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Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper

Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper

by Dan Eatherley

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The amazing story of one man’s obsession with an enigmatic and deadly reptile.

Raymond Ditmars (1876–1942), the first curator of reptiles at New York’s famous Bronx Zoo, brought cold-blooded animals to public attention as never before. Through wildly successful books and movies, he inspired a generation of zoologists with his fascination for snakes, insects, and other misunderstood creatures.

Ditmars was among the most celebrated naturalists in America. His reptile-collecting trips for the zoo spawned newspaper headlines across the world. Although a serpent lover, he was all too aware of the devastating effects of snakebites and was instrumental in the development of antivenom. His films and writings brought him fame, but he remained a devoted zoo employee, doing what he loved most: caring for animals.

Bushmaster tells the story of this remarkable man and what became an obsession with the mysterious bushmaster of the South American rainforest. Measuring up to thirteen feet in length, this is the world’s largest viper, and its scientific name, Lachesis muta, translates as “silent fate.” Despite numerous expeditions to jungles from Honduras to Brazil, Ditmars could never capture a bushmaster for himself.

Now, British author Dan Eatherley follows in Ditmars’s footsteps, revisiting his early haunts in the United States and South America. He attempts to do what Ditmars himself failed to achieve: to find a bushmaster in the wild. But eighty years later, will Dan have any more luck? Through the author’s own quest, Bushmaster reveals the life of a pioneer herpetologist, wildlife filmmaker, and zoo curator.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628725551
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 06/27/2015
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Dan Eatherley is a writer, filmmaker, and environmental consultant. He has made natural history documentaries for the BBC, National Geographic, and the Discovery Channel, and worked as an assistant producer on two BBC series hosted by David Attenborough. He currently resides in Exeter, England.

Read an Excerpt


Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper

By Dan Eatherley

Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Dan Eatherley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-555-1


Working up Snakes

"Poisonous snakes have always fascinated me. Just how and when this fasci nation started I can't remember."

— Raymond L. Ditmars, Strange Animals I Have Known (1931)

* * *

July 26, 1891. Central Park, New York City.

"Look where you're going, son!" hollers a police officer. But the fair-haired youth is oblivious as he careers through the traffic that even late on a Sunday clogs the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 110th Street. He slips between two drays loaded with crates and reaches Warriors' Gate, a large gap in the low stone wall bounding the northern edge of Central Park. At last, a pause for breath. He has after all just run most of the way from his house some six blocks distant.

He is soon off again, sprinting across lawns and hurdling flower beds, only one thing on his mind: to get to that wild northwestern corner of the park before sundown. He was a mere boy in knickerbockers when he first discovered garter snakes basking on the rocky ledges and outcrops beyond the old Blockhouse. Years later the serpents still fascinate him, especially on warm summer evenings like this one when he can spend hours marveling at the lithe movements, the flicking tongues, the scales glistening in the fading light.

But today will be different. Something catches his eye that stops him dead. A poster is fixed to a tree trunk: snake show at the Menagerie. 7:30pm Tonight. Professor George R. O'Reilly exhibits his remarkable collection from around the world.

"Just my luck," he laughs. "A snake show starting right now, and here I am at the far end of the park!"

Half an hour later and the panting, sweaty teenager staggers toward the sheds and open-air enclosures housing elephants and bears, monkeys and wolves. The stench of animal waste floats in the evening breeze. Two camels watch mournfully as he passes into the former arsenal, a castellated building now serving as the menagerie's administrative offices and whose entrance hall is the temporary venue for tonight's exhibition. He's surprised to find a sizeable crowd of visitors filing respectfully past several dozen glass-fronted display cases arranged on trestle tables. Perhaps not everyone in this city hates snakes after all.

The youth begins inspecting the cases, each labeled with its reptilian contents. Cribo. Fer-de-Lance. Puff Adder. Parrot Snake. Many species are new to him although he does recognize the olive-brown colors of a water moccasin. Nicknamed the "cottonmouth" for its habit of gaping a whitish maw at enemies, this snake is a venomous native of the United States, chiefly the waterways of the South where it is more dreaded than its cousin the rattlesnake. The moccasin is said to strike on the slightest provocation — and without the rattler's boisterous warning. One case is marked tiger snake — Expert Rat Catcher (from Trinidad). Coiled motionless within is a yellow-and-black serpent whose length he puts at about four feet. A live mouse has been placed in the same case: supper. The rodent is agitated, approaching and repeatedly sniffing at the reptile. At one point it even clambers over the snake's head. The teenager watches, hoping for a kill. Nothing happens so he moves on.

At the far end of the hall, a newspaper reporter with pen and notepad questions two smartly dressed, vociferous gentlemen.

"Oh no, it's a simple enough task," booms one of the latter, the County Clare accent unmistakable. He is tanned, has an athletic build, and sports a closely cut brown beard and mustaches waxed to an upward point in the French style. "You use your forked stick to pin down the snake, then grasp him behind the head and fling the rest of his body over your shoulder. The animal can coil around as much as he chooses after that."

"Although, mind you keep a firm grip on his neck," adds his colleague, "or there'll be trouble! Isn't that so, O'Reilly? Ha ha!"

As the trio descends into laughter, the teenager advances on O'Reilly. "Excuse me, Professor, but which is your favorite snake species of them all?"

"Well, young man, what's your name?" replies O'Reilly, his blue eyes still smiling.

"Ray, I mean, Raymond."

"Well, Raymond, my favorite species, eh? That's a tricky one. You saw the cribo over there, did you?"

The youth nods.

"That fellow loves to eat other snakes, including the poisonous ones, and he'll take on vipers almost double his size. To me that's mighty impressive ..."

O'Reilly pauses.

"... but for pure majesty it really has to be the snake we've just been talking about: the bushmaster! Or, as my friend Mr. Libert here from Trinidad knows it, the mapepire z'anana!"

The two words are pronounced slowly, deliberately.

"While other deadly vipers such as fer-de-lances inhabit the lowlands close to human population," continues the Irishman, "the bushmaster lurks in hilly regions, deep in the vast forests of South America. He's damned difficult to find. But when you do, watch out! He sometimes grows more than thirteen feet in length. His fangs are of a wondrous size and his venom is copious!"

"And he's strong too," interjects Libert. "Body's thick as a man's arm and he can launch himself over three-quarters of his own length!"

"Goodness me!" The teenager is enthralled.

"Yes, you undoubtedly need your wits about you when taking a bushmaster," says O'Reilly, "although I didn't have too much bother subduing one in Trinidad a couple of years ago. Eight-footer turned up in Chaguanas after I offered a reward."

"Is it in your exhibition tonight?" asks the young snake enthusiast.

"Alas no, Raymond. The specimen lasted but a few days. In my experience, the bushmaster never takes well to captivity."

Many other questions follow. Toward the end of the evening Ray returns to the tiger snake case finding much the same situation: no telltale bulge in the snake, its cage mate alive and well. Indeed, the rodent now appears relaxed, sitting back on haunches cleaning whiskers just a few inches from doom. Still the snake fails to stir, not even a tongue-flick. Either that snake's not hungry or he's made of India rubber!

* * *

Things were going well. For years I had been filming interesting wildlife in exotic places, including on some tropical islands. Raymond Ditmars and bushmasters were all but forgotten. Or were they? Passing through London one day I found myself with time to kill. Instinct led me to the Natural History Museum and, in particular, its library where an afternoon could be whiled away perusing classic works crowded with vivid illustrations of zoological specimens. I gravitated toward the snake books. A 1742 edition of Charles Owen's An Essay towards a Natural History of Serpents: In Two Parts looked amusing. Topics covered included "Fiery Serpents that infested the Camp of Israel" and "Divine Worship given to Serpents by the Nations." Also catching my eye was Ophiolatreia, an anonymous "exposition of one of the phases of phallic, or sex worship" which was "privately printed" in 1889.

Then I pulled out an 1825 edition of Charles Waterton's Wanderings in South America, the North-west of the United States and the Antilles. Waterton was a Yorkshireman, minor aristocrat, and tropical traveler. Wanderings details a decade's worth of explorations beginning in British Guiana where his family had estates. Various encounters with wild beasts including jaguars, insects, and birds are described. At one point Waterton wrestled a boa constrictor, trussing its jaws with his braces. But what really struck me was his description of another snake: "Unrivalled in his display of every lovely colour of the rainbow, and unmatched in the effects of his deadly poison, the counacouchi glides undaunted on, sole monarch of these forests," writes Waterton. "Both man and beast fly before him and allow him to pursue an undisputed path. He sometimes grows to the length of fourteen feet." Counacouchi was the local word for bushmaster.

Whether the explorer had actually seen one was debatable, but the snake obviously had a reputation. My interest in the bushmaster reawakened, I sought further descriptions and in another nineteenth-century volume I learned that the snake had a curved claw on its tail, supposedly planted in the ground as a fulcrum for pouncing on victims. One equally fanciful report had the snake "erect on the tip of his tail in the midst of a Brazilian road and barring the way as effectually as an eighteen-pounder." In that country the bushmaster went by the name surucucú referring to the mysterious whistle it was said to emit in the dead of night. Peee-ooooooo-ooooooo-wheet!

I could have lingered for hours but had a train to catch. I considered photocopying some of the more interesting pages, but the copy price was high.

"You can take photos of the pages," suggested a middle-aged male librarian seated at his large, elegant desk.

Luckily I had brought my digital camera and prepared to snap away.

"But you'll have to fill this in." I was handed a yellow form.

Having completed the paperwork I again readied the Lumix and pressed the shutter button.

This prompted the unmistakable sound of throat-clearing.

"Please don't use a flash!"

This was reasonable given the age of the books, but daylight was fading. Admitting defeat, I went home.

But something had clicked. During those few hours I had lost myself in a bygone era of discovery and travel. My fascination both with bushmasters and the American zoo curator they had so obsessed flared with new intensity. I spent the next week tracking down and ordering as many of Ditmars's books as I could, titles like Strange Animals I Have Known, Confessions of a Scientist, and The Book of Insect Oddities. The book prices were occasionally eye-watering, suggesting his works were still in demand. Of most interest was Snake-Hunters' Holiday, describing a collecting trip to Trinidad and British Guiana in the summer of 1934. The goal had been to trap a live bushmaster.

This now sounded like my kind of holiday. But why? I had no desire to catch a viper myself. Lacking the expertise of a Rom Whitaker or a Steve Irwin, nothing would have been more reckless.

Yet the quest still appealed. Putting down Snake-Hunters' Holiday I resolved to go to New York and learn more about Raymond Ditmars. I would trace his career, follow in his footsteps, visit his haunts. My snake-stalking skills honed, I would then head down to South America and try my own luck at finding a bushmaster. How difficult and dangerous could it be? After all, bushmasters were responsible for just 0.01 percent of reported snake bites in Latin America. I tried to ignore the nagging possibility that because accidents occurred far from civilization, bushmaster bites were underrepresented in the figures, and that if I was bitten, the outlook wasn't great. The locals seemingly knew this. During the filming in Peru of Werner Herzog's 1972 movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a lumber man was struck twice in the leg by a bushmaster. Legend has it that, without missing a beat, he lopped off the limb.

"Ten years ago there's no way I would have walked up here alone."

Regina strode ahead along the narrow path skirting a bulky protrusion of gray schist. Crowning the outcrop was Blockhouse Number One, the sole survivor of forts built in 1814 to ward off a British attack that never came.

"Really?" I said, peering up at the rudimentary structure. Nestled among the oaks and maples framing the northern perimeter of Central Park, this seemed a peaceful enough spot despite the hum of traffic from West 110th Street down the hill to our right. Earthy, sylvan odors filled the cool, early autumnal air.

"Yeah. Even in the mid-2000s, this part was still notorious for muggers, drug-dealers, prostitutes."

The Central Park Conservancy had spent three decades and almost a billion dollars restoring Manhattan's premier green space. In the 1970s the park was in decline, and few ventured above 96th Street, but as the conservancy steadily worked its way north, the lowlifes were driven off. This corner of the park, known as the North Woods, was a "hold-over area," among the last to be restored. The conservancy now maintained wildness of a different sort here, removing invasive plant species such as Japanese knotweed, Chinese wisteria, and Norwegian maple while re-planting native oaks, maples, elms, tulip trees, and sweet gums. Dead wood wasn't tidied away but left to rot, providing habitats for invertebrates.

"Things still happen, though," she said as we paused for breath, "This is New York."

Just twenty-four hours before, I had flown into the city, the plane tracing the coast of Long Island before slowly descending toward Kennedy airport. A few hundred feet beneath me, surfers bobbed on the green waves of Atlantic Beach. Then, earlier today I had rendezvoused with Regina Alvarez at Central Park. A conservancy employee for nineteen years, Regina now taught at a small city college but maintained her links with the park. We had gone first to an area Ditmars had pronounced a snake haven: some rocky bluffs between West 104th and 105th Streets. But the only sign of life was dog-walkers chattering in a nearby clearing, their animals cavorting across the grass.

Regina had already softened me up for disappointment during email exchanges. The serpents in the park now seemed to be exotics, unwanted pets such as king snakes or boas. Raccoons, red-tailed hawks, and other predators had probably wiped out the natives. Yet merely visiting one of Ditmars's earliest haunts provided a minor thrill in itself.

Half an hour later we emerged from the North Woods onto West Drive to be confronted by an unbroken stream of joggers, a form of New York traffic peculiar to Central Park. Waiting for an opportunity to cross I stared up at the skyscrapers looming over the trees on the horizon.

Regina caught my gaze. "You used not to be able to see buildings from here, but in 2009 we had a storm one night. Lost five hundred trees in fifteen minutes."

The soil in much of the park was shallow, barely covering the bedrock, and offered tree roots scant purchase when high winds swept in from the Atlantic.

"Some people like seeing the skyline from the park, others hate it," continued Regina. "They want to forget they're in the city."

While snakes seemed nonexistent, other species were doing better. Beavers and chipmunks were making a comeback, and not long ago a coyote nicknamed Hal padded in.

"The theory is he came in along the Metro North Railroad," said Regina.

"Shall we head to the Central Park Zoo?" I asked as we weaved through a party of gasping seniors.

During the nineteenth century, just as today, the northern end of the park was a semiwilderness rarely disturbed by the landscape gardeners who focused on the neat flower beds and elegant avenues elsewhere. In the spring and summer months of the early 1880s, a blond-haired little boy would creep up to the ledges here after school, eager to see the dozens of garter snakes and brown snakes stretched out on the warm rocks. Non-venomous but exciting, several exceeded a yard in length. In the early days he would just watch. Then he started stuffing them in his pockets. On the weekends the young naturalist could spend an entire day gathering snakes in the park, occasionally recruiting others to the cause. With the twenty-five cents his father gave him for lunch he would buy a pickle for a penny and doughnuts for a nickel. He gave the rest to other boys in return for green chicken snakes and garter snakes. Central Park's reptilian treasures fueled a passion for the lowly that had manifested itself in the boy long before his family had moved to the city.

Raymond Lee Ditmars was born in Newark, New Jersey, on June 22, 1876, to John Van Harlingen Ditmars, a furniture dealer, and his wife Mary. He had one sibling, an older sister named Ella. Ditmars senior was of Dutch ancestry and a veteran of General Lee's Confederate army, hence his son's middle name. Raymond was an instinctive herpetologist in its truest sense. The term derives from the Greek herpeton meaning "creeping animal," and as a toddler he would root about in the back yard for anything that crawled low to the ground. That meant ants and grasshoppers and caterpillars and frogs and turtles. Yet watching was not enough, the animals had to be held, had to be collected. One story has Ditmars training ten toads to dance in the parlor, the amphibians supposing the carpet to be grass. His mother warned her little blond boy that he would soon be "all full of warts."

The 1880s saw the Ditmarses relocating to a four-story apartment house in Harlem. That's when Raymond started his adventures in Central Park, a few blocks to the west. Summer vacations were spent at Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn. For Raymond, the entertainments of nearby Coney Island were not the only attraction. In time the bay would suffer industrial pollution and was even used to dump military waste, but when Ditmars was a boy its salt marshes and sand dunes were pristine. Alive with turtles, crabs, and snakes, it was a habitat ripe for exploration. Once, aged twelve, Raymond found a pair of garter snakes among the cattails and begged his parents to let him bring them home. The answer was "No," although he subsequently saved another garter snake from a stoning by his friends, secreting it in a soap box in the garden and feeding it bread and milk. He was later permitted to keep a dozen or so harmless types in his bedroom during winter months, provided they didn't appear in the parlor or at the dinner table.


Excerpted from Bushmaster by Dan Eatherley. Copyright © 2015 Dan Eatherley. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue: His Unwavering Grip, xvii,
1. Working up Snakes, 1,
2. Pleased with a Rattler, Tickled with its Fang, 19,
3. Silent Death of the Black Night, 37,
4. The Master of Snakes, 55,
5. A Snapping Turtle in a Tin Bathtub, 73,
6. A Decided Awakening of Unbiased Interest, 91,
7. Reptilian Deviltry of the World, 109,
8. A Sort of Freemasonry, 127,
9. A Messy Business, 145,
10. A Sympathetic Knowledge, 165,
11. The Stage of Nature, 183,
12. A Naturalist's Paradise, 203,
13. The Main Thing Is the Bushmaster, 221,
14. Six Feet Long and Vicious, 239,
15. We Can Get All We Want Now, 259,
Epilogue: My Happiest Hours, 271,
Author's Note: Meeting Gloria, 275,
Acknowledgements, 279,
Index, 283,
About the Type, 311,

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