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Levin: The Bounty Hunter

On June 10, 1995, snake hunter Rudolf Komarek, led a camera crew across a ridge west of the Susquehanna River near Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. It was the opening day of rattlesnake season and the crew was there to film Komarek capture two pregnant timber rattlesnakes for a CNN documentary.

At that time, the bag limit in Pennsylvania was one snake per day. The following March, immediately after the documentary aired nationally, Komarek was arrested for exceeding the state’s bag limit. It was his seventh bust in Pennsylvania.

Komarek was born in 1929. He grew up in New Jersey, and died seventy-nine years later in Florida. In between, he never married; never had children; never owned a home or a telephone; never held a long-term job. An itinerant carnie, Komarek drifted from state-to-state, town-to-town, restaurant-to-restaurant. He claimed to know the location of 300 rattlesnake dens and to have taken 9,000 rattlesnakes from the Northeast, including Vermont.

Komarek was short and rough-hewn - a sort of Napoleon with a snake hook. In 1982, he’d been mistakenly pronounced brain dead after an Asiatic cobra bite sent him to a Bronx hospital; as doctors discussed harvesting his organs, a single life-saving tear rolled down his cheek onto “his naked, paralyzed body.”

Komarek was a rattlesnake bounty hunter who sold their hides to leather merchants, and meat to food brokers in Chinatown. He sold live rattlesnakes to Pentecostal snake handlers and roadside zoos, where they soon died, giving him a rapid turnover on his investment.

When timber rattlesnakes were listed by a number of states, including Vermont, as either threatened or endangered, Komarek forged a lucrative poaching business. Pregnant snakes are entirely predictable, and therefore singularly susceptible to poachers. If you know where basking and birthing sites are, you can count on finding gravid females there in season, entwined and sunbathing, benign and vulnerable.

Komarek was also a pioneer in internet marketing who developed a website in 1998, from which he sold maps to snake dens, and offered private rattlesnake-collecting trips with prices starting at $5,000.

In addition to being featured in the CNN documentary, Komarek appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and What’s My Line. He was featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and in The New York Times . But his image also appeared on wanted posters in New York, where he skipped bail after being indicted for poaching. He was deported from Kansas, paid many substantial fines and served numerous stints in jail, including a $2,500 fine for trafficking timber rattlesnakes and four months in a federal penitentiary.

Near the end of his life, Komarek was planning to write a field guide to dens and basking sites in the Northeast, presumably including those in Vermont. Fortunately for the snakes, Komarek died before the project materialized.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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