The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge

By JAMIE JAMES

When renowned herpetologist Joe Slowinski was bitten by a many-banded krait, a profoundly venomous snake found throughout Southeast Asia, he knew better than anyone the daunting odds he faced. He gathered together his colleagues, fellow biologists engaged in a survey of remote northern Burma, and described for them the symptoms he would experience: first the potent neurotoxin would numb his extremities; next his eyelids and head would droop; soon thereafter the paralysis would reach his diaphram, and he would stop breathing. Drawn to all that creeps, slithers, and crawls, Slowinski mingled the macho charge he got out of handling deadly serpents with a zealous curiosity about the natural world. Author Jamie James charts the origins of Slowinski’s passion for nature: artist parents who fostered curiosity and exploration, access to the rough woodlands and fossil-laden riverbanks of the Midwest, and above all an immunity to fear that lead Slowinski to great discoveries and, ultimately, to his death. As his symptoms progressed, Slowinski’s colleagues fought to keep him alive, administering mouth-to-mouth breathing in the rank tropical heat for hours, awaiting a rescue that never comes. But it’s wonder, not suspense, that’s at the heart of this book. The Snake Charmer is more than a tale of derring-do, discovery, and death in the jungle; it’s also a story of the grandeur of the biosphere and the lengths some people will go to understand and protect it.

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