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Old March 14th, 2010 #102
Alex Linder
Join Date: Nov 2003
Posts: 45,375
Blog Entries: 34
Alex Linder

Here's a guy doing the sort of careful caretaking that Germanic folk are always found doing, by contrast with jews, who have always hated animals because they haven't yet found a way to sue them for anti-semitism.

Nothing rattles snake expert
Volunteer is helping museum re-tag reptile collection

Saturday, March 13, 2010

SAN DIEGO — Dick Schwenkmeyer was a teenager in the 1940s when he and a buddy caught a 5-foot-long, red diamond rattlesnake in a Del Cerro canyon and carried the reptile in their hands as they walked home past what was then called San Diego State College.

“We walked right through the middle of campus just to create a sensation,” Schwenkmeyer said. The large rattler was later put on exhibit at the San Diego Zoo.

Schwenkmeyer’s boyhood explorations through San Diego’s canyons sparked a lifelong fascination with snakes and other reptiles and San Diego County’s habitat. It also led to a career as a biology teacher and a 66-year association with the San Diego Natural History Museum that continues today.

“I don’t know of anybody else like Dick Schwenkmeyer,” said Bradford Hollingsworth, curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum. “He’s a walking history book.”

When he’s not out hiking in the canyons around his Tierrasanta home, Schwenkmeyer, 81, can often be found in a windowless basement laboratory at the museum where he is volunteering on a three-year project to put new tags on the institution’s collection of 75,000 preserved reptile and amphibian specimens. Schwenkmeyer himself caught about 450 of the creatures.

“We have the largest rattlesnake collection in the world,” which includes 9,800 specimens, said Schwenkmeyer, as he showed visitors the banks of movable shelves holding row upon row of clear jars with white lids. The jars contain snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, salamanders, crocodiles and other species. The collection dates to 1891.

As a boy, Schwenkmeyer landed a job at the zoo sweeping up the sidewalks in Bear Canyon before moving to the zoo’s reptile house. That job led to an association with Laurence Klauber, chief executive of San Diego Gas & Electric Co., who also collected and studied rattlesnakes and was considered the world’s foremost authority on the subject.

Through Klauber, Schwenkmeyer began participating in programs at the Natural History Museum, and after serving in Korea and Japan during the Korean War, Schwenkmeyer returned to San Diego and studied zoology in college.

“My mother convinced me I’d never make a living as a snake man, so I changed my major and went into education,” Schwenkmeyer said.

He taught biology in San Diego junior and senior high schools, and later worked for 22 years as a biology professor at San Diego Mesa College. During his teaching career, he also led field expeditions and camping trips throughout San Diego County and Baja California as a part-time employee of the museum.

Since his retirement from teaching, Schwenkmeyer has continued his work at the museum on a volunteer basis.

The re-tagging project involves taking the specimens from their jars, in which they are preserved in an ethanol solution, and tying new numbered tags on their legs that link back to information in the museum’s computerized database.

On a recent morning, Schwenkmeyer worked with geckos about 2 inches long, native to desert areas in San Diego County. The painstaking process involved securing the tags with string to the lizards’ rear legs.

“We call it Zen-like, you get in a rhythm,” said Laura Williams, a collections technician at the museum.

The work is carried out by eight to 10 volunteers, and will help keep the collection organized for researchers who study the specimens.

Keeping Schwenkmeyer and Williams company was a live rattlesnake named Chaos, which hissed and shook its rattle furiously when visitors approached its enclosure.

From April through June, he said, the four species of rattlesnake found in San Diego County — red diamond, southern Pacific, speckled and sidewinder — become much more active, posing a potential danger to hikers.

The best way for hikers to avoid a snake bite, he said, is to keep an eye on the trail and stay at last three feet away from rattlers. “When you’re on the trail, keep your eyes on the trail. If you want to look at the scenery, stop walking and then look.”

Schwenkmeyer said he’s never been bitten by a rattlesnake, but has been nipped by king and gopher snakes. As a teenager working at the zoo, he was bitten on the hand by a 9-foot boa constrictor and had to pry the snake’s jaws open with a screwdriver.

At home, Schwenkmeyer keeps two rosy boa constrictors — one of which he has owned for 47 years — and a desert tortoise as pets. “I like them better than cats and dogs. They’re absolutely no trouble,” he said.