Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 16th 2015 Contents B2
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Which sounds a bit like Eatherley s tra-
vails when he followed in Ditmars footsteps.
Bushmasters are snakes that seem to be
found when they want to be found, not
when you re looking for them.
By the 1930s, thanks to the pioneering
nature films Ditmars made for Pathé, Dit-
mars had achieved a level of fame which
meant his searches (and failures) would
appear as headlines in American newspa-
Eventually in 1934 he reached Trinidad
on a cruise and was just about to depart
for Guyana when he heard news that a
bushmaster had been found in the south
near the oilfields and taken to the University
of the West Indies---at the time a humble
"According to the story," Eatherley told
me, "These oil workers went into a hut
and there was a blackout and when the
lights came on there was a bushmaster.
And they were about to kill it but one of
them knew Ditmars wanted one."
Six weeks after Ditmars got it home to
the Bronx Zoo, where he had become the
first curator of reptiles and developed the
zoo into a place two million people visit
each year, the bushmaster died.
In captivity, they never last long. Their
delicate spines are often damaged by the
rough way they get caught. And most of
those captured have some kind of parasites,
often worms, which do away with them
In some ways it s a miracle that bush-
masters or other similar snakes are ever
found alive in T&T, since the instinct of
many people is to kill them on sight. When
Eatherley tells me how deadly bushmasters
can be, it s perhaps not surprising that
people want them dead. Even though they
would much rather humans left them alone
and would never bite a person if left undis-
turbed, the fact is they are very venomous.
They typically grow up to six feet long
(in the 19th-century, 11-foot specimens
used to be discovered, but not anymore)
and they can see in the dark with heat sen-
sors. Their range is from Nicaragua down
to Brazil and they generally don t do much,
only eating about once a week or once a
fortnight due to their low metabolism and
But if you do get bitten by a bushmaster,
Eatherley explains, "Your tissue dissolves
away, your blood vessels, cells and capillaries
burst and everything all sloshes about so
you end up with quite a lot of tissue damage
quite quickly. At the same time there s a
neurotoxic element---like with black mam-
bas in Africa---which paralyses you and
stops your breathing."
This is serious stuff. But on the plus side,
you ve got a window of a few hours to get
hold of some anti-venom to treat the
And Ditmars is the man to thank for the
proliferation of anti-venom in the Americas.
As a youth, a friend of his was bitten by
a rattlesnake and died. Throughout the
1920s, Ditmars would "milk" thousands
of live snakes to capture their venom in
gourds, turn it into dried-out crystals and
distribute it as an antidote to snake bites.
So what drove Eatherley to painstakingly
research this man and come all the way to
Trinidad (where the archives weren t of
much use, being largely incomplete), to
write this book?
An obsession with snakes?
"I m not really massively interested in
snakes," he laughs. "I did zoology at Oxford
and didn t know what I wanted to be when
I grew up. I still don t know. But I had a
vague idea of going to some tropical island
Instead he ended up making natural his-
tory programmes---including a couple with
the legendary British naturalist Sir David
Attenborough---in the less exotic city of
I asked what Eatherley thought of
Trinidad---he stayed at Pax guesthouse,
where Attenborough stays, near Tunapuna
and St Augustine at the edge of the North-
ern Range---and he told me that he liked
the lush forest but that parts of the coun-
try s natural environment felt like they had
He found that Simla, the former gover-
nor s residence now home to the William
Beebe Tropical Research Station and part
of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, needed
lots of maintenance work, and at the edge
of the forest he was aware of the constant
presence of trucks mining the quarry.
"They re just completely cutting away
the hillside," he said.
But Eatherley enjoyed his (ultimately
fruitless) quest searching for snakes in
Trinidad s wildest reaches and the country
will always hold some nostalgic appeal as
his in-laws, completely coincidentally, met
in Trinidad while working in the oil industry
many years ago.
How likely is the average Trini to ever
see a snake like the bushmaster? Not very.
"The minute snakes get big, they get
noticed by humans and are instantly killed.
It s very hard to find a bushmaster," as he
knows only too well.
While at a meeting of the T&T Field
Naturalists Club, he found out that a bush-
master had been found by a farmer just
the day before. His excitement was damp-
ened, however, by the news that it had
been instantly bludgeoned to death.
Heat sensors used to see in dark
Dan Eatherley strikes gold with the original slides that belonged to Raymond Ditmars.
PHOTO COURTESY DAN EATHERLEY
From Page B1
"Your tissue dissolves away, your blood vessels, cells and
capillaries burst and everything all sloshes about so you end up
with quite a lot of tissue damage quite quickly. At the same time
there's a neurotoxic element---like with black mambas in Africa---
which paralyses you and stops your breathing."
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