Swans Commentary » swans.com May 31, 2010  



Jamie James's The Snake Charmer


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



The Snake Charmer: a Life and Death in the Pursuit of Knowledge, by Jamie James, Hyperion Books, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-4013-0213-9, 260 pages.


(Swans - May 31, 2010)   Last January, while idly channel-surfing on my television set, I stumbled across a show titled Venom in Vegas that featured snake expert Donald Schultz spending 10 days in a glass box with 100 venomous and constrictor snakes. Schultz is from South Africa, where he competes with fellow snake handler and countryman Austin Stevens for publicity.

In 1986 Stevens pulled off a similar stunt in the name of generating awareness about gorillas, an endangered species. He set a Guinness World record by spending 107 days and nights in a cage with 36 of the most dangerous African snakes. On the 96th day, he was bitten by a cobra, but refused to leave the cage after being treated with anti-venom.

Of course the most notorious of these snake handlers was the Australian Steve Irwin who died in 2006 after being stung in the heart by an aptly named stingray. Unlike Schultz and Stevens, Austin handled all sorts of poisonous creatures, including the ocean-dwelling stingray.

After finding my curiosity jogged by Schultz's stunt (an excerpt is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARzK6Y48scI), I decided to read a book about the late Joe Slowinski that came out in 2008. Titled The Snake Charmer: a Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge and written by Jamie James, it tells the rather sad story of a legitimate scientist -- rather than a showman -- who was bitten by a many-banded krait in September 2001 during an expedition in Burma, just before the WTC attacks. The many-banded krait's venom is rated 16 times more powerful than a cobra's. Slowinski died right around the time the buildings collapsed.

Although I am by no means fixated on poisonous snakes, I do find myself drawn to exceptional human beings, particularly those with tragic flaws. That described Joe Slowinski to a T. A July 13, 2008 review of James's book accentuated the dark side:

No matter how hard James tries to make Slowinski sound roguishly charming, how often he mentions his "disarming, gap-toothed smile," how earnestly he swears in the epilogue that he sorely feels the loss of someone he never met, I could not help reading between the lines: intentionally or not, he makes his subject sound like a Class A jerk.

It isn't Slowinski's redneck genius persona -- meeting academy donors in a baggy T-shirt, smuggling reptiles without permits, kicking down his own door to impress a date when he forgets his keys. That was just snake shtick. Nor is it his earlier "starving graduate student my work is everything" ethos, even when he shouts at his not-well-off father for offering to buy him a table so they don't have to eat while sitting on the stairs. Nor is it the poses James puts him in: the boy Hercules, age 5, brandishing a rat snake "as thick as his own little arm," or the carnival man dazzling Burmese villagers just before his death, the sun "glinting penny-bright" on his goatee as he "free-handled the dangerous serpent they called ngan taw kyar ('royal tiger snake') with cool bravado."

Rather, it's his ruthlessness. His toying with snakes while drunk, terrifying friends. His treatment of his only long-term girlfriend, whom he dumps over the phone. His theft of the prize specimens of a Brazilian herpetologist; caught with her snakes dead in his freezer, he blames the language barrier, claiming he thought she'd granted permission. And the coup de grace is his final, fatal blunder. Relying on bribes and half-truths, he smuggles an expedition of 16 scientists and 130 porters into one of the most remote and malarial corners of the world without official permission or a doctor -- just a first-aid kit so meager it wouldn't have served a Boy Scout camp-out.

While all of reviewer Donald G. McNeil Jr.'s points are true, he leaves out the more admirable sides of Joe Slowinski, not the least of which is a dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. In an era of creationist obfuscation and backwardness, it is necessary to pay tribute to Slowinski as someone totally dedicated to evolutionary science.

Like Schultz, Stevens, and Irwin, Slowinski was something of an adrenaline junkie who loved to handle or "wrangle" poisonous snakes. His first encounter with a poisonous snake was inadvertent. On a fossil hunt with his father in South Dakota, the 16 year old youth picked up a flat rock that concealed a young prairie rattlesnake that bit him on the thumb. When anti-venom was administered later, he went into shock. For some people, including Slowinski, the cure is as bad as the bite. When he was bitten by the krait in Burma, he would have refused treatment even if had been available in the remote north of the country where he had been bitten.

While this event might have been enough to deter the average person from ever going near a poisonous snake again, Slowinski -- not average by any definition -- plunged ahead as a biology major in college intent on becoming a herpetologist, or snake expert. Not long after enrolling at the University of Kansas, Slowinski caught a pregnant copperhead snake -- not quite as poisonous as a rattlesnake -- and brought it back to his dorm where he kept it as a pet. In his junior year he was putting another copperhead into a pillowcase for safekeeping when the creature bit him once again on his thumb. He nonchalantly lanced the wound with a razor blade and went out snake-hunting the very next day. He managed to catch another copperhead with his uninjured left hand.

After graduating the University of Kansas, Slowinski enrolled at the U. of Miami in Coral Gables, a school with a first-rate herpetology department where he decided to do a dissertation on coral snakes, a reclusive and nocturnal creature that avoids contact with human beings. He focused on the evolution of the coral snake, something that is of particular interest since there are many snakes that look like the brightly colored coral snake but lack venom. Ironically, Slowinski made the mistake of sticking his hand in a sack that contained a harmless krait look-alike in Burma only to be bitten by the real thing.

After receiving his Ph.D., Slowinski began postdoctoral work at Louisiana State University with a particular emphasis on the field of phylogenetics, a discipline within evolutionary biology that dispenses with simplistic adaptive narratives such as the idea that the hollow wishbone in birds evolved to enable flight. Slowinski pointed out that "the phylogeny of some recent discovered fossils of birdlike dinosaurs (or dinosaur-like birds, if you prefer) in China...revealed that the supposed adaptations for flight, including feathers and the wishbone, emerged long before flight."

Given this scholarly predisposition, it should not come as a big surprise that Slowinski detested creationism and was not shy about denouncing it in Louisiana, one of its strongholds. He wrote a letter to Baton Rouge's daily newspaper taking exception to a previous letter written by a creationist: "As an evolutionary biologist, I find his letter frustrating and tiresome because it parrots the same discredited criticisms of evolution that modern creationists have apparently learned by rote. Evolution is a scientific theory which, like any other good theory, makes predictions that can be tested."

As is the case with any academic researcher, Slowinski had to choose a specialty. That turned out to be the many-banded krait, a snake found throughout Asia but in particularly large numbers in Burma or Myanmar, the name adopted by its military dictators. He fell in love with the country instantly since it was so pristine -- an obvious product of its underdevelopment. This was the contradiction for a progressive-minded scientist. His work drew him to a country in which he had to compromise with the thuggish government and its lower-level bureaucrats.

In one of his first expeditions to Burma, he discovered a local version of the infamous spitting cobra that he regarded as a separate species. These kinds of achievements established him as real player in herpetology and landed him a job as curator for the department of herpetology for the California Academy of Sciences. It also opened doors at the National Geographic and the world of television documentaries. As a kind of easy-going, down-to-earth character, he was a natural in front of the camera. On one trip to Burma he was once again bitten by a poisonous snake, a spitting cobra that he was attempting to put into a sack. The incident was filmed by the National Geographic crew, including the tension between various members of the expedition trying to hold up under stress. Luckily for Slowinski, the snake had dispensed with most of its venom when it spat at him earlier in the day, so he emerged unscathed.

Not surprisingly, there are professional rivalries in herpetology just as there are in any scholarly pursuit. There are turf battles over everything, including who has the right to control research in Burma. His nemesis was Alan Rabinowitz, an expert on tigers who worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society and who resented Slowinski. Jamie James reported him as saying: "Work with Joe Slowinski, and you'll never work with me again." The two men were rivals for the favors of U Khin Maung Zaw, a powerful Burmese wildlife administrator.

In 2000 Slowinski applied for funding for a krait-hunting expedition from National Geographic but was turned down. He became convinced that Rabinowitz pulled strings to thwart his trip and even worse spread rumors that the expedition would be a threat to Burmese biodiversity.

Slowinski finally pulled together an underfunded trip that departed for Burma on August 23, 2001. The group trekked north under the most grueling conditions, including tropical downpours, terrible heat, attacks from ferocious insects, and -- worst of all -- an inadequate first-aid kit that included nothing but over-the-counter material like aspirin. Also, because of military rule, they were not allowed to bring a two-way radio. The absence of krait anti-venom and a radio ultimately doomed Joe Slowinski. James, a very capable prose stylist, writes:

It was late summer, the stormy end of the monsoon. No sensible person who wanted to come to Putao District, Kachin State, in uppermost Burma, would contemplate going there during the rainy season. But frogs love water, and where there are frogs, there are snakes to eat them. Joe had expected muddy trails, bad food, and squalid campsites; as far as he was concerned, that was all part of the fun. Yet this expedition set a new standard of misery. The rain had poured almost incessantly since they set out from Putao, the small town that served as the administrative capital of this isolated region. The trail was a deep river of fine, clinging clay mud. Malarial mosquitoes and sharp-biting sandflies swirled in tormenting clouds; legions of thirsty leeches lurked in every dank, dark recess.

As I read the final chapters of "The Snake Charmer," I could not help but be reminded of another quixotic and ill-prepared voyage into remote highlands. In 1967, Che Guevara departed for Bolivia without understanding the full ramifications of such an adventure. While not lacking funds or first aid, he did not have the kind of mass support that the revolution in Cuba had enjoyed. Throwing caution to the winds, both the herpetologist and the socialist revolutionary suffered immensely in their final hours on earth, martyrs to the cause of science and social justice.

There was also something monastic about each man's lifestyle although both enjoyed the company and intimacy of the opposite sex. James writes (to the obvious displeasure of The New York Times reviewer; you'll notice that there is no reference to shouting):

In Louisiana, Joe led a simple, almost monastic existence, a choice dictated equally by rock-bottom pay and utter indifference to the comforts of middle-class life. When his father came to visit him in Baton Rouge, he found Joe living in an apartment that was almost completely bare. The apartment's sole claim to charm was a small balcony, which was reached by a spiral stairway. In the morning, father and son sat on the steps of the stairway to eat their breakfast, because there was no table. Ron [his father] said, "Today we'll go shopping, and I'll buy you a table."

Joe lost his temper. "Dad," he retorted, "I have everything I need in life. There's nothing I need that I already don't have." Ron Slowinski realized then how intently focused his son was on vocation: "Joe had an uncanny intuition for career-building. He pared his life down to get rid of anything that didn't contribute to his career."

Substitute the word revolution for career and you will end up with the kind of family drama experienced during parental visits to young radicals in the 1960s, including me. Despite his recklessness, Joe Slowinski had much to admire, especially his idealism. In an epoch of declining expectations, such people are more necessary than ever.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 31, 2010