Sarasota’s Dennis Cathcart has traveled the world in search of exotic and dangerous snakes
“I was born interested in snakes.”
That’s what 74-year-old Dennis Cathcart told me when I asked him why he made a career of hunting snakes. He says he’s always been fascinated by crawling creatures, especially poisonous ones.
At 18, Cathcart graduated from high school and began taking trips to the Bahamas and Mexico to pursue her dreams. While his peers went to college or joined the more traditional workforce, Cathcart got a job with wildlife importers in South Florida and eventually began field studies in Central America. for scientists in Miami. Throughout this time, he also maintained a “regular” job at a lumber yard in Port Everglades. Although he had no formal education in snake hunting, he made his fortune on his peers and learned from mentors like Army Maj. Herschel H. Flowers in Costa Rica.
“I once found a snake on the Caicos Islands that scientists hadn’t been able to locate since the 1930s,” says Cathcart. “They sent me in the hope that I would find one. I ended up finding two.
Since his first expedition, Cathcart has traveled to virtually every country in the Western Hemisphere. He has made several trips to the Caribbean, Central America and South America, where some of the largest and rarest snakes in the world are found. In 1968, he began working for a US Army laboratory in Costa Rica, where he brought snakes for venom processing – a technique that helped create the first anti-venom serum. Until 1976, Cathcart traversed dusty deserts, damp rainforest floors, and jungles teeming with exotic life, all in pursuit of the most unusual and dangerous snakes.
“It was an exciting and great career,” says Cathcart. “I’ve traveled places where few people have been, collecting snakes and plants, and I’ve had many dangerous experiences, from meeting tribes of people who don’t want you there to cars and planes breaking down in the jungle to break my neck once on the Amazon river. But I love what I do.”
Cathcart also likes to write about his adventures. The first volume of his new memoirs, Kulev: The Adventures of an American Snake Hunterdetails his exciting travels, as well as his transition to collecting exotic plants, which occurred when he opened his Sarasota nursery, Tropiflora, in 1976. (A second volume is expected to be published later this year.)
The first book begins in the 1960s in Haiti, a place Cathcart describes as “wild and woolly with lots of snakes and lizards”. He remembers one of his most fascinating captures: a Haitian boa. It was a rare venomous snake that happened to be piebald, meaning it was part albino. Cathcart says that, given its rarity, if a fellow explorer had caught it and sold it, it would have been worth $1,000 – and much more today.
The fine art of catching a snake is also detailed in his book. In the Caribbean, Cathcart preferred to catch non-venomous snakes with his bare hands. He stored them in unbleached cotton bags reinforced with double stitching and a flap at the top so the snakes couldn’t escape or bite.
Since those days, snake hunting technology has been improved. Now there are aluminum clamps, devices that fix snakes’ heads without hurting them. This is essential if the hunter aims to extract venom. Another tool, called an “L-stick”, has a hook that looks like a question mark at the top. Prior to this, Cathcart made its own hooks from golf club shafts and soldered heads.
“All of these tools are used for the purpose of not getting bitten,” says Cathcart. “But it still happens. I’ve been bitten by almost every creature there is. It’s just part of the job.
Cathcart has been bitten thousands of times by non-venomous snakes. Since these snakes typically have small teeth and are less than six feet tall, Cathcart says you’ll barely feel the bite. Rather, it is the psychological fear of being bitten by a snake that invades you. Despite this, he never wore gloves or long sleeves and remembers his fellow explorers also being naked.
When it came to handling a poisonous snake, however, extreme care was taken.
“I’ve handled tens of thousands of poisonous snakes while working in the lab,” Cathcart explains. “We use gloves, long sleeves, forceps to feed them and all kinds of tools to protect ourselves.”
One day in 1973, Cathcart wasn’t so careful. He was in a hurry while feeding a poisonous snake and was bitten on the index finger. He was using a pair of forceps to feed the snake with a mouse, and the snake’s heat sensor, which is used to hunt prey, was also picked up by Cathcart’s finger. He spent eight days recovering at Sarasota Memorial Hospital and was so familiar with the snake’s venom that he advised nursing staff on how to treat it.
After that bite, Cathcart decided that searching for exotic plants might be a safer bet. His plant expeditions have taken him to Thailand, Mo’orea, the Philippines, New Zealand, Indonesia and Madagascar, among others. Cathcart and his wife, Linda, also traveled to Ecuador several times to collect orchids and bromeliads for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens collection, and they even provided 360,000 bromeliads to Singapore Gardens by the Bay.
“Collecting and lecturing on plants has taken us around the world many times,” says Cathcart. “He also allowed Tropiflora – six acres of greenhouse, six acres of indoor space and the rest of the outdoor grounds – to operate. Now my children run the crèche.
Cathcart says the process of writing his first book rekindled his interest in reptiles, which led him to travel to Cuba in April to photograph more snakes, lizards and plants.
Tropiflora often hosts festivals that draw crowds of plant lovers, but no matter how successful the venture, Cathcart still considers itself a snake at heart. He already has another shipment scheduled for July 2023.