June 10, 1999

Snakes and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

Interview with Lou Cornise of the Riverhead Department of Animal Control

by Barbara Kent

The Riverhead Animal Control Shelter is spotless, and Lou Coronise, part-time animal control officer keeps it that way. This day, there were seven dogs in separate, roomy, immaculate cages. Two large, sturdy pit bulls, male and female, nuzzled against the wire fence to be petted. Lou explained that he rescued the dogs from a fighting life. Bright and friendly, both animals bore the facial and body scars of vicious, to-the-death combat. When the dogs were rescued they were very sick, beat-up and emaciated, the way dog handicappers like to keep them so that they fight more ferociously. They were brought to a veterinarian, given antibiotics, fed regularly, and for the first time in their lives, do not have to fight another dog for their keep. If a dog is adoptable and not a biter, it's available for adoption. The two pit bulls are not likely to be adopted, however, and although they may have been rescued and healed will ultimately be "put down" unless a "suitable" owner can be found.

Lou has captured a lot of animals besides dogs and raccoons, but his first love is snakes. He is actually licensed to keep banded rock rattle-snakes, which we do not have on Long Island. There used to be timber rattlers here, but the rattle-snake population on Long Island died out a long time ago. A life-long resident of Hampton Bays, Lou has a profound respect for life and the fragile East End eco-system. "Long Island is just fantastic," he said, "...with the amount of reptiles, amphibians and creatures that no one even knows exist here...wood frogs, soft shell turtles in the Peconic River...all kinds of salamanders -- spotted salamanders, marble salamanders. Most normal people don't even know...they're not aware because it's not an important part of our every day life. Reptiles and amphibians and what other people consider the lower life forms on the planet are really important because they are the barometer of what's happening with the world. If the frogs die, and the salamanders die and the snakes die, and the lizards die, we die. They are it. They are the first affected by ozone, by pollution, pesticides--they are the first to go."

An amateur herpetologist even as a youth, Lou caught his first snake when he was about ten. Initially he kept exotic snakes like pythons and boas, but eventually decided to concentrate on American breeds. "I saw what was happening in America, a lot of laws were passed. The people who make laws want to separate people from nature. We're all a part of nature, we're animals. Snakes are a valuable resource we should all be able to enjoy, but there is no reason to keep taking them from the wild and selling them in pet shops." "The reason I started breeding snakes was because I saw the quality of wild caught stuff coming out of Florida, Georgia and Louisiana going into pet shops and people buying them as pets, but they were not doing as well as captive bred reptiles."
Lou was the head venomous keeper at the Long Island Reptile Expo in Hicksville, and currently owns and breeds probably a hundred snakes which he keeps in plastic boxes in a single room of his house. The room is temperature controlled with purified air electronically flowed in. It takes two or three hours to feed them the frozen nude mice that Lou buys from an upstate lab. Technically a hobbyist, he breeds and sells snakes to wholesalers across the United States, and recently began exporting them to Europe. Five hundred hatchlings a year will net about $9,000.00 which is enough money to enable him to travel, study and capture reptiles in other parts of the world, in their natural environment. Education is the most important aspect of Lou's work with snakes. "People should be aware of what's going on around them ... Most people are scared of snakes. I know people I can't show a picture of a snake to. You're not born with a fear, it's a learned fear." Lou has never been bitten by a venomous snake. "Three out of a hundred people will die from a copperhead bite," he said. "They are not very toxic, but they hurt."
There is no native population of rattlesnakes left on Long Island, and no other venomous snakes either. In New York state the entire species of timber rattlers and copperheads which are native to New York is protected.

According to Lou, snakes make the best pets. "They don't' need to be fed every day, they don't need your love, so they are great. They don't have to be watered every day...when you want to spend time with your snake, it's there. It's not like a dog that demands your constant attention." "The best part about snakes," says Lou, "...is that they are pure. They have no bad feelings, you can't put human emotion into a snake...food warmth, water, sex. They're simple and they are beautiful."

When asked how Long Island measures up ecologically according to the barometer of reptilian and amphibian life, Lou answered "I believe that in spite of the pollution that people are talking about coming out of Brookhaven labs, animals are still thriving. The North Shore is loaded and Long Island is a pretty clean place to live. Right here is pretty good."

c.Bkent, 1999