Tom Hudak: Reptile Specialist

 

(This 703rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 19, 2004.)

 

As if they didn't have enough troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq, our soldiers must deal there with venomous snakes and scorpions.

 

In response to this problem herpetologist Tom Hudak has been providing National Guard units, including some of those here in Buffalo, prior preparation for how to deal with such threats. He also identifies animals for troops already there.

 

In early September I visited Hudak and one of his volunteer assistants, Dana Gioia, in his Rochester menagerie. (Dave Smith of Buffalo also works with him.) I learned about the many animals in his collection; his work with school children, soldiers, animal control officers and Department of Environmental Conservation employees; and his lifetime interest in reptiles and other wildlife.

 

Earlier I visited his website, which describes the wide range of his work, and I was impressed with his ability to entertain everyone from kindergarteners to the national audience of David Letterman. When I met him in person, moreover, it quickly became apparent that he is far more than a showman; he is a fine educator with deep understanding of the animals with which he works who has creative ideas about communicating that part of his knowledge appropriate to his particular audience.

 

Because his work involves traveling shows, much effort has to go into the transfer of a carefully selected group of animals. Each individual has to be moved into a secure container for transportation. But those travelers are not the only animals in Hudak's extensive collection. Thus my behind the scenes tour gave me a special opportunity to see many more of them.

 

Most animals are separately housed and any housewife would be well satisfied with the cleanliness of their accommodations.

 

Of most interest was what was designated the hot room. It may indeed have been a bit warmer there but I suspect that in this case hot refers to danger for this was the repository of venomous animals.

 

I was impressed with the extreme care Hudak displayed when he removed individual snakes from their cages to show them to me up close. He picked them up with one of those metal rods twisted at the end like a dentist's pick. Even then he used special care when the snake began to climb up the shaft of the rod.

 

Hudak has never been bitten by a venomous snake but he told me that he constantly reminds himself not to relax. "Careless reptile handlers invite trouble," he told me.

 

Despite years of experience with them, I retain that primal fear of snakes. I could feel my heart rate rise when Hudak removed a very active monocle cobra from its cage and placed it on the floor for me to photograph. The snake first slithered toward sanctuary under cages but, when Hudak headed it off, it rose and spread its throat in traditional display. Needless to say, my photograph was taken at extreme range.

 

The reptiles seemed to have personalities: the cobras menacing; other vipers, although more docile, always attentive and looking for an opening; the pythons, couch potatoes; the scorpions, angry. The Gila Monster, on the other hand, was a smiling, friendly presence.

 

One of the simple instructions Hudak gives troopers heading for the Near East: shake out your boots before you put them on. Scorpions have been known to hide in them. He showed me one of those dangerous Iraqi arachnids: a death stalker scorpion, its spiked tail raised to strike.

 

But he also tells soldiers not to consider every reptile, spider or insect a threat. Just as here we have a few rattlesnakes, in Iraq and Afghanistan only a small number of the animals are dangerous. He also warns guardsmen to discount urban legends like the camel spider, falsely claimed to be a dinner plate-sized, flesh-eating, anesthesia-injecting monster that races about Iraq at 25 miles per hour. (For more information see snopes.com on the web.)

 

Hudak is at his best, I believe, in showing both children and adults that reptiles are not horrid, cold, slimy enemies. He gives them -- as he did me -- opportunities to handle them so that they feel the dryness and warmth of their bodies. As he does this, however, he unobtrusively retains control of even his tamest animals. He knows that a finger can be mistaken by a myopic snake for a delectable mouse.

 

Today animal control personnel often receive calls to rid premises of snakes. Hudak trains the officers to handle these largely beneficial animals safely with objects at hand like brooms.

 

Today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. you can meet Tom Hudak and many other reptile specialists at the Fifth Annual Reptile Show and Seminar at the Hearthstone Manor, 333 Dick Road in Depew. Adult admission $5; children under 10 free.-- Gerry Rising