Giant snakes are passion for Somerset professor

SOMERSET — Using your bare feet and toes to search for snakes as they hide underwater might seem crazy to most people. But for Jesus Rivas, that's what it takes to capture and study anacondas, the South American serpents that can grow to be 18 feet long, or longer.

Green anacondas are well-camouflaged amid the floating cover of water hyacinths and other vegetation. As non-venomous ambush hunters who kill by constriction, they lie in wait for prey.

So using one's toes to feel for an unseen snake in the murky marsh water "is really the only way to find them," said Rivas, an assistant professor of biology at Somerset Community College.

Rivas, 46, was in the spotlight recently with the Feb. 6 debut of Anaconda: Queen of the Serpents, a documentary on the National Geographic Channel that featured his research in Venezuela, where he was born.

The hourlong show had a good response, Rivas said, thanks in part to a winter storm that forced many people to stay indoors and watch television.

"The hits on my Web site skyrocketed that weekend," Rivas said. "A lot of people are writing me and asking me about anacondas."

His most dangerous encounter with an anaconda came years ago when a 16-foot-long female had coiled and locked herself around the keel on the bottom of a boat while simultaneously pulling her slippery tail from the grip of those in the boat. Rivas decided to get into the water — hanging by his arms from the side of the boat — and push the snake off the keel with his feet.

"And the snake bites me on the foot," he recalled. "And then I thought, 'OK, if this snake decides to pull me under water, my two little arms hanging onto the boat are not going to be of any help.' "

Fortunately, the snake let go, and Rivas was able to tie a rope to her and capture her. Anacondas aren't venomous, but their needle-like teeth can leave a nasty bite, which is subject to infection. But given a choice, Rivas said, he'd rather suffer an anaconda bite than a cocker spaniel's.

Little was known about green anacondas until the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species and the Venezuelan government funded a project in 1992 to have Rivas study the snakes. National Geographic and WCS continued the project from 1994 to 1997 and, since then, a variety of private donors have continued his study.

That research led to efforts to conserve the snake and bring eco-tourism to Venezuela. If tourists come to see anacondas and other wildlife, "the local people have a reason to protect the habitat and the snake," Rivas said.

Rivas has had a fruitful relationship with National Geographic. He was featured in a 1997 documentary called Land of the Anaconda. That led to other documentaries on snakes and other reptiles around the world.

He has searched for copperheads and timber rattlesnakes with a man who practiced serpent handling, the religious ritual seen in some churches in Appalachia. Despite their divergent backgrounds, they shared a common interest, Rivas said.

"The only difference was, when I would see a snake, I would get a snake hook (a handling tool) and get the snake out. He would say, 'In the name of Jesus!' and grab it with his hand and put it in a bag. It was unbelievable."

The recent Queen of the Serpents was the first documentary in which Rivas worked with his wife, Sara Corey, an instructor at Eastern Kentucky University's Corbin and Manchester campuses. They met at a snake conference in Illinois; she is interested in the molecular biology and DNA of anacondas.

"She has a lot of skills and expertise that I don't, so we learn from each other," Rivas said.

Corey made an impression on the Venezuelan men who were amazed to see her slogging through the muck in search of anacondas.

Corey said, "I think me going in is such a weird thing for them to see, and they have to revise the whole story they tell themselves, that this is a dangerous thing. It revises their whole system of belief about snakes."

For his next project, Rivas is writing a book about the anaconda. The snakes are large enough to eat a deer or a 140-pound capybara, the world's largest rodent. Small anacondas might eat every other month; larger ones might eat only once or twice a year. Females are five times as large as males, hence Rivas thought Queen of the Serpents was a more appropriate title for the latest documentary than King of the Serpents.

He is also applying for a National Science Foundation grant to continue his research in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Guyana.

"There is no one who is lukewarm about snakes," he said. "There are people who love snakes, and there are people who hate snakes. And because anacondas are so large, those emotions are more extreme."