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He's out to shed snake's image

Kids sink their teeth into reptile lore, myths

Wednesday, July 25, 2001

By Michael Dongilli

It was snake eyes in Butler Township Thursday, only the dots on these babies were the pupils of real, sinewy reptiles, up close and in the faces of those who dared to pet them, causing the fearful to squirm and sweat.

More than 500 children and parents did a lot of both.

It was "Snakes Alive" night at Alameda Park, one of the events in the park's Outdoor Discovery Program. Those who came to the Carousel Shelter to watch -- some showing up almost an hour before show time -- were truly snake smitten.

"They are dangerous; they are alive; do not cross the line," Dave Hunter aquatics/program director at the park, shouted over the excited youngsters and nervous guardians, pointing to a blue and white rope on the floor across the width of the shelter. "No accidents, that's our key tonight."

The warning strained nerves already tweaked by the rather suspicious arrival of an ambulance.

It turned out the featured creepers were inside.

"Separate heater and air conditioner in the back," A.G. Lucas explained. Snakes are temperature sensitive, and the ambulance makes it easier to keep them comfortable.

Lucas is a paramedic and executive director/chief executive officer of Weirton Area Ambulance and Rescue Squad. He's also a master herpetologist -- snake expert -- and has been with Snakes Alive for almost 25 years, informing people of the reptiles' ecological value, destroying myths and promoting positive images.

Lucas started with the program while earning his bachelor's degree in zoology from Marshall University, Huntington, W. Va. With a college professor and another snake enthusiast, he began giving talks at schools and scout meetings.

He joined the Weirton ambulance squad as a volunteer in 1982, which spawned another aspect of Snakes Alive: Teaching medical professionals how to recognize and treat snakebites. Soon, word of mouth had him traversing the Tri-State and beyond, as far south as the Carolinas and north to New York.

He especially enjoys youngsters, and those in attendance at Alameda were an eager bunch.

Joel Hixon of Butler brought guests to celebrate his 8th birthday. Chomping on pizza, he said he likes "the big ones," and is most fascinated by "how they move and stuff."

"I had a snake wrapped all around my neck at the Butler Fair. I don't want to try that again," one of his guests chimed in. "It was so spooky."

Anticipation escalated as Lucas and his volunteers brought the cargo to a makeshift picnic-table stage. Eleven snakes are simply plopped in pillow cases; the more serious subjects come in sturdy latched cages, clearly marked in red ink, "Caution: venomous reptiles."

Lucas grabbed a sack from the table. "Who's afraid of snakes?" he bellowed. Hands shot up, and he zeroed in on 13-year-old Megan Scialabba of Center, who was feeling safe in the fourth row.

Lucas closed in on her, dangling the sack. People aren't born with a fear of snakes, he said. It's taught, nurtured and misguided by ignorance, legend and a lot of bad information. Megan sat frozen as Lucas reached into the bag, then jumped as he pulled something out and threw it to her.

It was a roll of toilet paper. "You may need it before the night's over," Lucas joked.

Lucas stretched for a second sack, and pulled out what the crowd came to see: a 6-foot black rat snake. With the snake hanging taut from his hand, he rattled off some facts.

"Snakes are totally deaf. So guys, if you're out in the woods with your girlfriends and they see a snake and scream, guess what. They can't hear you. You look really stupid jumping up and down screaming when you see a snake."

Staying back, though, is wise. Most snakes see poorly, roughly a foot in front of them, and lack peripheral vision. Tongues are their ties to the world. Constantly darting in and out, the tongue helps them sense everything around, especially food. "Some call it tasting their environment," Lucas said.

The bites of venomous snakes are indeed dangerous, but not always as deadly as many people think. In fact, the antivenom is about as bad as the venom. "Eighty percent of people are allergic to the antivenom in some form," Lucas said.

Lucas walked into the crowd, flaunting a ball python, and ended up in front of Laurie Dufford, 38, of Middlesex. Giving her no time to hiss displeasure, Lucas gingerly placed the snake in her hands.

Dufford held it at arm's length. "[It] was the freakiest thing, scary at first," she said later. "Once I knew it wasn't going to bite, it was OK. My heart was just beating -- never, I never touched one before."

One by one, the nonvenomous were removed from their sacks. While Lucas separated more truth from fiction, crew members went among the curious allowing private looks and a touch or two.

Snakes aren't slimy, can't be trained and make poor pets, Lucas said. They don't build nests or drink milk -- the milk snake Lucas showcased often lives in barns, but only because its favorite prey, mice, live there, too.

Spectators saw a rare and valuable albino California king snake, with pure white skin and red eyes that make it worth $15,000. About 3 percent of snakes are albinos.

Then it was time for the bad boys of belly crawling. Lucas exchanged his sneakers for a pair of tall, leather cowboy boots, just in case.

Pennsylvania has only three poisonous snakes, he said: the timber rattlesnake, the rare and endangered Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake and the copperhead.

The boots are a necessity. Poison fangs have penetrated Lucas twice, and doctors told him the blood thinning that occurs with a bite, plus his cardiovascular history, means he most likely wouldn't survive a third bite.

As he carefully carried a 6-foot copperhead on a snake stick -- a long-handled rod hooked at the end -- he described a poison bite's excruciating pain.

"If you get bit, you may wish you were dead," he said. "It burns. Take a cigarette lighter and hold it on one spot of your body for two weeks. When I would breathe, it felt like I was being cut with a knife. I had a metallic taste in my mouth and from my hand up to my armpit was four times its normal size."

Venomous snakes won't always inject venom, he said. "They have what we call 'dry bites.' " The snake's venom is a digestive juice that actually begins the process before it eats its prey. Snakes know humans aren't food and sometimes will strike and bite, but won't release any venom, he explained.

Lucas said the copperhead gets a bad rap. "[It] can't kill anything over 7 pounds, even if it unleashed all the poison in its body," he said. Still, he insisted that the crowd observe the blue line, and no touches were permitted.

Danielle Wissinger, 7, her blue eyes wide with wonder, stood undaunted, an inch behind the rope. "I just like seeing them. They're fun," she said. "I almost stepped on one over in my neighbor's yard."

After 45 minutes of everything snaky, Lucas was ready for a big ending. He snared a reluctant mother, Mindy Stalnaker of Butler Township, to cross the line, and draped a redtail boa constrictor around her neck. It hung down both sides of her body, drawing claps and cheers.

"Does she need something a little bigger?" he yelled. With the crowd cheering, he removed the boa and brought out a snake twice its size: An albino Burmese python, a spectacular nine feet long, weighing roughly 80 pounds. Crew members had to help Stalnaker support the snake's weight.

But did the crowd want something bigger? Sure it did.

Lucas hauled out Casper, another albino Burmese python, 12 feet long and weighing 100 pounds. The giant reptile's body was nearly a foot in circumference. Hanging from Stalnkaer's shoulders, it almost touched the floor at both ends. How did it feel? "Very heavy," Stalnaker said. "My children think I'm a hero right now."

The show was over, but the excitement lingered as kids lined up to get pictures taken with Casper and ask Lucas questions.

Allegheny General Hospital, Weirton Rescue and Healthnet Aeromedical in West Virginia are corporate sponsors of Snakes Alive, enabling Lucas to keep training emergency medical services personnel and to offer free presentations to the public.

The latter excites him most. "If one of those kids, just one, now understands that snakes are not to be killed on sight, then we've served our purpose," he said.

Michael Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

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