On a simmering hot, oppressively humid day in New York in late June I went to collect a copy of a book about a snake from the offices of Skyhorse Publishing Inc on the 11th floor of an office building in downtown Manhattan.
The book and the snake are both fascinating, but even more interesting are the two men without whom the book would not exist.
Dan Eatherley is a zoologist, BBC natural history filmmaker and the author of Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper.
And Ditmars is the eponymous herpetologist of the title–herpetology is the study of things that creep or crawl–whose extraordinary life captivated Eatherley and at one stage in the early 20th Century most of the United States of America.
"He's great," said the publishing exec in the cramped office space high above the packed, noisy streets of the city. "Each day I get an email from him saying, 'I did this, this and this and I contacted such and such a person...it's really amazing."
He was talking about Eatherley of course; not Ditmars. Ditmars died in 1942. Not from a snake bite or poisoning but from pneumonia, a month short of his 66th birthday.
When I interviewed Eatherley, who retraced Ditmars' footsteps to Trinidad in search of the elusive bushmaster snake–known locally as the mapepire zanana–he was just as enthusiastic as his publisher had described him. All the way through our interview his explanations of venom cures, nocturnal predation and the adapted saliva of snakes during their evolution (which began 80 million years ago), he fizzes with an insatiable energy. The hallmark of a true animal obsessive and an overflowing fount of knowledge.
He's sitting at home in rural Cornwall in south-west England. We can hear his daughter playing happily in the background as we talk and somewhere in the house his wife is looking after their new baby. Any tiredness Eatherley is suffering from late night nappy-changing duties is counteracted by his exuberance about Ditmars' life; and reading the book it isn't hard to see why.
Born in 1876, Ditmars became fascinated with animals from an early age and was exchanging snakes with other herpetologists all over the world by the age of 12.
At the age of 18, while still living at his parents' house in The Bronx where he had created a darkened reptile house in the sizable attic, Ditmars began sending and receiving snakes from an English expat living in Trinidad in what was then the British West Indies.
"He was called Richard Richardson-Mole, or RR Mole," says Eatherley. "You'd be interested in him actually because he used to own a newspaper in Trinidad called The Mirror in the 1880s, 1890s."
I scurried to Google to investigate this piece of journalistic history at the earliest opportunity and found in Belinda Edmondson's book Caribbean Middlebrow: Leisure Culture and the Middle Class, a passage which said that Mole had indeed founded the "leftist" Mirror in 1898. A paper which, according to Edmondson, showed "a vested interest in local literature" and "the black middle class."
From a book by Hans EA Boos entitled The Snakes of Trinidad and Tobago, I gleaned that Mole had arrived in 1886 and quickly began sending back snake specimens to the British Museum. Mole co-wrote a paper called Notes on Some Reptiles From Trinidad in a journal called The Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1891 and, in that same year, founded the Trinidad Field Naturalist's Club; an organisation which still exists to this day.
"Mole didn't really know how old Ditmars was," Eatherley continued, "and he just decided to send him a box load of quite venomous snakes," in return for the rattlesnakes the teenage Ditmars sent him from New York and Connecticut.
"Ditmars came back from work at the American Museum of Natural History where he was doing a really boring job pinning out insects," Eatherley says in his soothing professorial manner.
"He found this crate and told his parents to stay downstairs, opened up the box and there were bags of wriggling snakes inside and he said the bushmaster jumped out of the bag and advanced on him. An account of which he wrote up in his 1933 book Thrills of a Naturalist's Quest. Long since out of print, of course."
After that first encounter with the largest of the vipers, Ditmars didn't see one again for decades, until he had become a fairly successful writer and filmmaker in the 1920s and 1930s and was able to fund summer holidays to Central America and the Caribbean on cruise ships to places like Haiti, Cuba, Honduras and Panama.
From 1931 onwards, hearing news that engineers making excavations around the Panama Canal were uncovering hundreds of snakes–including bushmasters–as they cut into the virgin rainforest, Ditmars made several expeditions there to find the beloved snake, but every time he arrived, he found he had just missed the finding of a bushmaster. And every time he left, it was the same story.
"One year, a few weeks before he visited Panama, they found about 16 bushmasters all just lying out on the road where the forest was being destroyed for these dam works, and the snakes were running out. But when he got there, he didn't have any luck at all..."
Which sounds a bit like Eatherley's travails when he followed in Ditmars' footsteps. Bushmasters are snakes that seem to be found when they want to be found, not when you're looking for them.
By the 1930s, thanks to the pioneering nature films Ditmars made for Path�, Ditmars had achieved a level of fame which meant his searches (and failures) would appear as headlines in American newspapers.
Eventually in 1934 he reached Trinidad on a cruise and was just about to depart for Guyana when he heard news that a bushmaster had been found in the south near the oilfields and taken to the University of the West Indies–at the time a humble agricultural college.
"According to the story," Eatherley told me, "these oil workers went into a hut and there was a blackout and when the lights came on there was a bushmaster. And they were about to kill it but one of them knew Ditmars wanted one."
Six weeks after Ditmars got it home to the Bronx Zoo, where he had become the first curator of reptiles and developed the zoo into a place two million people visit each year, the bushmaster died.
In captivity, they never last long. Their delicate spines are often damaged by the rough way they get caught. And most of those captured have some kind of parasites, often worms, which do away with them fairly swiftly.
In some ways it's a miracle that bushmasters or other similar snakes are ever found alive in T&T, since the instinct of many people is to kill them on sight. When Eatherley tells me how deadly bushmasters can be, it's perhaps not surprising that people want them dead. Even though they would much rather humans left them alone and would never bite a person if left undisturbed, the fact is they are very venomous.
They typically grow up to six feet long (in the 19th-century, 11-foot specimens used to be discovered, but not anymore) and they can see in the dark with heat sensors. Their range is from Nicaragua down to Brazil and they generally don't do much, only eating about once a week or once a fortnight due to their low metabolism and cold-bloodedness.
But if you do get bitten by a bushmaster, Eatherley explains, "Your tissue dissolves away, your blood vessels, cells and capillaries burst and everything all sloshes about so you end up with quite a lot of tissue damage quite quickly. At the same time there's a neurotoxic element–like with black mambas in Africa � which paralyses you and stops you breathing."
This is serious stuff. But on the plus side, you've got a window of a few hours to get hold of some anti-venom to treat the effects.
And Ditmars is the man to thank for the proliferation of anti-venom in the Americas. As a youth, a friend of his was bitten by a rattlesnake and died. Throughout the 1920s, Ditmars would "milk" thousands of live snakes to capture their venom in gourds, turn it into dried-out crystals and distribute it as an antidote to snake bites.
So what drove Eatherley to painstakingly research this man and come all the way to Trinidad (where the archives weren't of much use, being largely incomplete), to write this book?
An obsession with snakes?
"I'm not really massively interested in snakes," he laughs. "I did zoology at Oxford and didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still don't know. But I had a vague idea of going to some tropical island studying animals."
Instead he ended up making natural history programmes–including a couple with the legendary British naturalist Sir David Attenborough–in the less exotic city of Bristol.
I asked what Eatherley thought of Trinidad–he stayed at Pax guesthouse, where Attenborough stays, near Tunapuna and St Augustine at the edge of the Northern Range–and he told me that he liked the lush forest but that parts of the country's natural environment felt like they had been "trashed."
He found that Simla, the former governor's residence now home to the William Beebe Tropical Research Station and part of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, needed lots of maintenance work, and at the edge of the forest he was aware of the constant presence of trucks mining the quarry.
"They're just completely cutting away the hillside," he said.
But Eatherley enjoyed his (ultimately fruitless) quest searching for snakes in Trinidad's wildest reaches and the country will always hold some nostalgic appeal as his in-laws, completely coincidentally, met in Trinidad while working in the oil industry many years ago.
How likely is the average Trini to ever see a snake like the bushmaster? Not very.
"The minute snakes get big, they get noticed by humans and are instantly killed. It's very hard to find a bushmaster," as he knows only too well.
While at a meeting of the T&T Field Naturalists Club, he found out that a bushmaster had been found by a farmer just the day before. His excitement was dampened, however, by the news that it had been instantly bludgeoned to death.