Venom’s Caretaker

Retired herpetologist Cecil Schwalbe still cares for and promotes our desert reptiles and amphibians

On the back roads of Tucson’s far east side, the sounds of desert insects reverberate in the air. It’s the fringe area where Arizona’s second largest city fades into Saguaro National Park.

A man with waggish white hair steps outside his adobe house in flip-flops, chuckling to himself. On his gravel driveway, Cecil Schwalbe, 73, lays out frozen mice to bake in the sunlight before retreating inside. Behind his garage door are cages, cribs and garbage bins, which house Schwalbe’s cohabiters: five venomous snakes, three gila monsters and two baby tortoises.

“I only keep animals that dote on benign neglect,” Schwalbe said. Although it’s one of the nation’s driest states, Arizona is home to more than a quarter of the country’s frog and toad population and more rattlesnake species than any other state. But in the past three decades, biologists have observed an amphibian extinction rate that’s at least 211 times the normal level and a longer list of threatened or extinct reptile species than ever before, putting Arizona at the forefront of conservation efforts.

Some scientists contend that this species decline is one of the single greatest threats to global biodiversity, and herpetologists, like Schwalbe, who look out for these species, are also in dwindling supply.

As Arizona’s first herpetologist in the 1980s, Schwalbe pioneered the state’s bullfrog control program and led efforts to recover and protect endangered species like the desert tortoise, leopard frog and Mexican garter snake.

“Cecil’s the father of all of that,” said Randy Babb, a biologist with the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, who has worked with Schwalbe for three decades.

Schwalbe likes to keep his research subjects close to home. Some would say too close.

Growing up in Dallas, Schwalbe would catch lizards and snakes for recreation. He once stored a blue racer snake in his closet, only for his mom to discover it underneath his laundry one day.

“There became new rules on things I could and couldn’t keep in my closet,” he said.

After studying mechanical engineering at Rice University, Schwalbe’s childhood biology bug bit again. He pursued ecology research at Washington State and the UA, earning a master’s degree and doctorate along the way. In 1984, he was appointed state herpetologist by Arizona Game and Fish.

“We were all working 80 hours a week, but could only claim 40,” Schwalbe said of his six years as state herpetologist. “It was just an amazing time.”

Babb first met Schwalbe when he came to visit Charles Lowe’s famed herpetology collection in Tucson. Babb called the exhibit “the biological equivalent of Fort Knox,” but Schwalbe wasn’t expecting him, so Babb was shown the door.

The pair later became friends and worked on conservation projects together in Arizona and Mexico. “I’m a quarter Mexican, but he introduced me to the wilds of Mexico,” Babb said. “He took me to some places that are truly remarkable.”

After a lengthy career with the State of Arizona, the UA and the U.S. Geological Survey, Schwalbe retired two years ago and shifted his attention to “the Schwalbe Beast and Breakfast,” his home collection. Schwalbe’s garage houses five venomous snakes (a Western diamondback, Tiger, Arizona black, banded rock and speckled rattlesnake) along with three gila monsters. Four of the snakes are his own, and the other animals are on permit from Arizona Game and Fish. Most were recovered from sting operations of black market reptile dealers.

For decades, Schwalbe has toured with his reptiles across Arizona. At his presentations, he lets kids pet his gila monster, one of the world’s most dangerous lizards. In the wild, they spend up to 95 percent of their lives underground. While Schwalbe takes extra precautions, he was once bitten five times by a gila monster at a public show. “My finger was on fire,” he said.

Five minutes after the attack, Schwalbe went into shock and was rushed to the emergency room. In the ambulance, paramedics recognized him as a co-author of The Venomous Reptiles of Arizona, where he wrote: “Anyone who gets bit by a gila monster deserves it.” “They had fun with that,” Schwalbe said chuckling.

Never one to separate work from personal life, one of Schwalbe’s first dates with his wife Carol, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, was a picnic in the mountains. He packed a cooler with lunch—and a snake.

“She was snake-phobic before that,” Schwalbe said, indicating not much has changed.

“I go for the furry mammals,” Carol said. “But you need people who will look after the snakes. I admire that.”

In the corner of their garage, the Schwalbes keep a Coleman cooler with “Venomous Snakes” scrolled in faded black. Nobody steals their beer on picnics anymore, Schwalbe said, laughing.

As he returns to his driveway to pick up his fried mice, Schwalbe admits that his chosen field might appear kooky to outsiders.

“Herpetologists are pretty much on the fringe of our society,” he said. “But I have been fascinated with these creatures my whole life.”

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