My mother says that when I was a toddler in diapers, I almost picked up a water moccasin in our Jackson backyard. Branson legend has it I was "saved" by a babysitter.
Whether there was truly anything to be saved from, we'll never know. Most of us, and almost surely my sitter, probably couldn't tell the difference between a harmless king snake and a venomous cotton mouth, or a copperhead and a common water snake.
But it makes a good story to recall as the warm days of spring awaken our reptilian friends both out on the mountain biking trails or even in our own gardens. The story illustrates the guiding principle of Terry Vandeventer's vocation: telling everyone that will listen that snakes aren't bad. Just leave them alone.
"We're repelled by snakes but drawn to snakes. We love 'em and hate 'em, and often those come out in the same emotion,'' says Vandeventer, 54, who travels the deep South lecturing school children and adults alike about the virtues of snakes. "It's widely accepted that fear of snakes is a learned or taught fear. Little children are not afraid of snakes.
"My little brother, I could hand him a snake while he was sitting in high chair and he would take it right out of my hand,'' Terry recalled. "Generally someone older than you, who loved you and didn't want you to get hurt, taught you that snakes are bad or evil. But snakes are intrinsically good things."
Vandeventer was the kid who found snakes everywhere he went. Growing up in Illinois, at age 4 he grabbed three garter snakes at once, dropped them in an old peanut butter jar and began an obsession that has lasted a lifetime. His room was filled with snakes caged in used aquariums he bought at garage sales or old crates he nailed together.
"I always wanted to be Marlin Perkins on 'Wild Kingdom.' Many of your readers won't know who that is,'' he said, chuckling, remembering the original wild animal show back when there were three networks, at best. "I dreamed of going to the Amazon."
Ultimately, he did, working for 12 years guiding expeditions in the northern Amazon and even catching the giant anacondas that the later "wild animal" show hosts would "capture" before television cameras. Later, after successfully performing and then publishing a paper on a successful caesarean section on a gaboon viper, the director of the Jackson Zoo called him.
He worked at the Zoo for a time and then began the Living Reptile Museum—a traveling exhibition consisting of live specimens from his collection of nearly 200 common and exotic species. He visits companies, schools, summer camps and even birthday parties. Ask any kid in Jackson if they've seen the "Snake Man." Then, ask them what he has told them: "Take two steps back and walk away.''
"Dogs,'' said Vandeventer, "are far more dangerous than snakes. Man's best friend kills more people. Horses kill hundreds of people each year (in the United States). Snakes kill four to six a year.''
There are five poisonous species in Mississippi: the eastern diamondback rattler, timber rattler, pigmy rattler, copperhead, cottonmouth and coral snakes; and about 200 reported bites a year. Fatalities in Mississippi are almost unheard of. Ironically, nearly all bites are the result of an attempt to kill a snake, or picking one up after it has been killed. Snakes can reflexively bite for several hours after they are killed.
Vandeventer estimates he has talked to more than 900,000 schoolchildren over his career, telling them snakes are more than our earthly cohabitants. They are our friends, and they control the rodent population. India, he notes, banned the capture and killing of snakes precisely because the trade for their skins resulted in a rodent epidemic.
Interestingly, his message most disturbs the tough guys—typically men who love hunting and were taught to kill snakes. Vandeventer doesn't recommend anyone pick up snakes, and he believes killing a venomous snake in a backyard or other area frequented by people is justifiable.
Attitudes are changing, though. Just recently the Mississippi Wildlife Federation—the state's premier hunting association—named Vandeventer conservation educator of the year. And, not too long ago, after doing a program for hunters at a wild-game supper in Summit, Miss., a man knocked on Terry's truck window as he prepared to pull out.
"He said, 'For 75 years I've carried a rifle in the woods and shot every snake I could get a bead on. But the snakes are safe for the rest of years I have left,'" Vandeventer said. "My wife was poking me in the ribs. It gave us goose bumps."'
To liven up your next corporate training day or birthday party, contact Terry at 601-371-7414 or e-mail him at [e-mail missing].