’s the founder and curator of the Wildlife Discovery Center, a zoo/animal rehab facility on a former gentleman’s farm owned by the City of Lake Forest. He has a handful of birds, one bobcat and probably more reptiles than either big area zoo, where Carmichael says they’re relegated to the status of accoutrements to habitats for warm, fuzzy mammals.
At Carmichael’s place, mammals mostly play the role of food.
DINNER IS SERVED
He assigned me to feeding a couple of snakes, both with heads full of poison. The first was a Gaboon viper, a beautiful, mostly cafe-au-lait snake with the triangular noggin common to vipers. Gaboons are the heftiest of vipers, and carry the biggest payload of venom.
“It has two-inch fangs,” Carmichael said gleefully.
“We’ll open the front of the cage, and you’ll hand her the rat on the tongs.
“If she misses it, don’t even worry about the tongs. Step back. Right away.”
He told me that “Gabby” was usually well-mannered and unlikely to hurl herself on me as soon as we opened her window.
I later read that the typical Gaboon viper is so laid-back that it doesn’t bite anybody unless they step on its head.
Then of course, they die.
I stuck the defrosted rat a few inches from Gabby’s comely lips, and was ignored. I brought it closer and closer, and remembered one of the drawbacks of working with snakes.
They do not come when called.
“Hit her in the face with it,” Carmichael advised.
Gabby stopped looking at me like I was an idiot, and grabbed that rat and started chewing venom into it. To give an idea of her speed relative to mine, I’d guess it took me 4,000 times as long to get the tongs off the rat as she did to sink her giant front teeth into it.
I met Carmichael in June when I wrote a story about a regular-size snapping turtle named Jenna who had been run over by a car, patched up, and brought to his center at Elawa Farm to recover. This, I thought, would be a great place to work as The Unemployee. This guy has cobras!
Monitor lizards! Rattlesnakes!
And he promised me I could spend a couple of morning hours on a field study a Loyola graduate student was doing on garter snakes, finding out where they like to hang out, and under what circumstances.
Getting sprayed with musk and poop by them.
Well, three out of four isn’t bad.
But in two hours, we didn’t encounter a single snake in the prairie west of the center. Too hot.
The young naturalist, Matt Most, told me many were probably hiding inside crayfish burrows, in the cool earth beneath the ponds and marshes. This delighted me, because it was the theory current in the vacant lot of my youth in 1962.
Don’t be too impressed. We also thought that Bozo wore big shoes and blue pajamas at home.
The dearth of snakes to catch was not a big deal. Like fishing, a bad day of field study beats a good day at work.
I saw a heron, a vole, two frogs, a turtle and lots of dragonflies. And we had two hours to talk about all kinds of things, not just science.
“It’s in terrible shape,” Most, 25, said. “Wrigley Field has got to go down.”
Now there’s a guy who understands habitats.
BRUSH WITH GREATNESS
When we got back, I heard Carmichael say to somebody, “We’re going to have Irv scrub Bruno.” Bruno is never the name of something small, unless somebody’s having a joke.
Bruno turned out to be the alligator snapping turtle. Carmichael guesses he’s the biggest one on Earth, but he doesn’t know for sure, because no one wants to try to get Bruno on a scale.
Carmichael handed me a floor brush and a pair of waders, and told me to get in Bruno’s tub with him, but make sure to stay to his rear.
“If he gets you by the arm or leg, there’s no way he’s going to let go,” Carmichael said. “Do a lot of damage. Nothing we could do.”
“Well, you could shoot him,” I said.
“I would try to find another way,” he said.
“I vote for shooting,” I said quietly, realizing I stood lower on the pecking order than a mean-spirited turtle with a brain the size of an anchovy.
As I went to work on his shell, I learned I was scrubbing off rust left over from the years Bruno lived in Milwaukee, in a steel trough too small for him to get down on all fours in. I got almost all the orange off, then sneaked out of his hot tub without saying good-bye.
A DAY’S WORK
I did several other strange things at Carmichael’s request. I eviscerated a rat, because the Great Horned Owl that was to dine on it does not like viscera. I fed a good-sized rabbit to a 110-pound Burmese python, and tried not to think of Easter as the squishing began.
I gave a rat to an Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake, the most poisonous rattler anywhere, and never saw it strike. But it did. I gave a mouse to a small crocodile, which jumped out of the water to get it like something from a Roger Corman movie.
I held onto a big monitor lizard while center employee Maggie Solum trimmed her nails, and was surprised to feel her snuggle against my face. The lizard, not Maggie.
I took another monitor for a walk around the premises by teasing it with an impaled rat.
(Note: This disproves the Food Network’s claim that everything tastes better on a stick.)
And I carried the nearly healed snapping turtle Jenna to her pool to cool off.
As I was toting her with my right palm across the crack in her shell to keep it from splitting again, she raked my fingers repeatedly with her rear claws.
I watched the video we made of my workday, and I look like I’m running with a hot platter with a head.
“Ow, ow,” said I. “Ow, ow ow.”
“She got you pretty good?” asked Carmichael. “Welcome to my world,” he said.
Maybe Jenna didn’t like the story, I thought. But why can’t she just send a nasty e-mail like everybody else?