Florida rattlesnake expert has tales to tell

TALLAHASSEE

Bruce Means eats snakes even when he is already full from breakfast. He wants to know everything he can about snakes, including how they taste.

The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the largest venomous snake in North America, interests him most. Because he can never bring himself to kill a rattler — diamondbacks in his opinion have suffered at the hands of humanity quite enough — he looks for them dead on the road.

There is nothing wrong with eating a DOR rattler if it is fresh. Kneeling next to his pickup truck, he skins the snake, collects the entrails in a plastic bag for later examination and carries the meat home to his third wife.

"Rattlesnake is not bad,'' he tells squeamish gourmands. "It isn't as dry as chicken and it's not as moist as frogs legs. Rattlesnake meat is white and has a mild taste.''

Means has studied Eastern diamondbacks for half his life. At 67, he is considered the world authority, although he will tell you he has much to learn. He has crawled into their dens, spied on their mating rituals, watched them hunting and picked up thousands of live rattlers that frankly loathed his company.

In more than three decades as a North Florida scientist and biology teacher at Florida State University, he has written millions of words about them. Finally he is close to publishing what promises to be the rattlesnake bible, Diamonds in the Rough.

One caveat: His epic isn't in print yet — and may not be if he suffers what he calls "another envenomation.''

His first rattlesnake bite induced a coma.

The last came close to killing him.

People sometimes use "Bunyanesque'' to describe Means. The cliche fits a man who stands 6 feet 4 and frets about one day attaining 300 pounds. Everything about him is large — even his hair, which reaches the middle of his back when not tied in a ponytail.

Folklore's Paul Bunyan explored his environs from the back of his giant ox, Blue; the very human Means travels in a gloriously rusty pickup, the bed overflowing with pine seedlings, snaking tools and a bucket of odiferous oysters he meant to eat but forgot.

Friends call Means "the ultimate field biologist.'' That means he squirms when sentenced to the great indoors. Finishing his tome at his desk at Coastal Plains Institute, the nonprofit biological station he directs, he has been squirming like one of those rambunctious rattlesnakes that object to handling.

Inside the cave of an office, his desk is crushed beneath mounds of rattlesnake data. Bookshelves sag with natural history books, animal skulls and bottles containing the inevitable jaws from rattlers.

Opening a mysteriously large box, Means says, "Go ahead and look. Just lean your head over the top.''

His pet rattlesnakes, coiled next to a log, are thankfully sluggish.

Eastern diamondbacks, like so many animals of pine forests, once were common throughout the South. Now they are in short supply, their habitat destroyed by development and their lives frequently snuffed out by nervous Homo sapiens who kill them on sight.

Rattlesnakes grow as long as 7 feet and can weigh 12 pounds. If sufficiently alarmed, a rattlesnake will coil, maintain a defensive posture and buzz like an electric saw. Rattlers avoid humans if possible, but strike without mercy when provoked. Dozens of people are bitten in the American South each year. All but a few recover.

"Family dogs are more dangerous,'' snaps Means, the best friend a reptile with dripping fangs ever had.

He was born in California but raised in grizzly-infested Alaska. Tired of 40-below weather, he migrated to Florida State for a biology doctorate. His first science job was at the South's most prestigious biological station, Tall Timbers, north of Tallahassee.

Salamanders were his specialty; protecting rattlesnakes became his cause. Many rural Floridians, including some scientists whom he thought should have known better, automatically slew rattlers.

"We're a science institution,'' he complained to his boss. "How can anyone justify killing rattlesnakes?''

In 1976 he headed for the research library to learn more. He found nothing definitive about an icon that had terrified Floridians for centuries.

He bought dead ones from hunters who kill rattlesnakes for hides and rattles. He scoured highways for DORs, cutting them open to learn what made them tick.

Live ones were more interesting. They are easiest to catch in winter, when they escape the cold in gopher-tortoise burrows and rotting stumps.

Long ago Means learned how to painlessly force-feed tiny radio transmitters into their bellies. Afterwards he can monitor snake movement and study their habits.

When it's time to track his snakes, he parks his truck on the edge of the pines, turns on a radio receiver and holds an antenna above his head. Marching through the palmettos — prime rattlesnake territory — he listens for beeps on the radio. When beeping is loud and constant, he stops and very carefully looks around.

Rattlesnakes ramble more than anyone ever suspected. Yet they have specific territories, and no matter how far they roam — a mile or more — they can always find their way back to their hidey hole homes.

In mating season, male rattlers have no trouble finding girlfriends no matter where they are.

"Think about it,'' Means says. "We're talking about an animal that is slithering through thick forest, through thick brush, with its head only inches from the ground, a long way from the nearest female. Yet he finds her. How?''

He believes female rattlesnakes emit an airborne perfume that a male rattlesnake can detect from long distances.

When Lothario arrives in her general vicinity he homes in on an even stronger scent she has left on the ground.

''BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

His equipment indicates he is only inches away from his prize. The rattlesnake is hidden in the grass — under his boot.

He has never been bitten on his lower extremities. In fact, he says most rattlesnakes never rattle or even bite.

"They're Gentle Bens,'' he says, remembering the old TV show about a cuddly bear.

In his opinion, the world has rattlesnakes all wrong.

Years ago, when he was a young scientist, and a skeptic wanted to know whether rattlesnakes had any practical purpose, he might say, "Well, their venom is used to make antivenin for snakebite protection. You can make belts out of their skin.''

Now he says: "I appreciate the species for what is: a highly evolved life form with very complicated behavior. It makes its contribution to the biodiversity in the ecosystems in which it lives by eating mice, rats and rabbits and by providing food for its predators. Rattlesnakes have the same intrinsic value we do. They are 'good' just because they 'are.' ''

But what about those dripping fangs?

"Almost nobody — nobody — is ever bitten walking randomly through the woods. A rattlesnake will do everything to get out of your way.''

So how does a person get envenomated?

"You deliberately pick one up.''

In 1976, wife No. 1 accidentally drove her car over a rattlesnake.

Means rescued the injured snake. In his lab, he nursed it back to health. After a few weeks, it was ready for release.

The snake misunderstood his good intentions. It thrashed wildly in his bare hands, tail knocking an expensive scale off the table. When Means tried to catch the falling scale, he lost control of the snake. It bit him on the right index finger.

"One of the things I've learned,'' he says, "is that a rattlesnake seems to be able to control the amount of venom it injects. If it's biting a rat that it intends to eat, it will deliver a small dose. If it is angry or frightened by something large, it's going to release a large, potent dose.''

Within four minutes his legs collapsed. At the hospital he went into a coma. Thirty-two vials of antivenin brought him back.

He was careful after that.

At least for the next 17 years.

In 1993, after he married wife No. 3 — the love of his life, the understanding Katherine Steinheimer — he traveled to an uninhabited island off the Florida Panhandle.

He wasn't looking particularly for snakes. He was writing down the names of plants and animals for a wildlife survey.

"I have this problem,'' he explained to the understanding Katherine later. "When I see a rattlesnake, I feel compelled to pick it up.''

He snapped off a 2-foot branch from a rosemary shrub to subdue the snake. He'd done it a million times: Use the stick to pin down the snake. Grab the snake behind the head. Drop it into a sack and take it back to the lab.

The rattler was only inches short of 4 feet. A 4-foot snake, coiled, can strike from about 3 feet away. A rattlesnake strikes almost faster than the eye can follow.

Means stepped back and examined his right index finger. A jewel of blood dripped from one puncture wound. The rosemary branch, alas, had not been long enough.

He was alone on a big island. He remembered the last snakebite when his legs collapsed in minutes. He had no cell phone. He thought about Katherine and his two children.

He imagined dying alone.

His instinct was to run, but he knew exertion would pump the poison faster through his veins. He willed himself to walk slowly even as his legs grew numb.

In 10 minutes he reached the kayak. His hand, now swollen, felt like it was on fire. At the same time his throat, tongue and gums were tingling. He was afraid he was going to choke, fall overboard and drown.

He somehow paddled a half mile to the lonely mainland road where he had parked his truck. His legs no longer worked. He dragged himself from kayak to the truck on his belly, like one of his snakes.

He hauled himself behind the wheel and used his hands to position his legs over the clutch and gas pedals. He pushed on his legs with his numb hands to make the pedals work.

He drove in first gear to an office building a mile away. He fell out of the truck onto the steaming parking lot. He rolled uphill to the office door and yelled for help.

This time he received 26 vials of antivenin. For one awful moment he thought he was suffocating.

He spent nine days in the hospital.

It is late afternoon when he finishes telling the tale about what he hopes was his final snakebite. He excuses himself and gets up from his desk — the desk eclipsed by his growing snake manuscript — and vanishes.

He's back — with a willowy branch.

"After I recovered, I went back to the island and found the rosemary branch I thought was long enough to help me catch that rattlesnake,'' he says. "I keep it around as a nice reminder of what can happen if you're stupid.''

Means excuses himself one more time. It was good to talk about rattlesnakes but he simply has to get back to his book.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

.TO LEARN MORE

Snake stories

Further reading: Priceless Florida: Natural Ecosystems and Native Species by Ellie Whitney, D. Bruce Means and Anne Rudloe, Pineapple Press.

On the Web: "Venomous Snakes of Florida" by Bruce Means. www.florida
conservation.org/pubs/
fl-wild/vensnake.html.

Florida rattlesnake expert has tales to tell 03/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 12:49pm]

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