RALEIGH — The snakes arrived just after midnight -- cobras, vipers, copperheads and asps, some frozen solid, some still wriggling.
They came loaded in the back of two Chevy Suburbans, packed inside plastic tubs, no-doubt bewildered after a six-hour ride to Raleigh in the dark.
All 154 of these beasts, which also included several Gila monsters, had been pets packed inside a singlewide mobile home in Henderson County, more than half of them dead in the freezer, the rest slithering in conditions the sheriff described only as "haphazard."
Now they sit quarantined in a secret location, herpetologists peering down at them, trying to catalog the largest collection of confiscated reptiles ever to land at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
For a week now, the state has buzzed with news of these seized snakes, a story that still brings more questions than answers. The big ones:
Why would anyone - especially anyone living in a trailer - want 60 live reptiles for companions, all but nine of them venomous? Seriously, five live Gila monsters?
Why would anyone keep 94 dead reptiles in the freezer, especially snakes that had already started to putrefy?
Now that the owner is reportedly recovering from a bite, what will happen to him? It's illegal to collect any of the rattlesnakes native to North Carolina without a permit, and nearly a dozen of those protected animals turned up in the museum's care. So far, no charges have been filed.
And most of all, what will happen to all the mountain man's serpents?
The Raleigh scientists are keeping their own counsel.
"It doesn't matter what my opinion is," said Bryan Stuart, curator of herpetology for the museum. "My role in this is to serve the North Carolina public as a herpetologist."
So he and the museum team sorted through the scaly loot, snake by snake.
They could pretty much identify the rattlesnakes by sight.
The cobras required more caution. Nobody knew whether the collection included any of the venom-spitting variety. It didn't, but the team had masks at the ready just in case. Venom-spitting cobras can aim for the eye. Stuart calls it nature's mace.
Whatever you think of the morality of penning up animals whose bites can be fatal, you had to admire the collector's commitment.
One of these greenish-reddish snakes, the Mangshan pit viper, appears only in a single mountain region of the Hunan province in China - maybe 1,000 square kilometers.
"I've never seen one alive," said Stuart, who has circled the Earth in pursuit of reptiles.
Look up the Mangshan pit viper online, and a pair is selling for $5,975. Gila monsters are selling for $1,600 apiece. If the owner bought all of these reptiles, it's a safe bet that he spent well into six figures.
Whither the reptiles?
Right now, the museum is treating the snakes like Fort Knox gold blocks. They are mostly being kept in a secret location, quarantined and off-limits to all but those with proper reptile credentials.
But how long they remain is anybody's guess. Stuart said the Henderson County sheriff has already asked for the non-venomous live snakes to return to the owner.
The sheriff's spokesman didn't return my call. The county animal shelter director wouldn't comment.
Stuart doesn't have an opinion about what happens to a guy who keeps protected snakes in "haphazard" conditions.
But I do. Put him in a plastic tub, and poke a few holes for air.
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