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Snakes, lizards and you

Alan St. John has published an interpretive nature book called "Reptiles of the Northwest." St. John, whose mother lives here, visits Baker City Saturday. (Submitted photograph).
Alan St. John has published an interpretive nature book called "Reptiles of the Northwest." St. John, whose mother lives here, visits Baker City Saturday. (Submitted photograph).


Of the Baker City Herald

Not many people actively seek out snakes and lizards, but that's exactly what herpetologist Alan St. John has done for most of his life.

St. John, 55, is an interpretive naturalist from Bend and will be at Betty's Books, 1813 Main St., on Saturday, Aug. 24, from 2 to 4 p.m. with copies of his book, "Reptiles of the Northwest."

He is the son of Anna Lorraine and the late Glenn St. John of Baker City.

The author will also present a slide show on reptiles Saturday evening at Baker City Hall council chambers at 7 p.m. The slides will include shots of reptiles, of course, but also how-to information, humorous pictures and scenery.

"I want to take everyone with me on a trip through the Northwest," he said.

The show is free and open to the public.

St. John will be accompanied by his Common Kingsnake, named B.W. King III. He said spectators won't be required to touch the snake, and can "just look at it from a distance."

His interest in reptiles began at a very young age and he said he "never grew out of it."

"I was always fascinated with anything in nature," he said.

His mother, Anna, agrees.

"It started off when he was five- or six-years-old," she said "When he was a kid, every vacation was spent hunting snakes and exploring."

St. John brought his fascination with reptiles into the house when he kept a variety of snakes and lizards in their home in Yamhill. It was dubbed the "Yamhill Zoo" by the locals.

His cobra got out of its cage a few times, but never went farther than a couple feet away before he caught it.

Anna said that when the snakes were around, "At the very first I was a little uneasy. Then he finally educated us that snakes aren't to be afraid of."

And that is exactly what St. John wants to teach everyone about these legless reptiles.

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A snake that most people associate with danger — the Western Rattlesnake — isn't very aggressive, he said.

"Sometimes they don't even rattle, just hide their head and try to get away."

He said that standing six feet away from these snakes is safe because they can only strike at a distance that's half their length. Since most Western Rattlers only grow 24 to 30 inches long, their strike zone is a maximum distance of about 15 inches.

Other variations of the rattlesnake — diamondbacks, timber rattlers and sidewinders — are more aggressive, but they aren't found in the Northwest, he said.

St. John's curiosity about reptiles led him to learn more and more about each species, so it comes as no surprise that he decided to write a book himself.

"I was always looking for a new book to tell me the reptile secrets," he said.

Now he has opened up the reptilian world to everyone else, gearing his book toward youth, suggested ages of 12 and up, and adults who want to learn more about reptiles. It took him five years to complete the book, which includes colorful photographs, basic facts and narratives of his experiences.

He has been actively working with reptiles in one form or another for 35 years. In all that time, has he ever been bitten?

"Just once and it hurt bad enough that I decided never to do it again," he said. It happened when he was 17 and a baby Western Rattler bit him on tip of his finger. He was in the hospital for three days and said his hand looked like a "big, fat grapefruit."

The only explanation that both mother and son can come up with for this fascination with reptiles is that he "was just born with it."

St. John is spending this summer and the next documenting the reptiles in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and spends most of the winter months writing and making educational presentations.


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