Director, The American Museum of Natural History, and Leader of the Central Asiatic Expeditions
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, London 1935
Chapter 3 - Snakes
TO MEET the popular conception of an explorer a man must have suffered cold, heat, starvation, fever, attacks from wild animals and savage natives and must have been bitten by snakes. Snakes are essential. If you haven't had snakes -- real ones -- you just can't be a proper explorer. I suppose it is because for many people snakes have a horrible fascination. I've had friends visit me at the Museum who said that they loathed and detested snakes. Yet they wanted first to see the reptile exhibit. Often before a lecture I have received letters from both men and women who asked if I was to show any snake pictures. If so they couldn't come because snakes made them hysterical.
But it isn't so for every one. I used to know a woman in The American Museum of Natural History who loved snakes. Sometimes she would stroll into my office with a whacking great serpent coiled around her waist and the darned thing's head tucked affectionately under her chin. Needless to say she wasn't married. Perhaps she might have been if it hadn't been for her snake habit, for she wasn't bad looking and was undeniably brilliant. But what man would care to come home at night to find a snake roosting comfortably in the middle of the other twin bed! Doubtless that is where it would have been too, for the people with a snake complex don't seem able to understand the aversion that the other ninety-nine and ninety-nine one hundredth per cent of the human race have for their pets.
I have heard that reptiles were canned for food and I knew one man personally who professed to enjoy rattlesnake to eat -- said it tasted "just like chicken." Funny how animals -- like monkeys for instance -- which no one else likes to eat always taste "just like chicken." Anyway I've eaten plenty of chicken -- what man who has lived in China hasn't -- and I've also eaten monkeys and my monkeys didn't taste like chicken. Far from it! I ate them because I was so hungry that I'd have eaten anything -- except snake.
I remember that when the late President Theodore Roosevelt came back from his expedition to the "River of Doubt" where his party nearly starved to death, I was lunching with him at Oyster Bay. Senator Beveridge asked him how he liked monkeys to eat.
"Well," said the Colonel, "you could lock me up in the monkey cage at the zoo with no danger to the inmates." He didn't think they tasted like chicken either.
Speaking of Colonel Roosevelt, the late Carl Akeley, African explorer, told me an amusing story about a dinner at the White House. The President had been having a good deal of trouble with Congress just at that time. Congressman Mann was sitting at his left. Akeley was relating an experience in Africa when he saw fourteen lions come out of a cave. The President turned to Congressman Mann and said:
"I'd like to have those lions here in Washington."
"What would you do with them, Mr. President?"
"I'd turn them loose on Congress."
"But wouldn't you be afraid that they'd make a few mistakes?"
"Not if they stayed long enough," laughed the Colonel.
But to return to snakes -- personally I dislike reptiles intensely. I don't know why, but I just do. My dislike isn't fear. It is an instinctive loathing. I have had to collect hundreds of reptiles during my explorations and I can handle them, if I have to, without going into hysterics or anything of that sort. I can inject them or take out their insides or skin them but I can think of about a million things that I would rather do. I have tried to remember when I began to dislike snakes so actively because I am interested in almost all other living things, and I am sure it dates from the time when I was about fourteen years old.
I was shooting along the banks of the Rock River in Wisconsin and spent the night in the open. After my dinner of bacon and bread I curled up to sleep with my head on a coat at the root of a great tree. During the night I felt something wriggling in my hair and sleepily put up my hand. A cold body curled about my wrist and bare arm. You could have heard me yell for at least seven miles and I leaped up shaking with fright. It was only a garter snake but if it had been a rattler I couldn't have been more scared. I didn't get over it for weeks. I used to have snake dreams even though I had never even smelled the cork of a whisky bottle at that tender age.
Snakes don't get on my nerves to that extent now but I'm still pretty jumpy when I know they are about. One year in the Gobi Desert the Central Asiatic Expedition was actually driven away from a most productive fossil field by a plague of poisonous vipers. That wasn't just a case of nerves -- we had a jolly good reason for leaving. If you had killed forty-seven snakes in your tents in the course of a couple of nights, I think you'd leave too -- unless you were like my "girl-friend" who doted on them. She would probably have enjoyed herself so much that she'd be there yet. That year our camp was pitched on a high promontory which jutted out into the desert like the prow of an enormous ship. On the very end was a great pile of rocks, a religious monument which the Mongols call an obo -- built to the spirits of nature.
There was a temple about four miles away on the basin floor and a few hours after our tents were up three or four lame priests rode over to call. They politely asked if we would please not kill anything there because it was very sacred ground. Of course I promised, not thinking of snakes, and they departed happily. Fossils were abundant all along the sides of the promontory and each man had located a valuable specimen within a few hours. Also each man reported vipers when we gathered for dinner in the mess tent that night. Some had killed four or five, others only two or three, but all had seen snakes.
So far as I am aware, there is only one poisonous reptile in the Gobi. The desert is too dry and the climate too cold. This one is a pit viper, about the size and shape of our copperhead. He is pretty bad medicine too. I don't know whether or not he contains enough poison to kill a healthy man, but a good bite would make even Jack Dempsey pretty sick.
We got along well enough for a few days but one night the temperature suddenly dropped almost to the freezing point. The vipers evidently didn't like it and made tracks for our camp to get warm. What snake instinct told them that our tents were there and that in them they could find warmth and shelter I can't imagine. Be that as it may, they wriggled their fat loathsome bodies out of the rocks, up the sides of the promontory and into our camp. They came not in twos or threes but in dozens. The first we knew of it was from Norman Lovell, one of our motor engineers. It was a clear brilliant night and he waked about two in the morning just in time to see a huge serpent wriggling across the patch of moonlight in his tent door. Lovell had no mind to share his house with a viper even though it was merely trying to get warm, and reached for his flash lamp to find his shoes. Before getting up he thought that it might be well to have a look about. Sure enough, coiled on both legs of his cot bed were two other snakes. He got his small collector's pickax, gently untangled them and cut off their heads. With his shoes on, he began a still hunt for the original visitor. Just as he stepped on the ground the grandfather of all vipers crawled out from a gasoline box at the head of his bed.
Meanwhile sounds of dismay were issuing from the abode of Fred Morris, one of our geologists.
"Dear God, my tent is full of snakes," I heard him moan. "There are hundreds of them."
From Mac Young came a volley of curses. "You yellow b--d, get out of my shoe!"
Mac had waked just in time to see a viper crawling into one of his boots. The whole camp was astir and every one was having a lively time. One of the Chinese chauffeurs found a snake coiled in his cap. Another was actually in the cook's bed. Not only were there dozens of them in camp but more were coming the edge of the escarpment.
True to their religion the Mongols wouldn't kill one of the snakes on the promontory. They contented themselves with shooing them out of their tents and calling to one of us to do the dirty work. They weren't taking any chances with the Mongol gods as long as a heathen foreigner was on the spot to accept their responsibilities.
I had put on only tennis slippers, for my leather shoes were at the bottom of a duffle sack. With a flash lamp in one hand and a pickax in the other I stepped out of the tent door onto something round and hard. I must have jumped three feet straight up and what I yelled made blue sparks in the air. But it was only a piece of half inch rope! A moment later Walter Granger made a vicious lunge at a pipe cleaner!
All of us had the jitters. There was no more sleep that night and daylight found us making a complete overhaul of everything in our tents. Snakes were everywhere -- in gun cases, in duffle bags, under blankets. Forunately, however, they were chilled and consequently sluggish. None of us was bitten but we certainly wouldn't have escaped if we had waited until the sun had warmed the tents. Wolf, my police dog, was the single casualty, but he was struck by such a small snake that he escaped with only a few hours of sickness.
We remained there two more days but the supply of snakes was inexhaustible. After we had killed forty-seven it seemed like a sound idea to clear out. No one could sleep in peace and it was inevitable that some one would be bitten eventually. So we struck the tents one bright September morning and our cars roared down the hill leaving Viper Camp to the snakes and vultures.
During all the time that I was in Borneo and the East Indies I met but very few snakes. The reason of course is because the jungle is so dense that you just don't see them. They are there all right but they don't advertise themselves. I always had the uncomfortable feeling that I might sit on one, for some of them are so protectively colored that they are almost invisible. Particularly was I nervous after an experience I had with a huge python which might easily have cost me my life.
I was walking up a game trail in the dense jungle with my Filipino boy just behind me. His name was Miranda. Suddenly he grabbed me by the shoulder and jerked me violently backward.
"What the devil," I began.
"A snake, Master -- a big snake. There -- right in front of you -- on that tree. You shoot him quick!"
He pointed to a branch overhanging the game trail only a few yards away. I couldn't see anything. Miranda kept pointing to the tree in front of me, hopping up and down with excitement.
"There, Master -- can't you see it -- a big, big snake."
No, I couldn't see it. Suddenly a breeze stirred the palm leaves and a spot of sunlight drifted over the branch where Miranda was pointing. Then I saw. There lay a huge, ugly flat head and a black glittering eye. Following back from the head what I thought was a tree branch developed into the snake's body. There seemed to be yards and yards and yards of it, losing itself in the thickness of the tangled vines. I backed away thirty or forty feet and lined my sights on that glittering eye. At the crash of the rifle, a typhoon seemed to have been let loose in the jungle. I turned and ran, watching from a safe distance. The writhing coils of the gigantic serpent broke trees like pipe stems, sweeping away in slashing blows everything within a dozen yards.
Half an hour passed before the reptile was still. There in the jungle cleared by its own death struggles lay the snake, its body half as thick as my own. I thrust a stick between one of the coils and even though life was gone they tightened like a vise. Miranda and I straightened out the great reptile and paced its length. It measured twenty feet.
As I looked down at it I thought what an unpleasant death I might have had except for Miranda's sharp eyes. It was lying there alert but motionless, waiting for whatever living thing moved along the trail. A wild pig, a deer -- or myself -- anything that passed under the branch would have been swept into those terrible coils and crushed to death.
That experience did not enhance my love of snakes. Neither did another which I had in a dak bungalow in Burma. It had been weeks since the last traveler had stayed there, and when it was opened, I told the native caretaker to make a thorough search for snakes. A good thought it was too, for in the bathroom behind the tin tub a cobra was placidly waiting for rats or what else might chance to pass his way. He wasn't a very big cobra but quite large enough to have sent me to the Happy Hunting Grounds if he had taken a nip at my bare leg. A cobra is particularly bad medicine for he doesn't just strike and pull away like most other respectable snakes. He sinks his fangs and hangs on, letting the poison drain into the wound till the last drop. The fact that the cobra is such a big snake and consequently has so much poison accounts for the fact that the chance of recovery from an honest-to-goodness bite is pretty small.
My last snake story is about a ship and a quartermaster. The ship was the United States deep sea exploring vessel, the Albatross, and the quartermaster was a Swede by the name of Larson. Larson was a fine sailorman but he would get drunk. He had been on the Albatross for twenty-five years -- ever since the day that she was launched. I remember how when a blow was coming on, he used to walk about the vessel seeing that everything was tight, saying:
"Now we are at peace. Now we are at peace."
God knows I didn't feel much at peace at those times -- I was too seasick! We had been at sea for some weeks when one morning Larson turned up drunk as an owl.
He had a great bearded face, which, when he was drunk, looked just like that of an amiable orang-utan. There were a lot of young boys on the ship who had enlisted in the navy to see the world. Larson would select one of these kids, thrust his great face within an inch of the boy's nose and with a horrible grimace say "boo." He would roar with laughter when the kid nearly went over backward.
The first morning that Larson reported for duty drunk, the captain ordered him to the brig until he sobered up. But only a few days later Larson was drunk again. This happened half a dozen times and even the crew became very curious to know where he got his stuff. The ship was searched but it remained a mystery until I solved it by chance.
While we were in the East Indies I had collected several five-gallon jars of snakes and lizards, which were preserved in alcohol. These were in the storage room below the laboratory. Every few weeks I looked them over to renew the alcohol which would become diluted by the blood and fluids of the animals' bodies. I discovered that the jars were almost dry and that this was the source of Larson's jags.
The old fellow had reached the point where he just had to have something to drink and the snakes and lizards offered the only solution. He confessed to me afterward that it did taste pretty awful but that the effect was swell.