Review by Andrew Mitchell
It's true that you can find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, even knee-deep in a swamp with a snake clamped onto your hand.
There were many such "aha!" moments in Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist that led to Leslie Anthony devoting so much of his life to the science of herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians), including one entertaining episode where pre-teen Anthony wrestles an adult snapping turtle out of a backwater pond, literally risking flesh and bone just to hold the prehistoric creature in his hands. He could have turned back at any time, like the other kids fleeing the pond, but he holds on, displaying a level of courage and curiosity that set him on a different path at a young age.
Although better known to his Whistler neighbours for his contributions to ski, science and adventure magazines - bringing a literary bent to three fields badly in need of it - Anthony is first and foremost an expert on things that crawl, slither and swim. He has a PhD in zoology from the University of Toronto and was a fellow at McGill University's Redpath Museum.
He's traveled the world studying snakes and other reptiles and amphibians, and decades later you can still find him poking around his backyard in search of specimens. Two years ago he found the first red-tailed frogs ever confirmed in Whistler, a blue-listed species considered to be at risk in the province. He is also constantly on the lookout for snakes, including the elusive rubber boa that has been spotted in the Emerald Estates area.
And he can write. Wow, can he write.
Snakebit is a great book, whatever you might think of the subject matter. While it's an autobiography first and foremost, chronicling Anthony's earliest experiences denuding his local forests and swamplands of snakes to his later experiences travelling the globe in search of rarer and often more dangerous species, it's also a stunning tribute to the creatures he studies. He is clearly in awe of his subjects, and it doesn't take long before the reader is awed as well.
The story uncoils in Finland, where the adult Anthony was working on a ski story for a travel magazine when he came across European Adders that harass the local skiers. It curls up with Anthony's search for vipers in Armenia, in a no-man's land near the Iranian border. It slithers through every kind of terrain, from the suburban swamps and lots that formed the borders of Anthony's childhood to the green mountains of North Vietnam. He finds his quarry under rocks, in log piles, curled up in the sun, flattened in the middle of the road.
Anthony knows how to build suspense, how to tease, how to capture dialogue and action, which there is plenty of. He has also found the humour in his field, from the century-old rivalry between herpetologists and ichthyologists (fish experts), to the way that herpetologists are consigned to the darkest corners of university campuses as relics and oddities that are themselves worthy of study. At one point Anthony jokes, "I used to be a herpetologist, now I study herpetologists," alluding to the strange and off-beat people that share his corner of zoology.
In one funny scene he awkwardly bumps into another herpetologist while in Fiji and heading back to his hostel with two incredibly rare, incredibly dead snakes in his hands. "Where the fuck did you get those?" asks a man named Stuart. "You a herpetologist or something?"
Meeting a fellow herpetologist in such an unlikely place, much less someone who knows what the word "herpetologist means," was too much for Anthony. He officially ended his vacation on the spot and decided to rent a car with Stuart to go "herping" around Fiji, turning up a number of interesting finds in the process.
I doubt many people out there could say they willingly cut short a beach vacation to go to work, but then again few people out there have a job/vocation/calling as interesting as Anthony. Bring on the snakes.