The Life and Times of John O. Hollister

     I was born in the dark ages prior to WWII (that was the one between The Great War and the Korean "police action" for you non-historians), August, 1941 to be more precise. I have had an interest in animals as long as I can remember. My father took flings at raising hamsters, sheep and chickens. I started with pigeons and rabbits when I was about ten years of age. My father outgrew it, I did not. I found the occasional snake, but considered it something to be put in my older sister's bed, at least until she beat the crap out of me for it.

     I hatched out my first clutch of eggs around 1954. They were smooth green snake eggs, found while raiding a blueberry patch in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. I still consider them some of the cutest snakes ever to push their heads from an egg.

     It wasn't until 1966-1967 that I began keeping snakes in quantities (that is to say, the maniac stage.) At the time I was living near Syracuse in upstate New York. It started off with a northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi) which crawled in the door at work one fall day, most likely looking for a bit of warmth. Next was a juvenile carpet python acquired from a pet store in Massachusetts for $19.95. Then a Mexican boa (large and nasty), a blue racer, a fox snake (wonderful snake) and a 3 ft. African rock python another great snake) acquired from the local zoo. They were dropped off there by a herper who had recently moved.

     I then decided that I should learn something about herps, so I searched around for a nearby herp society. There were none to be found. I started travelling to Philadelphia on a regular basis to attend their meetings. This was before the "anti large constrictor" laws, so there were some very nice collections in the Philadelphia area at the time. On a side trip to the Philadelphia Zoo, I fell in love with the Mangrove snake (Boiga dendrophilia) which they had on display there. I got a monthly price list from Hank Molt, and would call him each month to purchase a mangrove snake, but was always told that they were sold out. Eventually I swiped a price list from a dealer in Thailand off Hank's desk and placed an order of my own. Of course, it wasn't feasible to order just one snake from the other side of the world, so I ordered a whole bunch of stuff with which I was totally unfamiliar. My basis for choosing was mainly curiosity to see the what the animals looked like. I ordered various monitors, pythons, arboreal vipers, Russell's vipers, Draco volans, geckoes, cobras and a bunch of other stuff.

     I was also buying stuff from Bill Chase in Florida, now extinct dealers in California, Gators of Miami, anywhere that I could find interesting herps. Eastern indigos were $3.00/foot back then. Varanus griesus and V. nebulosus were about $20-25 FOB Bangkok. False gavials (which I held off buying) were $125 out of Thailand. I wish I had kept all of those old price lists. I was also collecting in the Caribbean as far south as Trinidad. I didn't bring back many of the animals I found, but did bring back a few nice ones. I still wonder about the idiocy that caused me to bring back six Cook's tree boas - one is more than enough. I never even thought about bringing back any snakes from St. Lucia, same with the pair of St. Lucia parrots which was offered to me in 1959.

     In 1971 I grew tired with New York, the weather, the taxes, the lack of herps and handed in my notice. In the spring of 1972 I put my house on the market, gave away my snakes and most of my possessions, sold the station wagon and TR-4, bought a beat-to-hell VW van (no psychedelic paint or flowers on it), packed up my field guides and dog and headed for the sun belt. I had no definite plans as to where I was going or what I was going to do. Planning takes all the fun out of an adventure.

     I started off in Florida, where I was befriended by Jimmy Ashe, who was then director of Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, and by Greg Longhurst, who was curator of reptiles at Lion Country. Greg and his wife helped considerably by puting me up for a while. I went to south and west Texas when the Hurricanes started hitting southern Florida. The first summer I drove about 50,000 miles, mostly in the southwest, having a ball and seeing all sorts of new herps. I returned to Florida in the fall. My VW van was, by that time, about shot. It had a top speed of about 40 MPH and was blowing as smokescreen that would have made a naval destroyer proud. I got a job so that I could finance a new vehicle. However, the job was interfering with the pleasures that Palm Beach had to offer during the winter, so I gave it up after a couple months.

     In the spring I headed once more for Texas and New Mexico for some collecting, this time in a 1970 Bonneville convertible, one of the largest cars made and one of the worst gas guzzlers since the Sherman tank. That fall I settled in Victoria, Texas. I went back to college there and worked at first as a bartender (a position I felt qualified to hold, owing to the amount of time I had spent on the other side of the bar,) later in restaurant management.

     In 1976 I spent the summer collecting the Langtry area and other parts of the Trans-Pecos. I used to spend a lot of time in the Sambo's restaurant in Del Rio during the day, trying to stay cool. This was at the time when most of the herpers slept under the stars or in cars to save money, and knew every bit of water in the area suitable for bathing. Near the end of the herping season, Sambo's was in need of a new assistant manager, so I jumped on the opportunity to live in the start of alterna country and to be paid for it. The following year I took over as manager. Sambo's no longer exists. Nor do a number of other businesses for which I have worked. Makes me wonder.

     Since then I have gotten a degree as a programmer analyst, have managed other reastaurants, moved swinging beef, worked in a lumber yard, gone back to school more, taught computer sciences and math and done a lot of herping.

     In the years since I left New York, I have lived in W. Palm Beach and Fort Walton Beach Florida, Raleigh NC (very briefly), Arizona, Victoria, San Antonio, Alpine, Lajitas, Del Rio and Abilene Texas. I also made a move back to upstate NY, but four weeks of sub-zero temperatures caused me to leave as soon a I thawed out. I'm sure that there are some places I have forgotten to list.

     How do I live? Cheaply. Do I make money from my snakes? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. It would be nice to do so one of these days, but that is not my reason for keeping a collection of about 140 snakes.

     I would like to take in enough to do more travelling. I do enjoy going to new places and meeting new herpers. I do most of my collecting these days with my camera, so I will be able to bring back what I find.

To the younger generation of herpers, I say the following. You have a heck of a lot more animals available to you now than we ever dreamed about thirty years ago. The imports come in faster and healthier, and you can get almost anything captive bred. Most of you will never know the pleasure of being able to go where you want, catch what you want and to do it without being shot at by drug growers or armies of rebels, and to bring the stuff home without massive amounts of paperwork. Those days are gone. They have in part been killed by commercial collection, but more by habitat destruction, growing populations and political climates.

     Still, it is possible to collect most of the United States. You can still go to the tropics or to Australia and see the animals in the wild. Seeing the animals in books or zoos just isn't the same as seeing them in the wild.

     Give up some of your toys, cut down on the bar bill, stop ordering in pizza and you might find enough cash lying around to take a trip to see some of these animals while you are still able to do so. Most of the pioneers of the herping community did their studies and travels on shoestring budgets. They slept in their vehicles or stayed with folks they had met on the trail. They frequently ate what they could carry with them, as restaurants were not usually available. Often they took a bath when they could find enough water in which to get wet. Talk to the folks who were collecting back in the 50's and 60's and they will tell you that they had a heck of a good time roughing it. It was a small select group of individuals. They shared information, stories and lies. They did the pioneering work in learning the habits of the animals. They did the pioneering work in husbandry and breeding. Some of them have gone on to academic careers, some are professional breeders, some are dealers, some are doing prison time. Some of them were academics, some were hobbyists. They were a varied group bonded by their love of herps. Keep that love going.