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London Calling

London Calling

First I was off to Cambridge to do some research at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI). As we were landing on February 12, 2003, I viewed Heathrow Airport from the air and noted that tanks were ringed around it. It transpired that while I was on the connecting flight from Singapore, London had become clenched in the iron grip of fear. Intelligence reports indicated that al-Qaeda agents had smuggled surface-to-air missiles into Britain, because of the looming invasion of Iraq. Once I cleared the security check—now at increased levels, with my scientific gear attracting extreme scrutiny—I met with our driver and headed to the hotel in the lovely area of Kensington where we would stay for the next couple of days. The next day at London Gatwick Airport, British police arrested a man carrying a hand grenade, and two men were simultaneously arrested at Heathrow Airport for similar offences under the Terrorism Act 2000.
Before heading up to Cambridge, I had some media to do as the European face of the National Geographic series Snake Wranglers. First stop was an interview for BBC radio. My fellow guests were fascinatingly diverse. First was Philippe Petit, who infamously once tightrope-walked between the now-destroyed Twin Towers and had written a book about it—To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk between the Twin Towers. His description of the meticulous planning appealed to the geek in me. I was hanging off the edge of my seat as he recounted the verbal battles with the police afterwards, where they were going to just haul him off to jail. But he had kept screaming that he had to loosen the wires or else there was the risk of them snapping, which would unleash a catastrophic whip action, able to easily kill or cause incredible damage as all the kinetic energy was released.
Second up was Mark “Moe” Popernack, the representative author of a book by a group of Quecreek coalminers from the US state of Pennsylvania. Their book, Our Story: 77 Hours Underground, recounted the harrowing ordeal endured by the nine miners trapped in the pitch-black with icy cold waters rising around them. What struck me was the calmness with which they approached this all-but-certain death and, most amazingly, maintained their sense of humor throughout it all. I do believe that this camaraderie is what kept them alive. Through the “group fear” bonding, they did not panic, which would have used up precious oxygen. Their rescue was as much to do with the organization and teamwork of those trapped below as it was to do with the superb efforts of those above. Moe shared how his wife said she would leave him if he went back to working in the mines; it was something that gave me pause for thought about my very dangerous career and the emotional toll it takes upon those close to me. Both Philippe and Moe gave me inscribed copies of their books, with the former writing: “To Bryan, an explorer of life’s marvels. Keep searching!” while the latter wrote: “To Bryan, it’s been a pleasure to meet a man who has such love and dedication to what he does. May God bless you always.” These books are on proud display in my library.
Last, but certainly not least, was Mariza—an extremely talented singer who was making it her mission to resurrect a Portuguese folk music called fad. She sang so very hauntingly, in a strangely soothing manner.
Then it was off to the Richard & Judy show, along with a feisty Egyptian cobra I was going to milk live on-air. We had to film it in a separate room deep in the bowels of the cavernous Cactus TV studios. This went off without a hitch and then I had a very pleasant on-air interview with this hilariously irreverent couple. But the instant the cameras stopped rolling, Judy vaporized two glasses of wine in record time. I guess the cobra had made her a bit anxious!
Monkey-dancing over, I was on my way to Cambridge to stay at the lovely old stone house of my Finnish friend Heikki Lehv?slaiho and his delightful family. I spent the next day at the EBI loading files onto the very fast computer cluster. It took less than seventy-two hours to spit out data that would have taken an ordinary desktop computer months to grind through.
While this was underway, I received a phone call from Australia. Chris Hay had been badly bitten by a large mulga snake while in the middle of the Barkly Tableland. He’d been bagging it up as part of our ongoing research, covered by my scientific permit, when he made the mistake of passing his hand between the bag and the headlights. The snake saw the shadow and struck, getting Chris solidly across the hand and giving it a sustained chew, driving the venom deep. Chris’s field partner drove at high speed to the Barkly Tableland Hotel, where the bar staff stretched the now very affected Chris across the pool table. He promptly vomited all over the table. It was certainly not the first time this pool table in a very rough outback bar had been puked on—just the most unusual set of circumstances. Traffic was blocked on the Barkly Highway so that a Royal Flying Doctor plane could land. Chris was quickly loaded onto it and flown to Mt. Isa Base Hospital for further treatment. I had a feeling of helplessness and d?j? vu. Was this going to be Joe all over again? Was I going to lose another mate to snakebite? Throughout the dark and lonely night I kept ringing Australia to check on progress. Twelve hours post-bite he was out of the woods. For a while it seemed like he might lose his index finger, but eventually that came good as well.
With my friend now safe and the research data mission accomplished, I started a trip across Europe for two months, with the aim of milking viper collections in zoos and those of private keepers. Some of these, the Germans in particular, had some breathtakingly rare species. The first stop was going to be Italy, but I didn’t even make it out of Heathrow before the first “incident” happened. As I would be away from a source of liquid nitrogen for three weeks, I wanted to get the maximum hold-time out of the vapor shipper I was using to cryogenically store the accumulated venom samples. Vapor shippers are specifically designed to comply with the regulations of the International Air Traffic Association (IATA). High-tech foam absorbs the liquid nitrogen, so that it is no longer a liquid that can flow, but is instead in the form of a vapor. The vapor shipper can therefore be legally loaded onto the cargo section of an airplane without posing a danger. However, overfilling it so that there is liquid present in the core makes it no longer compliant. Pushing the envelope, I had overfilled it and hoped for the best, as this would give me another week of storage time.
This plan was not destined to be successful. My first indication of this was when nine heavily armed airport police came on to the plane and sternly ordered me outside, where I observed a half dozen biohazard-suited spacemen standing around the dry shipper, which was on its side. This meant that any extra liquid was long gone and it was now compliant. Doing my best to not get shot by the security services, who were understandably on alert level “paranoid,” I explained what it was and that some of the vapor must have gently drifted out when the ground staff paid no attention to the clearly marked instructions and large black arrows indicating which way was up and how it should be stored. Desperately keeping a straight face, I took out the cork and turned the container upside down; I showed that it was completely compliant and that all was good. This alleviated the situation. Walking back on to the plane I gave a friendly smile in response to the curious looks from the passengers. A well-dressed white male wearing glasses seemed to trigger very few pre-set panic buttons within them.
After landing in Italy, I set about exploring Rome by first smoking a delicious Cuban cigar while at Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Due to the heightened security alert, the US consulate in Rome was under extreme protection, with orange barriers restricting pedestrian and car access, lending a surreal air as this modern incursion clashed with the ancient history. After a few days in Rome, I headed up to Florence with my mate, Mickey Bhoite. He is the delightful sort of weird character that results when an Indian is raised in Italy: spiky haircut, dark skin, and the inability to talk without moving his hands around like an orchestra conductor on crystal meth.
Florence is home to one of the oldest natural history museums in Europe, one with more reptile holotypes (the first of a particular kind ever discovered) than anywhere else in the world. Consequently, the herpetology section is absolutely massive. It was truly pickled nirvana. From there we headed down to Perugia to obtain venom from the local zoo. The keeper insisted on doing the milking himself and it was immediately apparent that he was not accustomed to doing such close contact work. Within two minutes of commencing work, the very first snake he tried to milk ended up biting him. I have never seen an Ottoman viper before, let alone studied the venom, so we had basically no idea what was going to happen. Luckily it turned out to be little more than extreme local swelling and pain, with his hand ultimately blowing up to look like an inflated surgical glove.
With this part of the Italian journey coming to a premature end, we decamped to Tuscany for a few days to enjoy the fine food and wine before piling into a campervan for a wild road trip across Austria, including several snowball fights along the way. We then traveled to Germany to arrive for the reptile expo Terraristika in Hamm the night before it was to start. Appropriately enough, the Rammstein song “Feuer Frei!” was playing as we pulled up. This was the first time I had attended this famous event. Reptile aficionados had gathered from all corners of the globe to sell their wares. There was a special, well-controlled room specifically for venomous species. Searching the room carefully, I found a number of species essential for my research and purchased them.
I also enjoyed many chats with other reptile lovers from a wide variety of countries. It was particularly interesting to talk with them about how the rise of the Internet had changed the face of the scene. The earth was now flat and close rather than being hidden in the curved distance. The Internet had definitely caused an explosion in reptile keeping. It also facilitated the sharing of experience and knowledge.
Living up to their meticulous stereotype, it was invariably the Germans who quietly cracked the riddles of hard-to-keep species. Zoos replicated their experiences, but then put out press releases about “their” accomplishments. Such actions only increased the alienation of private keepers, who became more insular and less willing to share with these sorts of professional institutions. This private/professional divide did no one any favors, least of all the animals themselves. Private keepers spent an incredible percentage of their personal income and were rabidly obsessive about the animals, conforming to the stereotype of the Japanese Otaku, but on a global level. It was almost always the private keepers who were able to not only keep alive the unkeepable, but also to get them to breed: the surest sign of success.
We also had many long conversations about the culture war being waged by animal extremists who felt no animals should be kept in captivity, least of all exotic species, but even the family dog was in their sights. Those with anti-pet agendas employed an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy. Reptile keepers were their own worst enemies in this regard, not only because some of them were public relations disasters in keeping dangerous species in unsuitable enclosures or providing criminally substandard care, but also because of the inherent splintering within the community. This only made them that much more vulnerable to draconian legislation.
At all levels, the legislation surrounding reptiles is among the most poorly drawn, or even counterproductive. This ill-considered type of legislation was the weapon of choice for such nefarious groups as Voiceless: The Animal Protection Institute, the Humane Society, and others. While they operate under the guise of concern for public safety, their motivation is the outlawing of all pets, pure and simple. The incidence of exotic-animal-related injuries is dwarfed by those caused by “companion” animals such as dogs and cats, but no legislation is proposed to ban them, other than equally misguided breed-specific legislation. If examined rationally and upon evidence, this is entirely inconsistent. The fear of exotic animal escapes is also illogical. Feral cats cause more damage to the environment than a reptile ever could, yet cats are not being banned. Neither are hamsters, mice, and other small mammals that are also very difficult to catch when they escape. Ditto for birds, which also carry a higher risk of causing salmonella, yet are not banned. Even ordinary raw chicken meat is a greater public health concern.
Saying that animal shelters are overflowing is another smokescreen, since very few of these animals are exotic pets. Most animals in these shelters are abandoned dogs. Yet no attempt is being made to ban dogs on these grounds. In regard to zoonosis (diseases spread by animals to humans), reptile-related cases are yet again in the minority. Nevertheless, there is an inconsistent application of the facts. No attempt, for example, is being made to ban pet birds because of disease risk. Only a very small percentage of constricting snakes reach appreciable size and thus could be considered a potential threat (though still less dangerous than a pet horse); however, included in the legislation are snakes smaller than the native snakes already crawling through yards. These snakes pose absolutely no danger to anyone.
It is evident that personal biases are coming into play; that is, it is a culture war being waged purely to support an ideology, not to combat an actual, clearly present danger. This agenda, ironically, is sure to cause long-term harm to wild animals themselves. If people only see animals in pictures, or not at all, they will not appreciate, value, or want to conserve them. Furthermore, removing from young children the opportunity to keep these magnificent creatures will kill any interest they might have in this area, and thus deny the world future generations of scientists. If I had not had the opportunity to keep a diversity of reptiles as a child, I might not have become the scientist that I am today.
After the congenial madness of Hamm, I drove to Bonn with my friend Guido Westhoff to continue milking snakes. First we stopped by his lab at Bonn University to check out his snake set-up. In addition to some of the most stunning eyelash vipers, the collection included a large number of spitting cobras. Guido was comparing the spitting distance and patterns of African and Asian spitting cobras, as these two cobra lineages had evolved their ability to spit independently. He revealed that the venom of the African species comes out in a tight spiral, able to travel up to ten feet with amazing accuracy, aimed at the enemy’s eyes. This is useful on the savannah plains where predators would be visible approaching from great distances. In contrast, the Asian species lives in closed forests and therefore would only view their predators up close while hiding in a region between shadow and light. This put a selection pressure on the Asian species to evolve a strategy in which the venom came out in a diffuse spray. Basically, the difference between them was the difference between using a rifle and a shotgun.
I quickly noticed that, like myself, Guido’s wife, Katja, who was his co-investigator in this study, would sneeze violently whenever in the room with the spitting cobras. They had attributed this to her being sensitive to the dust from the wood shavings that lined the floor of the cages. However, I pointed out that it was in fact far more likely that, since she was most often working with the cobras, all the sprayed venom that was drying and then wafting through the air had triggered an allergic response. This meant that, like me, she would almost certainly go into allergic shock if bitten, and it could quickly become lethal if untreated. Understandably, this caused great consternation among the research group. As they had almost finished the study, it was agreed that she would remove herself from day-to-day husbandry activities and not work hands-on with the snakes anymore. They only needed a few more weeks before the study would be complete and they could disband the cobra collection.
After this, I successfully milked a large number of vipers in collections across Germany, with a few near-heart-attack-inducing incidents. One of the scariest was in a poorly lit, clutter-filled basement, with a ceiling far too low to accommodate my six-foot-three-inch frame without me having to hunch over like Quasimodo. I was pinning a saw-scaled viper to the floor when it got away from me and sidewinded across the high-friction concrete surface and between my legs. I quickly turned to get it, in the process smacking my head so hard against the low ceiling that darkness momentarily clouded my vision. My last view of the snake was it disappearing under a box.
After several frantic minutes of searching, we found this small but particularly dangerous snake. A bite from this type of snake is notoriously difficult to treat, with antivenoms against the venom of one species, or even one locality within a broad-ranging species, being inefficient against others. This is compounded by the unknown geographical origin of many of the snakes in captivity, some of which were in fact crosses of the same species from different localities, or even hybrids between species, thus creating an immunological nightmare. Not that I would want to be bitten by any snake again, but these snakes are among the last whose venom I would ever want to have coursing through my veins.
After this debacle, I switched methods and put all the vipers first into a styrofoam-lined box. This gave me a cushioned, high-friction pinning surface that the snakes could not get out of. Ironically, they were generally much calmer in there. They would zip across the box until they hit a corner and then sit there impotently giving me a threatening look.
Another bite did follow not long after this. Again, not to me, which was just the way I liked it. It was to yet another professional keeper who did not want me to do the milking, but insisted on doing it himself despite having a conspicuous lack of relevant experience. The snake involved this time was a short tube of muscle called the hime habu, a pit viper species found in the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. While I had never seen one before, I could tell straightaway it would be very difficult to handle. The muscular body made its neck less defined, and the short but thick body afforded it great leverage. I pointed this out but was dismissed by the owner as not knowing what I was talking about.
Seconds later, the situation unfolded like a poisonous flower, exactly as I predicted it would. The keeper was holding the snake as I readied the milking container, despite me telling him not to remove it from the cage until I was ready. The snake pulled back, driving one long fang deep into his thumb. He dropped the snake, which promptly scooted under the nearest available cage. I looked at him and saw that he was lost in his own world, staring horrified at the large drop of blood running down his thumb. I hooked the escaped snake out from under the cage and got it back into its own enclosure. The keeper was still not on this plane of existence. As this was a species I knew I would not be seeing again anytime soon, I quickly flipped out its cage mate, pinned it, necked it, milked it and had it back in and locked away in less than sixty seconds. I then said, “Okay, let’s get you to the hospital now.” He came out well, with only a local flesh wound and a lot of discomfort.
It was then time to move on from Germany and into the surreal world of Luxembourg, a tiny country located within Europe but somehow legislatively special, so it does its own thing, particularly in the murky world of international banking. The first host not only had an impressive collection of rare snakes, but his wife also worked for a bank where her sole task was to give a daily churn to an account containing fifty million euro. An account that belonged to none other than Osama bin Laden. While she, as branch manager, knew who ultimately controlled the money, it was shrouded within a complex network of shell companies. Her job was to keep the money moving. If it was always somewhere else, then it was nowhere at all. I was not impressed with such a mercenary approach but kept my counsel.
The rest of Luxembourg was just as weird. For example, the pair of brothers living in a mansion with their mother, who was either an Olympic athlete in the discipline of denial or suffered from weapons-grade dementia. How else could she not know that not only did they have a large pair of alligators in the basement, but that they also housed a massive collection of venomous snakes in the upper levels. A collection that included a trio of huge black mambas, which they did suicidal things with, like taking one into the massive walk-in, four-nozzle shower and letting it loose so that they could mess with it as it slid along on the low-friction tiled surface. They would also, in a never-satisfied quest for a new high, milk it, dry the venom on a radiator and snort it. Since they mixed other, more psychoactive, chemicals in with the dried venom, any high was due to the other substances. All they were ensuring was that they, like me, developed a deadly allergy to snake venom and thus, if bitten, would die. This would basically have the effect of pouring a bit of bleach into the gene pool!
To complete the European viper venom adventure, I headed up to Norway to continue my decades-long search for the elusive arctic viper. Meeting up with me was Eivind Undheim, a hyper Norwegian who reminded me a lot of my younger self. Same shaved head, blue eyes, high, elf-like Nordic cheekbones, with the same love of venomous animals, metal music, and any other adrenaline-inducing activity—obviously the perfect partner for hunting these elusive snakes. At his suggestion, we tried a different tack, and instead of hunting in pristine forests, we targeted a farm that had a huge pile of logs and branches which had not been moved for years. This created an artificial refuge for the rodent prey of the snakes. We arrived right as dawn was spilling its light over the Oslo fjord in a very picturesque manner. We patiently took up position around the pile and settled down, unmoving other than sweeping our predatory gaze over the corpses of the trees. Before long we had success—a specimen that was almost completely melanistic, with the characteristic black zigzag pattern subtly offset by a deep charcoal grey body. Amazingly, after my twenty-five-year quest, we obtained not one but four of these rare snakes that morning. As the sun rose, each successive snake was lighter-patterned than the one before, with the last being bronze-bodied like a venomous sun-god.
We ascertained that the timing of their appearance was consistent with their ability to absorb heat, with the darkest snakes being the first to warm up and become mobile, but then also the first to overheat and seek the cool of the shade. Conversely, the lightest snakes would be the last to become warm enough to move, but then were able to stay out in the sunlight the longest in search of prey. So each part of the color spectrum was able to take advantage of different parts of the day, thus partitioning the habitat into different climate zones. This resulted in a high number of snakes, without direct competition between the different gradient types. It was deeply satisfying to finally fulfill this quest while also discovering more about the natural history of the very first venomous snake that I had ever seen in the wild as a child.
For a bit of non-snake-related time, I headed over to France and enjoyed many bottles of Chimay Grande R?serve Bleu with my friend and collaborator Nicolas Vidal. We would then decamp to our favorite Moroccan restaurant. We could also be found spending afternoons having happy chats with our mutual mate Karim Daoues at his amazing Parisian pet store, La Ferme Tropicale. I would also take long, happy walks by the river Seine, checking out the bouquinistes in their green-sided metal sheds and the amazing rare books and stunning paintings for sale. Rue Saint-Louis en l’?le was a frequent haven, not only for the plethora of fossil-laden natural history shops, but also the most amazing cheese shop. I would walk in, close my eyes, hold my breath while counting to sixty, and then take a slow breath in through the nose and have an olfactory orgasm. From there, I would casually stroll down the Seine to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, my favorite book repository in the world. Walking in, the smell of old books rivals that of aged cheeses in being appealing to my snakebite-damaged sense of smell.

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