Standing in front of the reptilium at the London zoo, author Jeremy Seal recalled one of his earliest fears: Years before, as a child, I had stood in this same doorway. I remember how I had imagined within a bottomless pit overflowing with snakes, plaits of snakes spilling on to the shiny floor to entangle themselves and slither numberless down long corridors, and the images had stopped me in my tracks. My palms had prickled with sweat and tears had welled up in my eyes, and thirty years later little had changed. His paranoia was such that he had become convinced that he would, sooner or later, die of snakebite.
To the average Joe, taking up residence in Ireland or some equally snake-free place would seem the prudent course, but then Jeremy Seal is not the average Joe. Having trekked all over Turkey a few years back in search of an elusive fez (A Fez of the Heart), Seal now takes us on a herpetological tour of such exotic locales as India, Kenya, Australia, and Alabama. Alabama, exotic? You bet, for in the northeast corner of the state, and in contiguous Tennessee and Georgia, are Pentecostal churches whose members routinely handle poisonous snakes in the name of faith. Seal chronicles the murder trial of a misguided minister who attempts to murder his wife by means of snakebite and then pass it off as suicide; in another vignette, he visits a country church to watch the handling of serpents firsthand. He chases the deadly taipan in Far North Australia, the hooded cobra in southern India, and in Kenya, the lethal black mamba. With equal doses of humor and, um, venom, Snakebite Survivors' Club offers the reader as close a look at our slithery friends as he or she will likely ever want.
In an equally perilous part of the world specifically, the Brazilian rainforest nature writer and NPR commentator Sy Montgomery (Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans) pursues an altogether friendlier species, the pink freshwater dolphin (known locally as boto ) of the Amazon basin. Comparatively little is known about this rare species; the aquatic mammal is far better known in folklore than in fact. According to Amazonian legend, the dolphin can assume human shape and walk unrecognized on shore; it can even take a human lover. The danger in this is that the human half of the equation may be lured back to the dolphin's homeland, Encantada (Portuguese for enchanted ), never to return to land.
Little research has been done on pink dolphins; their habitat is murky and piranha-infested, the creatures themselves are somewhat elusive and shy, and the rapid changes to the rainforest region have profoundly disturbed their normal patterns of life. Still, Montgomery is determined to view the dolphins, to add to the base of knowledge on their habits, and to forge a tentative cross-species bond with them: Within three minutes of our arrival, the dolphins appeared. I swam out to them, perhaps a quarter mile. All seven botos appeared, blowing, pulling their heads from the water to look One of the medium grays rolled on his back, waving his flippers, and then turned, flipping his tail. Moments later Montgomery discovered that the nearby fisherman's net yielded two four-inch piranhas.
Seal's easy humor and laid-back approach contrasts with Montgomery's conservationist zeal and fascination with the occult, but each offers a rare look at far-off lands and the unusual creatures who call them home.
Bruce Tierney writes from Hendersonville, Tennessee.