When I grow up: 7-year-old Chloe wants to handle reptiles

OKEECHOBEE — Seven-year-old Chloe Dutton thinks reptiles are really cool and wants to be a reptile handler when she grows up. Her older brother got a bearded dragon when she was young, and she has liked them ever since.

Herpetologist Billy Johnson fell in love with snakes when he was about Chloe’s age. He said the first time he remembers seeing a snake, he was 6 years old, and he was out in his grandma’s yard in Hilliard, Fla. It was a ring-necked snake, he said, but his grandma told him to get away from it. “It’s a ground rattler,” she said, “It’s gonna kill ya.” The next day he went to school and looked the snake up in books in the library. He found out what kind it was and was so upset that his grandma had killed that harmless snake. He went home and showed her the pictures. “I was hooked from there,” he said. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.” Reptiles make great pets, but you have to learn a lot about them before you try to keep one, he explained. You can’t just throw them in an aquarium and throw food at them once in a while. They tend to die quickly. Mr. Johnson spent as much time as he could studying every book he could find on the subject. In addition, he found many experienced mentors over the years who could teach him what they knew.

“I’ve never been to college,” he said, “but I have read more books about the subject than most people with degrees.” He believes you should never stop learning. It’s a lifelong process.

One of his mentors was a man named Timothy Pritchett. Mr. Pritchett told him a story of once getting a call from a friend who had two snakes in his back yard that he described as beautiful but of a type he had never seen before. He said he thought they were mating. Mr. Pritchett said he expected to get over there and find ordinary snakes but was shocked to find two Gaboon vipers — the third most deadly snake on the planet. Gaboon vipers have the biggest fangs of any venomous snake — up to 3.5 inches long! They come from Africa, and he said the thought of them thriving in South Florida was terrifying. After he captured them, he announced the find on Speak Out to see if the owner could be located, and eventually, he was. It turned out the owner’s home had been damaged by a storm, and that was how they had escaped.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Chloe thinks reptiles are cool!

That’s not always the case, though. Often, people turn their snakes loose, says Mr. Johnson. Usually it’s because the snake has gotten too big and they don’t know how to handle it anymore. It is a common misconception that all the snakes in the Everglades that are hunted each year are because people turned pets loose. In actuality, most of those snakes came from three herpetology facilities that were destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when it hit Homestead, said Mr. Johnson. There are so many different kinds of snakes out there, too. Some were venomous snakes from Africa and Asia such as boomslangs, mambas and black caimans.

“We even have a couple black caimans running around our lake,” he said. “They can get up to 15 feet long, and the only way you can tell it isn’t a gator is by the eye. Their eye has a spike.”

Mr. Johnson spends a lot of his time doing research. He explained that many of the herpetology centers will post a request for people to be on the lookout for a particular thing. For example, a certain snake might be reported to have been seen in an area where it isn’t normally located, but they need to have this documented. Or maybe there have been no sightings of a particular snake for years and they are trying to find out if there are any still out there. Mr. Johnson would record his data and send it to them. One finding he explained was that rattlesnakes tend to migrate back to their place of birth. He has taken them 20 miles away, and months later they found their way back again.

When he first began working with snakes, he thought he was the only crazy person around. He was surprised later to learn that actually, lots of people enjoy working with reptiles. He also likes spiders. He said when he lived in Texas, he had a lot of them, but Florida has stricter regulations. You can’t have any venomous spiders here at all. This is a great disappointment to his 13-year-old niece, Emma Krattiger, who dreams of owning a blue cobalt tarantula, a medium-sized tarantula with a very potent venom that can result in muscle cramps and inflammation.

To Chloe and anyone else who desires to become an herpetologist, Mr. Johnson says, “Do what you can to learn everything before you start handling snakes, but remember, it’s a never-ending education. You should try to keep learning something new every day.”

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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