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snake-guy6-13small.jpgIn a small log cabin in West Sedona, a retired postal worker turned herpetologist has a collection of creatures that would horrify most people.
By Tyler Midkiff
Larson Newspapers

In a small log cabin in West Sedona, a retired postal worker turned herpetologist has a collection of creatures that would horrify most people.

Russell Dunn retired from the Uptown Sedona Post Office three years ago — a job he held since 1967. He now spends his days caring for snakes and lizards.

 Mal Cooper/Larson Newspapers

“I’ve been catching and handling snakes ever since I was a little bitty guy,” Dunn said. “Dad used to catch them all the time and push them into my hands.”

At only 2, he was handling large snakes, but he never kept any until late 1999, he said. A short time later, he had amassed a collection of over 200 reptiles.

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” Dunn said. He held the same philosophy when he built one of the world’s largest collections of beetles — a collection now stored in the basement of the Houston Museum.

He’s scaled back his reptile collection in the last couple years. For now, 66 snakes and four lizards is enough, he said. Once a week, he spends the better part of six hours feeding them.

“These guys hit like a ton of bricks,” Dunn said as he dangled a mouse above the head of an adult male carpet python. It struck in the blink of an eye and coiled its long body around the helpless prey.

The danger of being bitten is real when Dunn feeds his snakes. He gets bitten about once every three or four weeks when a snake mistakes his hand for the mouse dangling from his fingertips. It’s no big deal to him, though. Unless blood is pouring from the bite, he doesn’t even cover it up, he said.

Most of his snakes can devour a small mouse within two or three minutes, but larger animals take a little more time. Since snakes can’t break their prey into pieces, they have to eat them whole. Unhinging their jaws allows them to eat items about twice the width of their head, according to Dunn.

In the wild, that might be necessary, but Dunn’s snakes feed mostly on mice. He steers clear of feeding them rats because rats put up a fight, he said. When a live rat enters a cage with a snake, the snake better eat it right away. Otherwise, it could become emboldened and start chewing on the snake. A friend of Dunn’s once lost a 12-foot boa constrictor to a determined rat, he said.

Dunn’s biggest snake, a six-foot Honduran milk snake with red and black bands spanning the length of his body, had already eaten when Dunn pulled him out of his tank. He’s strong, Dunn said, but he’s gentle. He wouldn’t bite even if he was attacked. He’s more interested in getting out and exploring.

The only venomous snake in the collection is a Western hognose. They’re believed to be harmless to humans, “but don’t believe it,” Dunn said. He’s been bitten by the snake before.

Like coral snakes, which are sometimes found in Camp Verde and Cottonwood, western hognoses have a poor venom delivery system. They have to chew the poison in, Dunn explained.

A few seconds after the hognose took hold of his hand, it started to burn, he said. To him, that was strange. He’s used to being bitten, but the burning sensation was something new. He blew into the snake’s nose and it released. The bite swelled up and was sore to the touch for about 48 hours, he said.

His worst bite came from a Florida kingsnake that struck his pointer finger and actually tried to consume it, he said.

Since Dunn’s licensed by the Arizona Game & Fish Department to remove reptiles from homes, he’s handled all kinds of local species. California kingsnakes, known also as common kingsnakes, pop up in Sedona occasionally, according to Dunn — particularly in the Village of Oak Creek.

Their bodies are covered with black and white bands, giving them a really exotic look. They’re good snakes, according to Rob Allen, Sedona’s animal control officer. They consume small rodents and even baby rattlesnakes, he said.

Striped whipsnakes are also found in the area, Dunn said. They’re great climbers and they’re extremely fast.

“They’re undoubtedly our most aggressive snake,” Dunn said. “They’re like a living whip in your hand. They go [crazy] when you catch them.”

Occasionally, Dunn uses snake bags to catch snakes, and the whipsnakes are among the most difficult to handle, he said.

“I’ve opened up bags and had them explode out of the bag at my face trying to bite me,” he said.

As Dunn spoke and told stories about his encounters with snakes, he continued to feed his own. All the while, Meathead, an adult male Australian bearded dragon, looked on with interest. He seemed aware of everything going on in the room and flared the scales around his head whenever anyone looked his way.

“Yeah, you’re big and tough,” Dunn joked.

Bearded dragons are known as friendly, docile lizards. They’re so docile, they can actually be stacked on top of each other, according to Dunn. As long as they have a heat lamp nearby, they’ll stay put, he said.

Meathead fit the stereotype. He didn’t move a bit while Dunn fed the snakes around him. He waited patiently for his turn, and when Dunn dropped a handful of crickets into his tank, he went into a frenzy chasing them down and snapping them up with his mouth.

Dunn treats collecting with comparable enthusiasm. With wall-to-wall snakes, lizards and rodents, just one step into his house would be enough to send some people into a panic.

But for Dunn, it’s quite the opposite. Collecting the feared animals, caring for them and even breeding them is his way of indulging a fascination that’s followed him his entire life.

For reptile removals, call Dunn at 282-5544 or 301-4474.

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