Men and women who routinely see the worst of the animal world -- from the dangerous to the abused -- squealed and cringed Saturday as they watched a rattlesnake inch across a red mat and approach their feet.
"The number one thing to remember with venomous snakes," said Michael Ralbovsky, a herpetologist and general curator with Rainforest Reptile Shows, "is do not panic." Using a handling stick with a hook at the bottom, he quickly reined in the snake and redirected it without breaking a sweat.
Ralbovsky spent Friday and Saturday teaching a reptile training seminar in Bayport to volunteers and investigators from the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as well as staff from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Suffolk County police. Suffolk SPCA chief Roy Gross said the agency sponsored the training because of increasing seizures of reptiles on Long Island recently.
"Nineteen alligators in about the last year have been recovered," Gross said. In September, a Shirley man was found to be keeping 850 snakes -- including two 6-foot-long Burmese pythons, illegal to own in New York without a permit -- and other exotic animals in his home.
This year the Suffolk SPCA held two reptile amnesty days, giving people an opportunity to surrender their illegal reptiles. Gross said that in spring, the SPCA will have one for mammals.
On Saturday, attendees watched while Ralbovsky and his wife, Joaney Gallagher, also with Rainforest Reptile Shows, carefully and confidently handled small crocodiles, alligators, snapping turtles and lizards. Then came some of the most venomous snakes: an albino monocled cobra, Mojave green rattlesnake, rhinoceros viper, western diamondback rattlesnake and copperhead. These were released on the floor and provoked by Ralbovsky, who wanted to show the emergency responders how to react in such situations.
"This is the reason you're here," he said while handling the cobra, which flicked its tongue and flared its hood in attack mode. "Cobras have been on the Island -- you're going to run into them again."
Students took turns picking up the more benign reptiles and practiced corralling the venomous and dangerous ones, with the occasional squeal when an animal squirmed or darted unexpectedly.
"It's a good education," said Mattie Palmeri of Bohemia, a new volunteer with the Suffolk SPCA. "I just don't want to get bit."
Ralbovsky said public safety is the No. 1 concern when detaining a dangerous reptile.
"We need to protect the public," Ralbovsky said. "While alligators and crocodiles are awesome animals, they can also be very dangerous."