It Gives You the Slithers

An Intrepid Herpetologist With a Passion for Pit Vipers
Has Penned a Tell-All Tale of Snakedom

by Robert Sanders

Harry Greene deftly hooked the venomous snake from its cage and dangled it in midair.

"Don't worry, they don't like to fall," he said reassuringly.

But then he placed the snake-a Costa Rican jumping pit viper he had raised from infancy-in the middle of the floor.

The tiny, windowless room in the basement of Life Science Addition seemed suddenly claustrophobic.

Greene knows his snakes, though. In a few seconds he had coaxed it into a clear plastic tube, grabbed tube and snake together and hefted them for a closer look.

Petting a poisonous snake is a rare experience.

Dry, rough brown scales covered a muscular body as thick as Greene's wrist, a body which was powerful enough to thrash about alarmingly before Greene returned it to its cozy cage.

Greene, 51, is curator of herpetology at the campus's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, a professor of integrative biology and author of a new book entitled "Snakes, The Evolution of Mystery in Nature" (UC Press).

Bearded and burly, he looks as if he would be more comfortable in the field clambering over rocks and through brush than holed up in an office.

In fact he has traipsed the jungles and deserts, forests and seas of the world in search of snakes, in particular the poisonous variety.

Snakes have been his life for more than 20 years, and his new book seeks to share that life with the reader.

Part treatise, part lore, part catharsis, it reveals a love of snakes that Greene has nurtured since the age of five. In wonderfully evocative prose he deals with everything from snake behavior and anatomy to snake evolution and human interactions with snakes.

He even contemplates the question of why we seem to have an innate fear of these slithering squamates.

The book's reception has been overwhelmingly positive.

A laudatory review in the New York Times Book Review by David Quammen, author of "The Song of the Dodo," concluded, "Would it seem overmuch to say that no household, no serious library, should lack a copy of this stunning book? I don't think so. Life is short, but snakes are long."

Part of the credit is due his two colleagues, Michael and Patricia Fogden, veteran nature photographers who captured beautiful images of snakes in their natural habitats in 18 countries on six continents. Michael Fogden, a PhD biologist, was careful to photograph each snake not only on the correct vegetation, but eating the precise prey species it prefers.

The experience was more than Greene hoped for when he decided to write a book after years contemplating the idea-an idea he hatched not long after coming to Berkeley in 1978.

"I was feeling drained," he said of that period in his life. Several people close to him had recently died, he had divorced, and "I thought writing would be a good way to grapple with my life, to work it out." Among the feelings to be worked out, too, were those from previous jobs as an ambulance driver and an Army medic, where he daily confronted death.

Just how to work things out was the question. He assumed writing fiction would be best, until he met Norman Maclean, acclaimed author of "A River Runs through It," who urged him, "Look, just tell me, why do you work with those damned old rattlesnakes? Go write about that!"

"I tried to write two books. A synthesis of snake biology, for people like me, at 14, and a series of essays, like a smaller book that runs through it," Greene said. "They're my answer to Maclean's question, 'Why work with snakes?'"

Among the answers are snakes' amazing behavior. They have a unique way of moving, for example, ranging from the sidewinders that scoot laterally through the sand to arboreal snakes that descend trees with a concertina motion. Their unusual skeletons allow their skulls to essentially walk over and around the large animals they consume. A snake's venom starts the digestive process from the inside even before it begins to swallow its prey.

Greene has concentrated primarily on pit vipers, in particular various species of rattlesnake living in the American southwest. For the past 10 years his main subject has been the black-tailed rattlesnake of the rocky Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona.

Working with a now retired physician, David L. Hardy Sr., they have implanted radio devices in many snakes and followed the same individuals for years. He has tracked one snake for seven years, catching it periodically to replace the radio batteries.

"Radio telemetry is really responsible for the explosion in snake biology; it allows you to watch a snake over and over again," he said. "We've amassed an unparalleled collection of photos of their behavior in the wild."

He and his wife, Kelly Zamudio, a post-doctoral fellow in the museum who studies reptiles in the same area of Arizona, spend a month or more each year camping in the mountains, tracking snakes with antenna in hand and then sitting for hours observing their behavior.

For comparative purposes he also has sought snakes around the world. As recently as June he returned from a biodiversity assessment of Vietnam involving mostly Berkeley biologists, bringing back nearly a dozen snakes, some live, including a gorgeous but deadly emerald bamboo pit viper.

Greene's beautifully written and illustrated book convinces us of the fascination of snakes. But why study poisonous snakes?

"The macho thing is a part of it," he admits, but even more, "for me, having been in a lot of real life-and-death situations, it's fascinating to study a dangerous predator that kills, with no value attached to it.

"Perhaps most important," he writes, "with venomous snakes we contemplate violence and mortality without implications of real evil, devoid of anthropocentric traps laid by fur, feathers and facial expressions.

"With pit vipers...we arrive at the very cusp of mystery, the illusive but tantalizing limits on empathy."



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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