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Students handle venomous snakes at JCC

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Most people would not volunteer to pick up a diamondback rattlesnake coiled into a tight S-curve.

However, students from Jefferson Community College’s animal management program experienced the adrenaline rush of handling rattlers and other poisonous snakes during a venomous snake training session Thursday.

“I like anyone who’s going to deal with these types of things to do it in a controlled setting,” said wildlife educator Tom R. Hudak of Scales and Tails, Rochester. “There’s a profound change in metabolism when you’re dealing with this. I wouldn’t want someone’s first experience handling a snake to be out in the wild.”

Mr. Hudak has been featured on “The Late Show” with David Letterman, “Fox & Friends” and “Good Morning America.” He has done training throughout the United States and has handled snakes for 32 years. These days he only holds annual training sessions at the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park.

“I do it only because of Mark and Sue,” he said about the zoo’s general curator, Susan M. Sabik, and JCC’s animal management program director, Mark D. Irwin.

“There’s keeper turnover. Frequently, there’s a keeper who hasn’t handled a snake before.”

Dr. Irwin said students learn how to handle myriad animals, from fish to tigers.

“From this, our students could go into handling wild snakes or zoo snakes,” he said.

It was animal management student Maggie G. Shroad’s first time handling a snake, and adrenaline made the 28-year-old shake visibly as she moved the rattlesnake to a blue bin with the aid of a snake hook.

“It was exhilarating, scary but very, very cool,” she said. “You have to have a healthy fear for the animal. You care for them, but you don’t get cozy with them, because they are wild animals.”

In addition to the snake hook, Mr. Hudak demonstrated a “gentle giant” — a 40-inch tong to pick up snakes — and a sexing probe to help determine the sex.

Another student, Elizabeth J. Haskins, 20, had handled snakes, but never anything poisonous. Just a year ago, she was terrified of snakes and would have anxiety if she were in the same room as one.

“It was a huge adrenaline rush,” she said. “It was surprisingly easy to handle it. It’s like it’s in slow motion.”

Mr. Hudak said he takes precautionary measures to make sure his trainees are always safe. He said he prefers to have handling sessions in bigger spaces than the paramedic lab at JCC and does not remove the venom glands of his snakes — something he considers a cruel practice.

“I always use myself and a hook as a barrier. We have a tight space here,” he said. “My number one job is to keep people safe in a line of fire.”

There are no venomous snakes native to Northern New York, but he said caution should be used in handling any wild animal.

“If you grab a water snake, it will bite you, and if you grab a squirrel, it will bite you,” he said. “A wild snake is less likely to bite you than a wild mammal or a wild bird.”

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