The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge
by Jamie James
Reviewed by Doug Brown
Joe Slowinski was one of the head herpetologists for San Francisco's renowned California Academy of Sciences (or Cal Acad, as it is known among zoologists). He had starred in a National Geographic special called Cobra Hunt, about his pursuit of a new species of spitting cobra in Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar -- James calls it Burma throughout the book, and in an afterword gives a good defense of the practice). Slowinki's lifelong offhandedness (no pun intended) with freehandling venomous snakes almost caught up with him during the filming of that special, when one of the aforementioned cobras bit his hand. He lucked out on that occasion, as the bite was a dry bite (no venom). His luck ran out on a later trip to Burma, when he reached into a bag and the bag's resident latched onto his middle finger. He had thought it might be a nonvenomous krait mimic, but it turned out to be the real thing. He died the next day. The Snake Charmer is the story of Joe's life and of that last expedition.
Slowinski started off young, fossil hunting and catching anything that crawled in the Kansas fields where he roamed. He was planning on pursuing paleontology until he got to college, where he switched to herpetology. He did his PhD in Florida with the legendary Jay Savage and then did a couple of postdocs, after which the Cal Acad job arose. He was a perennial rule breaker, which can seem romantic to people outside of academia, but there are good reasons for some of those rules. Slowinski was cavalier about getting proper collecting permits (a real no-no in field biology), and once was almost arrested for sending a rattlesnake to a friend via Greyhound. This latter venture almost came to a tragic end when the driver opened the luggage compartment and found an empty box with a wriggling and rattling pillowcase beside it. On another occasion he smuggled a snake back into the country without informing his traveling companion, and his friend was placed in the position of answering some uncomfortable questions when the animal was found.
In short, he was the sort of herpetologist I probably would have been wary of back when I was studying rattlesnakes (Joe came to Cal Acad after my undergraduate time at Berkeley, so I never met him). I found there were two types of guys studying hot (venomous) snakes: the "safety first" folks who always used hooks and tongs to handle animals (like me), and the Joe Slowinskis and Steve Erwins of the world, who liked the adrenaline rush of freehandling venomous snakes. The latter group were all about the machismo of hot snakes, and they tended to be a danger to themselves and everyone around them. James notes that "macho" was indeed a word applied by many people to Slowinski. Most of the safety first folks go their entire careers without bites (never had one myself, thank you very much). However, I never met a person in the machismo group who didn't proudly have at least three bites to their record, and Slowinski had been bit several times before a many-banded krait put an end to the counting.
Joe was a collector in the Victorian sense of the word. He wasn't catching snakes to take measurements and pictures and then let them go; he was catching them to put them in jars and take them home to museum collections. The purpose of museum collections is so that other zoologists can examine the specimens without having to travel to the animal's native habitat and further reduce populations. Slowinski's job at Cal Acad involved increasing their collection. However, in zoology there are two schools of thought regarding museum collecting, a debate that isn't covered in depth in The Snake Charmer. Some people consider it a cruel anachronism, a vestige of the Victorian gentleman "preserving" animals with a shotgun. Folks in this camp feel that conservation is the proper approach for zoologists; conserve habitat, and conserve the animals that live there.
One zoologist in the latter camp, who appears as something akin to the bad guy in The Snake Charmer, is Alan Rabinowitz. Rabinowitz is one of the founders of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and he personally created a large national park in northern Burma by donating the land. Slowinski wanted to go collecting in the park during his last expedition, but Rabinowitz blocked him by telling the folks in Burma's Forest Ministry not to approve the application. He also suggested that National Geographic not fund the trip, which they took his advice on. As portrayed in the book, it seems that just ego and rivalry made Rabinowitz irrationally thwart Slowinski. But to a conservationist like Rabinowitz, Slowinski was a reckless collector who wanted to enter a preserve and take animals out of it, thus defeating the purpose of the preserve. True to form, Slowinski planned to go into the heart of the preserve anyway.
The last expedition didn't go as planned, however. Blocked through official channels, Slowinski set up the expedition through a new tourist agency connected with the government. This agency failed to keep most of its promises, including that of providing medical staff. Slowinski should have called off the trip at that point, as another member of the group pointedly asked if Cal Acad had rules about medical coverage. Slowinski's rash response: "Fuck the Academy." That impatience with rules and regulations, which all his life he had skated past on sheer luck, finally (literally) bit him on September 11, 2001 (yes, 9/11). When he stuck his hand into a sack and pulled it back out with a many-banded krait hanging from his fingertip, there was no medical assistance available. He died the next day. Some observers have tried to assign blame to the Burmese herpetologist who told Slowinksi the bag contained a nonvenomous krait mimic, but herpers know to always look inside a bag before reaching in, particularly when they have been collecting hot snakes as well as nonvenomous.
The Snake Charmer is a good read, capturing well the lifelong love of animals that most people don't love at all. While the book is predominantly about Slowinski and snakes, it is also about the unromanticized world of field biology and the debates that take place within science. Most of the debates among herpetologists I've mentioned above are covered, including the acknowledgement that Slowinski, like Steve Erwin, was not a good role model in the area of handling venomous animals. One debate that is missing is the preserve/conserve debate, the omission of which paints Rabinowitz in a more negative light than may be warranted. That aside, I recommend The Snake Charmer to anyone interested in any of the above, and I particularly recommend it as a gift to any youngsters with a budding interest in crawlies. In my day, kids who loved snakes read Carl Kauffeld and Raymond Ditmars, and dreamed of travelling to catch snakes.
Now, there's The Snake Charmer to stir the imagination -- and hopefully to serve as an object lesson in things to avoid when doing field biology.