51 years of handling venomous snakes, Arkansas herpetologist Dennis Magee has never been bitten. That shows just how cautious he is when dealing with the creatures he says are misunderstood. As part of the Hot Springs National Park's 175th anniversary, and keeping with the celebration's theme of conservation, Magee presented two talks at Hill Wheatley Plaza this month to educate the public on the important role all snakes play in the ecosystem.
"I used to be a Steve Irwin myself. I really admired his excitement and animation, too," Magee said. He said he was communicating with the famous "Crocodile Hunter" about a possible meeting before Irwin died last year from a stingray attack. Magee speaks of Komodo dragons, hellbender salamanders, and cobras with equal experience. Although known to many as a downtown Hot Springs real estate developer, Magee also has a colorful past in the natural world that began as a young man in Santa Rosa, California, earning merit badges for the rank of Eagle Scout. Before he was 20, while living in Cincinnati, the snake hunter had established the Cincinnati Reptile Research Laboratory and brought together local herpetologists such as Dr. George T. McDuffie and Richard Costello to amass the largest private collection of crocodilians in the country, and assemble the largest collection of various rattlesnakes outside a major zoo.
In 1960, Magee was the reptile keeper and supervisor of the zoo hospital at the Staten Island Zoo in New York City. Between then and 1968, when he moved back to Ohio for a zoo job at Columbus, he was a police officer with the Jacksonville, Fla., police department and a Boy Scout master.
In 1981, Magee went on to become the business partner of Ross Allen in setting up Ross Allen's Alligator Town in Lake City, Fla., and then director of the tourist attraction when Allen passed away shortly before Alligator Town opened in 1982. While in Florida, Magee captured the largest soft-shell turtle on record, in north Florida's St. John's River. He held nine "length records" for snake captures at one time, and also holds two oldest-snake records for snake catchers _ a 23-year-old cane break rattlesnake, and a 27-year-old cottonmouth water moccasin.
At his home office, a building separate from his house on Bower Street, Magee has a collection of about 30 snakes. All except a few he has caught in the wild, including a pair of rare trans-pecos copperheads from west Texas. Oddly enough, before his research and fascination with reptiles, Magee said he was scared of snakes. "I was phobic scared of snakes. It was the first fear I overcame, and I haven't been afraid of anything since," he recalled. Respect and caution are the two qualities one needs to have in dealing with wild creatures, he said.
Although he hasn't been bitten by a snake, he can't say the same for alligators. He shows a scar on his thumb that is still healing up after feeding a mouse to Thomas, his 5-year-old alligator. Thomas came from the Cincinnati Zoo, about two years ago, as a gift to the former reptile house keeper. Like many who concern themselves with wild animals, Magee has a passion for conserving the natural habitat they live in. "If I turn over a log or a rock to look for a snake, I put the log or rock back where I found it," he said. When he returns a snake back to the wild, he takes it back to the exact place he found it.