Most people avoid snakes. Lakewood Ranch resident Doug Hay looks for them every day — and then picks them up for fun.
There are two types of people in Heron’s Nest Nature Preserve on a warm April morning: hikers in smart athletic wear hitting the trails before lunch and Doug Hay, a 62-year-old retired maintenance mechanic in a boonie hat and safari vest, wading through the bush with metal snake tongs.
“I should’ve brought my machete,” Hay says, using his tongs to push back razor-sharp saw palmettos in the bush surrounding Summerfield Lake. “Every time I get out here, I bleed from these suckers.”
He looks like a Florida yeti, up to his neck in oak scrub, the brim of his hat poking out among the tangle of pines, palms and wildflowers. A Summerfield resident, he’s hunted these woods almost every day since he moved to Lakewood Ranch five years ago. He loves the park’s natural beauty, but really he comes out here to find snakes and get home before his wife starts to worry. “I spent four hours in the thicket yesterday,” Hay says. “It’s my therapy, man. I lose all track of time.”
He creeps up on a gopher tortoise hole in a sunny spot shrouded by weeds. He takes a quick drag off his e-cigarette and listens for rustling, or better yet, rattling. Last November, he found a 6-foot eastern diamondback rattlesnake hanging out at this burrow. “He might still live in the hole,” Hay says, poking the ground with his snake stick. “I named him Pig because he was so fat.”
In case you don’t speak snake, the eastern diamondback is the largest pit viper in North America and the heftiest rattlesnake in the world. It has the longest fangs — up to an inch — and pumps out more venom than any other rattler. Hay has seen four of them in Heron’s Nest, though none as huge as Pig. “I know he was eating rabbits,” he says. “Diamondbacks love rabbits.”
A secretive and solitary species, it is threatened by habitat destruction and popular rattlesnake roundups, bloodbaths disguised as festivals for which diamondbacks are hunted, killed, skinned, fried up as snacks and sold to make wallets, boots and belts.
Hay is disgusted by the sport, which is still legal in a handful of states, including Texas, where each year some 25,000 pounds of diamondbacks are slayed for entertainment. “Animals are not the problem,” Hay says. “Humans are.”
Fittingly, he has a picture of a diamondback tattooed on his bicep and hanging on a sign nailed to his backdoor.
“I was lucky to find a 6-footer,” Hay says, giving up on the empty burrow. “I keep coming back to this spot to find him, but I don’t know where he went. I pray he wasn’t killed, that he just moved onto another hole.”
He slogs out of the palms and back onto the trail, patting his pocket to make sure he hasn’t lost his new iPhone 8. “I’m on this blood thinner; if I get bit by a rattlesnake, I’m a dead man. Probably have to get to the hospital within a half-hour. That’d be a rough day.”
It is important to make the distinction between a snake hunter who hunts to kill and a snake hunter who hunts to handle. Hay is the latter. He hunts snakes the way some people catch and release fish. His proof is in photos, thousands of them from his phone and 35mm camera; plus dozens more framed in his home.
He knows how snakes think, what causes them to strike and more importantly, why they shouldn’t be killed.
He’s not a herpetologist, but in a lot of ways he knows more than the college-educated experts. He’s studied snakes for 54 years. Even his tongs are professional-grade, ordered from the same manufacturer that supplies equipment for the show “Snake City” on the National Geographic Channel.
“Made in the USA — and they can pick up a dime,” Hay quips, pinching a leaf off the ground.
A native of Huntington on New York’s Long Island, Hay grew up feeling like a fish out of water. A Suffolk County jungle boy, he spent his afternoons in the woods, grabbing snakes, rescuing injured birds and doting on woodland creatures. He had pet iguanas, horned lizards, turtles, a raccoon and a rotating collection of garden snakes.
“I was a weird kid,” he says. “I’m still weird.”
In grade school, he was paged to the principal’s office and told to go home because his mother was in the garage, standing on top of her car, hysterical because one of his snakes had slithered out of its cage.
“My mother was scared to crap of snakes,” Hay says.
One of four children, he was the neighborhood Robinson Crusoe, a scrappy, longhaired thrill-seeker deserted on the North Shore of Long Island. At 10, his menagerie grew to include a baby alligator, which he purchased for $15 from a local pet store and named after his Uncle Al.
He had the gator for five years, until it grew to 4 feet and his mother turned it over to a university when Hay was at school. “I cried for a week,” he says. “He was a great pet — smart too. We fed him chopped meat. He wasn’t like a snake; snakes don’t really know you. The gator knew me. And he never bit us.”
An Unlucky Strike
Hay was 9 when his father died of a heart attack. In the years that followed, his mother, an alcoholic, struggled to function, committing suicide 10 years later.
He and his siblings were forced to grow up fast. In ninth grade, Hay was kicked out of school for fighting and fired from his job at the Dairy Barn because he refused to cut his hair.
At 15, he hitchhiked with a friend to the Florida Everglades, where he lived for two months on a diet of small lizards and canned tuna, before returning to New York to work for the town of Huntington, a job he held for 39 years. He retired in 2010, after a 500-pound paint machine fell on him, crushing his lungs and his spine, leaving him partially disabled.
He never got his GED.
“If things had been different,” Hay says, “I would’ve gone to school for something related to animals. I would’ve made a good zoologist.”
In all his years of wrangling wildlife, Hay has never killed a creature; except for the beetles and ants he munches on when he’s out in the woods. (“They’re tasty, like vinegar,” he says.)
Hay has something that even the most tenured biologists don’t have: true grit.
Herpetologist Max Nickerson, curator of the Division of Herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, wishes more people would treat our Earth’s less-cuddly creatures with as much respect. He suggests Hay report his findings to the museum, which maintains the state’s official collection of amphibian and reptile logs and works with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to keep track of invasive, unusual or threatened species.
Says Nickerson, “I don’t recommend that the average individual go running after rattlesnakes, but I think it’s cool that this older guy is still at it. If he sees something uncommon, he should send us a note.”
Right now, Hay has his sights set on the state’s most rampant and invasive species: the Burmese python. He’d take off for South Florida tomorrow if it weren’t for the state-sanctioned Python Elimination Program.
In March 2017, the South Florida Water Management District rolled out a pay-per-kill python program in response to an invasive and destructive python population in the Everglades.
The program is drawing hundreds of gun-toting snake hunters to Collier County for the sole purpose of bagging monstrous serpents in the name of python elimination. Hay wants to catch one for the high of it, not for the bragging rights or blood money — $50 per four feet of snake and $25 for every foot after. He knows they need to be euthanized, but he doesn’t think he’s the one to do it.
A few months ago, he came across a picture of a guy holding up a dead 5-foot diamondback on Summerfield’s Nextdoor page. “I let him have it,” Hay says. “I said, ‘Wipe that smirk off your face. Does it make you a man because you killed a rattlesnake?’ If he would have left it, it would have moved on, believe me.”
He has since offered free snake removal services to anyone in Lakewood Ranch. Only one person has taken him up on the offer so far.
A Slippery Slope
Hay is an adrenaline junkie who, by all accounts, has spent most of his adult life living sensibly. If you eliminated the snakes, he’d almost seem tame. He retired with good benefits, a government pension and a nice house in a quiet development, where every night he walks his dogs and politely greets neighbors.
A grandfather, he’s been married for 40 years to his wife, Diane, with whom he raised one son who still lives on Long Island and regularly visits with his toddler in tow. After his grandson was born, Hay gave away his only remaining pet snake, a 40-year-old red-tailed boa that exceeded its life expectancy by 15 years thanks to a steady diet of fresh road kill. He felt it wasn’t safe to keep a 10-foot constrictor around with an infant in the house.
“I loved him a lot, even though he bit me a lot,” Hay says.
Last year, he participated in an organized snake hunt an hour east of Fort Myers with the Orianne Society, a Georgia-based nonprofit that works to conserve ecosystems for reptiles and amphibians. He found a beautiful pygmy rattler, which he photographed coiled up in the dirt.
In December, he traveled with his wife to the Amazon jungle, where he jumped into a muddy pit in the middle of a village and grabbed an 18-foot anaconda. Even the Peruvian villagers were freaked out by the act.
“Listen,” Hay says coolly, “everyone was born to die. I’ve been hunting snakes since I was 8 years old. I’ve handled over a thousand venomous ones, and I’m still here.”
Two hours have passed since he set off on his Heron’s Nest walkabout and only one perilous creature has grabbed his attention: fire ants.
“These things love to get me,” he says, smacking his ankles, steadying himself with the tongs. “This isn’t an easy sport, you know. Most snakes want nothing to do with you. It’s a lot harder than fishing.”