By Jeff Klinkenberg
The first snake Joe Wasilewski caught as a boy was a little garter snake in Illinois. The last one, a half-century later in the Everglades, was a Burmese python that stretched 12 feet long and tried to bite.
“You don’t want to be bitten by a python,’’ Joe tells people. “They aren’t venomous, but they have powerful jaws and long, curved teeth meant to hold on. When one grabs you, your impulse is to yank your hand away. But that tears muscle and flesh. What I’ve learned is patience. If I make a mistake and one bites me, you just have to stand there and wait. Sometimes five minutes go by before it lets go.’’
For Everglades visitors, the chances of a python latching on to your tender tissue is nil. In fact, though there are thousands of pythons now apparently inhabiting South Florida, you are unlikely to see one. They’re shy. They tend to flee rather than tangle with something bigger than they are. Most of the time they prefer the sawgrass and water and dark to the open and the dry and the light. Frankly, any kind of snakebite is rare. Unless you try to pick up the snake.
Joe Wasilewski, the snake man of the Everglades, picks them up. A biologist, he sometimes does all kinds of reptile work for the state and federal government. Escaped pet-store non-native snakes that find South Florida’s tropical climate just perfect is one specialty. Another is tropical lizards -- iguanas from Mexico and tegus from South America. When I visited recently, Joe removed from a cage a cold-blooded acquisition with an anger problem. The five-foot Nile monitor lizard lunged at his hand.
Decades ago, he and friends pulled an Asian escapee, a 20-foot reticulated python, from under a house in Fort Lauderdale. Joe also has nabbed more than a few escaped anacondas from South America now reproducing in South Florida. A few years ago, when a Nile crocodile, an extremely dangerous African species, showed up in a South Florida pond, Joe caught it. The study of native alligators and American crocodiles, both found in the Everglades, is also part of his work. He has the scars to prove it.
“If you’re an electrician,’’ he tells people, “You expect a shock every once in a while. If you handle enough reptiles, you’re going to get bitten.’’
For the record, the grizzled Everglades snakeman usually does his own doctoring, which is why his first-aid kit includes a needle and thread. “Stitching myself up saves me from wasting a whole day at the emergency room.’’
But sometimes a snakeman, no matter how fast and clever, ends up in the hospital. In 2013, after a long trip overseas, Joe arrived home exhausted. He was still suffering from jet lag when it came time to clean the cage of his pet Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. He felt as if he was moving in slow motion as he reached for the aggravated snake.
Suddenly the rattler’s fangs were embedded in his forearm. Immediately he experienced a metallic taste. His lips tingled. He threw up. His son called for an ambulance as his throat began to close.
He was in intensive care for nearly two weeks. Almost died twice. Only 49 vials of anti-venom, luck, and his stubborn refusal to stop breathing saved him. Released from the hospital, feeling depressed about his mortality, he gave the rattler to a facility that makes anti-venom.
But you know what? The snakeman missed having a rattler of his own. When Joe cleans the cage today, and the rattler coils and fills the room with his insistent, deadly buzzing, Joe feels utterly alive.