Reptile expert Winston Card was surprisingly calm when he saw the 70 pythons that live with the Steeles and their three children in a two-bedroom house.
“What really set me off were the venomous snakes,” he says. Those are the cobras, rattlesnakes and rhino vipers that collector Danny Steele bought just before Card and an Animal Planet TV crew showed up to shoot a pilot for Fatal Attraction: Interventions.
“There were just so many things wrong with what he was doing.”
Interventions is a spin-off of the four-season-old Fatal Attraction series about owners of exotic animals who get maimed or killed by their “pets.” In each episode, Card will leave his home in the Beach to spend a week trying to persuade the owner of some deadly animal or animals to give up before it’s too late.
“Some of the situations we run into will just stop your heart,” says the retired zookeeper without a hint of irony.
At 21, Card was something like Danny Steele. He kept venomous snakes in his home, and quickly grew defensive if anyone questioned why.
One day Card was bitten while feeding his terciopelo – a venomous South American pit viper that can stretch nearly two metres long.
Card was lucky to have a friend with him, and lucky too that he had likely breathed small amounts of airborne venom whenever he fed his snakes, making him somewhat desensitized to it.
Still, in 30 minutes the bite knocked Card out cold. It stopped his heart twice, once in the ambulance and once in the hospital emergency room.
“It completely changed the way I thought about these animals,” he says. “I became more fascinated with the venom.”
At the time, Card was enrolled in a college biology program. It bored him. It was nothing like Wild Kingdom, the wildlife show he grew up watching in central Florida and that had inspired him, at 10 or 11 years old, to go out alone on the swampy edge of a lake and try to rope and alligator.
“I wanted to be around live animals,” Card says. “Not things in jars or counting scales on dead things.”
College did give Card a chance to meet George Van Horn, then one of three people in North America qualified to extract snake venom for pharmaceuticals research.
It was Van Horn who told Card to “stop screwing around with this stuff at home because you’re going to get yourself killed.” Do it professionally, he told him, or not at all.
On that advice, Card switched to a uniquely hands-on school – the Sante Fe College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida. He studied animal nutrition, feeding and diseases, but also practiced management skills that are sometimes more art than science.
“When you have a collection of 800 animals, you’ve got to get to know them all,” he said. “You have to observe based on subtle behavioural changes. Wild animals try to mask the fact they’re sick, since that’s how they survive.”
Healthy snakes, for example, lie in a tight coil and a loose one when they’re unwell. In Gainesville, Card continued to show particular interest in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. That led to a reptile keeper job at the Central Florida Zoo in 1987 and, four years later, an entry-level post at the Dallas Zoo.
“The program there was unlike any other zoo in the world at the time,” Card said. Not only did it have a huge collection, the Dallas Zoo was heavily involved in academic research.
In Costa Rica, Card joined a radio telemetry study of bushmasters, the largest venomous snake in the Western Hemisphere. He surveyed declining amphibian populations in the Amazon. And in Dallas, Card joined experiments that produced evidence for why snakes’ tongues are forked – so they can keep their bearings when they when they follow the scent trails left by prey.
By 2004, Card had been promoted to managing the conservation program at the Cincinnati Zoo. That year, a series of snakebite deaths took his career on an unexpected turn.
Police in Cincinnati called on Card for help several times after residents were killed in their homes by venomous pet snakes. After seeing Card quoted in news reports following the death of a woman bit by her urutu viper, producers at Animal Planet asked him to be the resident reptile expert on Fatal Attraction.
Card, who had for years fielded emergency calls to send the zoo’s stock of antivenin out to snakebite victims or to deal with pet tigers, says he welcomed the chance to bring the issue to a wider audience.
“It really bothers me that people are doing this because so many people get hurt, but also, animals end up getting hurt.”
While Card says he is glad to see several US states tightening laws on owning exotic animals, at the moment it means sanctuaries are “chock-a-block-full” with soon-to-be illegal pets. Too often, he says, the pets are simply euthanized.
Here in Ontario, where Card now lives with his wife Lisa (a zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo), he says the laws on exotic animals are more lax than any other province and basically don’t exist outside municipalities.
As for Danny Steele, his first attempt at deadly pet intervention, Card is 0 and 1. Even after Steele spent a week handling reptiles with Card’s former colleagues at the Dallas Zoo, he remains convinced his home set-up is safe. Supporters of Danny Steele have since bitten back at Card and called for a boycott of his show.
Card, having lived and nearly died for taking the same position once, says he knows why Steele and others are tough to get through to.
“It’s a lot easier to connect with an animal,” he said. “They’re not going to criticize you.”
Correction: This article incorrectly attributed the boycott of the Animal Planet: Intervention to Danny Steele. In fact, the boycott was started by his supporters.