Absorbing, stylishly written account of the life and career of a celebrated young herpetologist whose reckless fascination with venomous snakes ended with his slow death in the sub-Himalayan wilderness of northern Burma.
Born in New York City in 1962, Joe Slowinski was a bright charmer who grew up yearning to be a scientist. Being bitten by a pet boa constrictor didn’t extinguish his youthful passion for venomous snakes; before entering his teens, he had already watched a Hopi snake dance in New Mexico. Slowinski got a doctorate in biology at the University of Miami and began his career as a college teacher and field researcher, studying the snakes of Asia and dreaming of an expedition in search of new species in Burma. (He would later visit the region 11 times in four years.) Fearless in his barehanded handling of dangerous reptiles, he soon had a reputation as a knowledgeable—and macho—snake freak. James (Andrew & Joey: A Tale of Bali, 2002, etc.) focuses in on Slowinski’s last Burma outing, made in 2001 under a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Then a curator at San Francisco’s renowned California Academy of Sciences, about to become chair of the museum’s herpetology department, the 38-year-old scientist was enjoying a heady local celebrity after his work was featured in National Geographic Channel documentaries. Nonetheless, he embarked with 15 naturalists on a grueling trek through remote Burmese jungle in search of the many-banded krait, one of the world’s most venomous snakes. Drawing on interviews, the author recreates that final expedition and the 29 hours it took Slowinski to die (on 9/11) after reaching into a bag of snakes and being bitten by a krait. Without impeding his narrative, James frequently veers into wonderful stories of snake lore, academic rivalries, rattlesnake roundups and other pertinent herpetological matters.
An exquisitely crafted book that will grab even those who have no interest in snakes.