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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Book Review: The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge

"Joe himself was baffled by this enthusiasm... 'I can't even explain why I'm interested in venomous snakes.  I've been that way ever since I was a little kid.  I always loved snakes, but for some reason the sight of a rattlesnake or a copperhead really got me excited.  There's no way I can explain that.  It can't be a gene.  How could a gene like that ever survive natural selection?'"

I've always felt that it's wrong to stereotype people by their race, their religion, their gender, or their sexual orientation.  It is, however, perfectly acceptable to stereotype animal people by what species they work with.  To that extent, Joe Slowinski was a textbook snake-scientist.  Depending on who you asked, he was easily one of the most brilliant - or reckless - or both - herpetologists in the field.

In The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge, Jamie James tells the tory of Joseph Bruno Slowinski and the path that lead with from the midwest US suburbs where he was born to the barely explored jungles of Myanmar, where he wound up with one of the world's deadliest snakes dangling from his finger (I'm not spoiling the story - it tells you in the subtitle).  In between, Slowinski has a meteoric career that takes him across the globe on a quest to understand snakes, especially some of the world's most venomous species.

James introduces us to a precocious child prodigy, one who as a child seemed to have a gift for understanding the natural world, and one who eventually climbed up the ranks of academia before winding up at the prestigious California Academy of Sciences.  Joe Slowinski is as likable of a protagonist as any novelist could have invented if they'd dared, and his enthusiasm for all things serpentine is infectious.  Even the driest of systemic biology sounds interesting enough through his eyes.

At the same time, his obsessive machismo and desire to show off his snake-handling skills puts him in constant danger.  His careless was about on par with Grace Olive Wiley, the eccentric former curator of reptiles at the Brookfield Zoo, who's fondness for free-handling hots eventually cost her her life. After reading how he gets himself bitten in the finger by a pygmy rattlesnake that he drunkenly brought into a bar, you just know that this story isn't going to have a happy ending.

The Snake Charmer is Joe Slowinski's story, and it's a fascinating one about a young man who made his mark on herpetology and could have made an even greater one, had circumstances been different.  It's also the story of all herpetologists, however, especially those who find themselves drawn towards the deadliest snakes on earth.  James doesn't sugarcoat Slowinski's faults - fortunately, because they're what help make him such a fascinating individual - but he does help us understand what makes a person what he was - a young boy, full of passion for something wild and dangerous and mysterious, who never wanted to grow up.

James compares Slowinski and his colleagues as foot soldiers in Darwin's army.  Unfortunately, every army has its casualties.

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