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His first reporting assignment in Arizona: Meet venomous reptiles at the Herpetological Sanctuary

By Sam Dingman
Published: Friday, March 29, 2024 - 11:58am
Updated: Saturday, March 30, 2024 - 11:00am

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Man in headphones hold microphone toward snake
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
KJZZ host Sam Dingman at Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

The Show's new reporter/host, Sam Dingman, recently moved to Arizona from Brooklyn. He said his dream has been to work in public radio, and he's been with the station about two weeks now. But one internet rabbit hole he went down while still in New York has him sleeping with the lights on in Phoenix.

Full interview

SAM DINGMAN: I'm embarrassed to admit this, but ever since I moved to Arizona, I've been sleeping with the light on. It all started one night back in Brooklyn, a few weeks before I got here, I was laying on my couch scanning various Phoenix housing subreddits, which in retrospect was a terrible idea. Every flick of my thumb seemed to bring up another story about a harrowing nocturnal encounter with an exotic desert pest: roof rats, scorpions, snakes. At some point, I realized I was taking very shallow breaths.

I shivered and I threw my phone across the room, but it was too late. I could feel my eyelids twitching. I laid down in bed and I tossed and turned for hours. It seemed like my fate was inevitable. My future apartment was definitely infested. If I so much as dared to shut my eyes, something sinister was gonna slither out of the shadows and get me.

The moment I got here, I went to Target and I bought a bedside lamp with an 80 watt bulb. And as the sun went down on my first night in Phoenix, I pulled the bed sheets up to my chin, scanned the corners of the room for movement and wondered if I am cut out for life in the desert.

DINGMAN: OK. Make our way in?

MICHAEL RING: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, we can just come over to the gate right here.

Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary sign
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary sign.

DINGMAN: I had lived in Phoenix for about 48 hours when The Show's executive producer, Amy Silverman, gave me my first assignment: a visit to the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary. I ducked back to my desk and subtly googled herpetology and then did my best to suppress the telltale twitch. Herpetology. The study of reptiles. I took a shallow breath, grabbed my recording kit and drove up to Scottsdale with producer Amber Victoria Singer. As we pulled into the parking lot, our tour guide for the afternoon, Michael Ring, greeted us with an eager waves.

RING: We have over 1,500 animals here. Giant snakes. We'll go to the venomous snake hall when we check out the rattlesnakes. But, yeah, there's a lot.

DINGMAN: This would be my first time in a venomous snake hall.

RING: Yeah. No, it's very cool. And this is an impressive venomous snake hall. We have, let's see ...

Man holds tortoise close to microphone
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary's Michael Ring holds a tortoise.

DINGMAN: Michael is an affable 20-something with curly brown hair and a perpetual grin. As he gestured towards the venomous snake hall, I noticed a pair of giant silver bands on his fingers.

RING: My name is Michael Ring. So I like wearing rings. I think it's my namesake. So I should be wearing a ring.

DINGMAN: One of the rings was shaped like an eagle. The other was a Yin Yang symbol, which Michael referred to as the Tao.

RING: And I'd consider myself Taoist in a way, a sage.

DINGMAN: Michael also considers himself a reptile enthusiast, or as he puts it, a "herper."

Man takes snake out of bucket while another man looks on
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
KJZZ host Sam Dingman looks on as Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary venom manager Cale Morris works with reptiles.

RING: Snake identification is just fun to learn in general. You know, us herpers, we're basically like birders with snakes. You know, we like going out and documenting these animals in the wild, and it's a hobby that I'd recommend anyone to try.

DINGMAN: As it happened, Michael had been doing some herping just before we arrived.

RING: I actually did a snake relocation at a local home only 2 miles away.

DINGMAN: That same morning, the herpetological sanctuary had gotten a call from a panicked Valley resident who had discovered a pair of rattlesnakes in her living room. By the time Michael got there, the snakes had vanished. He eventually found them hiding near the washing machine. He told us it was a good thing he got there before something bad happened — to the snakes.

RING: Honestly, here in Arizona, there's a lot of people that go the route of killing snakes that they find on their property in many instances. It just comes out of indiscriminate fear.

Snake coiled up behind glass
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
A Mohave Western diamondback rattlesnake hybrid at the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

DINGMAN: I couldn't help noticing Michael used the phrase indiscriminate fear as he led us into the aforementioned venomous snake hall. We walked past rows of display cases containing various snakes. And towards the back of the room, there was a separate area behind thick-paned glass accessible only by punching a code into a keypad. A tall soft-spoken man in thick black boots, emerged from this secure area and smiled.

CALE MORRIS: My name is Cale Morris. I'm the venom manager for the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary and I've actually worked here for 20 years.

DINGMAN: Is that a rattlesnake rattle pendant around your neck?

MORRIS: Yeah, it's made out of brass, but it's, it's my lucky rattlesnake necklace. I wear it every day.

DINGMAN: Like Michael, Cale worries about people who panic when they encounter rattlesnakes.

MORRIS: I've personally ran into a lot of people that have been bit trying to move a rattlesnake or trying to kill them, like, you know, just cutting their heads off. Some people do.

DINGMAN: Oh my God.

Man in headphones speaks into microphone and holds another
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
KJZZ host Sam Dingman at Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

MORRIS: Yeah, there was a guy that he cut the head of a rattlesnake off and he said it, it didn't move for a long time and he put in his pocket, but then it bit him in his pocket. And, and so ...

DINGMAN: The severed head of the snake bit him from the pocket?

MORRIS: At the time, a lot of people were asking us questions like, how is this possible? And I said, well ...

DINGMAN: That was going to be my next question.

MORRIS: The whole venom apparatus is in the head. And when you cut off an animal's head like that, you know, neurons are firing, it's actually worse.

Front view of Gila monster
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
A Gila monster at Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

DINGMAN: One day, a friend of Cale's was on a hike and he stepped on a rattlesnake. When the snake didn't bite, Cale got an idea. Maybe he could put together an experiment that would prove his theory that rattlesnakes are less dangerous than most people think. All he needed to do was replicate his friend's experience. So Cale told his wife about this idea.

MORRIS: I said, I, I want to step on rattlesnakes. I got a new idea. And she actually said, what is wrong with you? That's the worst idea. And I was like, yeah, you're right.

DINGMAN: But Cale was undeterred. If he couldn't step on rattlesnakes with his own two feet, he would settle for the next best thing.

MORRIS: I have a fake leg right here that I step on rattlesnakes with.

Man speaks into microphone
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
KJZZ host Sam Dingman at Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

DINGMAN: Cale's so called fake leg is actually a metal rod wrapped in denim with a boot at the bottom, which Cale later confirmed is the same size as his actual boot.

MORRIS: So when this is coming up towards a rattlesnake, they see the pants and the foot and it looks like my leg is stepping on them.

DINGMAN: Cale started taking the fake leg with him on hikes and whenever he came upon a rattlesnake, he would very carefully step on it.

MORRIS: And then I'd record their behavior. I mean, I recorded their rattling. I recorded their tongue flicking. I recorded everything they did and then I gather that data.

Hands hold small, skinny snake
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
A longnose snake at Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

DINGMAN: By Cale's count, he stepped on 175 rattlesnakes and only six attacked the fake leg, a little under 4%.

MORRIS: I tell people they're chickens, they're scaredy cats. They want nothing to do with us. And so a lot of that research is used to help show that.

DINGMAN: Cale's conviction was evident, but Michael seemed to sense that Amber and I weren't convinced.

RING: Are we able to have a look at those two snakes from my relocation?

MORRIS: Sure, we just have to lock the doors.

DINGMAN: So, we have to lock ourselves in here with the snakes?

Red, yellow and black snake entwined on hand
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Sonoran Mountain kingsnake at Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

MORRIS: So tours don't come in unexpected.

DINGMAN: Oh, OK. And with that, Cale punched a passcode into the keypad and ducked into the secure area behind the glass. A moment later, he came back carrying a long pair of tongs and a big white bucket.

RING: So, this is one of our venom snake buckets. We drill holes into it for air ventilation. And then additionally, these are equipped with a specialty lid that screws in. We do this so that, you know, the snake is securely inside of the bucket. And, you know, we never have to worry about it getting out in transit if perhaps the bucket is jostled.

DINGMAN: Yes. And if I'm, if I'm clocking this, are we about to open that la?

MORRIS: Yeah, so I'm gonna open it. You, you can, you know, I'm gonna keep them in the bucket with my tongs if they start to come out.

Tortoise looking at a microphone
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
A tortoise considers an interview with KJZZ at Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

DINGMAN: OK. The twitch was palpable, but I stirred up my courage and peered over the rim of the bucket. A pair of coiled brown serpents met my gaze,

MORRIS: See their tongue flicking. They're trying to figure out what we are. If we're a threat, they're scared. If I touch them or move them, they'll probably start to rattle.

[LOUD RATTLING SOUND]

MORRIS: The rattling is just them saying, I'm scared, what's going on here?

DINGMAN: OK, I'm really trying to be mindful of what you told me five minutes ago.

MORRIS: You're fine. You're gonna stay down there.

DINGMAN: As I listened to the rattle, I realized how directly I've been conditioned to associate that sound with imminent death. Nature's equivalent of the theme from "Jaws." But as it went on, I stared at these snakes trying to see them through Cale's eyes, and the longer I looked at them, the less they seemed like vicious mercenaries and more like they were trying to figure out how they ended up at the bottom of a bucket. Anxious creatures with a tenuous grip on survival, abruptly relocated from their natural habitat to unfamiliar surroundings, worried they might not be safe here.

Water bottle with reptile stickers with people talking behind
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
A water bottle covered in reptile stickers at Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

Cale screwed the lid back onto the bucket, put the snakes away and came back holding a Gila monster in his tongs. Michael explained that Gila monsters are also highly venomous, but that doesn't stop people from trying to keep them as pets, which Michael made sure to clarify is illegal.

RING: In fact, it is illegal to perturb a Gila monster, to disrupt its path, to move it, to touch it in any way.

DINGMAN: As the Gila monster squirmed between Cale's Tongs, Michael gazed admiringly at the series of raised bumps on its skull. His voice took on a reverent tone.

RING: They are a state treasure. So we really want them to be safe.

DINGMAN: What do you love about them?

RING: Oh, I love, I love everything about them. You don't even get me started. What, OK. Here's, here's a couple of things.

Rattlesnake coiled up in white bucket
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
A rattlesnake at Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

DINGMAN: Michael proceeded to give us a laundry list of things that he appreciates about both Gila monsters and rattlesnakes

RING: The keeled scales and the ornate eye color and just hearing that deafening sound of that keratin rattle.

DINGMAN: In other words, everything about reptiles that seems alienating and ominous to me? Those are Michael's favorite things.

RING: I have a pet ball python and she's the sweetest thing in the world. She has never bitten me and I've had her for 12 years and I ...

DINGMAN: What's her name?

RING: Boaz. And the funny thing is that, you know, that's a way better track record than most people's dogs.

DINGMAN: Once again, Cale emerged from the secure venom room, where he had spent the last few minutes gazing lovingly into the various snake pens.

MORRIS: They can't hear you. You know, we talk to them because they have no ears. But we do, you know, we talked to him and he was like, how are you doing? You know, because it's, I just am fascinated by snakes. I mean, something that looks like it shouldn't be able to survive with no arms, no legs. It seems like it has all these weaknesses but it thrives.

DINGMAN: Speaking of survival, Amber and I made it out of the venomous snake hall unscathed. Michael walked us back to the parking lot. My big takeaway so far that venom manager is the best job title ever. And the best legal status ever is for it to be illegal to be perturbed.

Lizard statue on Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary sign
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary sign.

RING: Yeah, that's, that's actually great. I love that. Yeah. If only, if only there was a way to get that up for a person, right? Yeah.

DINGMAN: Maybe there is. Ever since my visit to the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary, I've been thinking about one of the last things Michael Ring said to us.

RING: People see us as almost superhuman in the sense that we're able to interact with these animals that would otherwise be perceived as dangerous. But the real truth behind that illusion is that we just understand these animals and we understand that when you work within the parameters of their behavior and you meet them where they're at, you can get a lot done.

DINGMAN: Wow.

RING: Would you agree with that, Cale?

MORRIS: Yeah, it's pretty, it's pretty, pretty profound.

DINGMAN: Last night, I laid down in bed, reached over to the nightstand and gingerly switched off my lamp. I don't know if I will ever be a herper, but I'm going to try to be a little less perturbed.

RING: It's a lifestyle, it's entirely a lifestyle being a reptile person, you know.

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