If, while out running errands in the Central Beaches of the Outer Banks, one happens to run across a “crazy guy with a snake,” it is probably Kurt O’Dell, which is how he refers to himself.
Surprised bystanders might encounter him with a python draped across his shoulders or assisting a local pet store owner with advice on keeping the reptiles healthy and comfortable.
O’Dell’s casual self-description hides the depth of passion the herpetology hobbyist feels toward reptiles and the way the world sees them.
The self-taught snake expert has been fascinated with all reptiles ever since he was a young lad growing up in a small central West Virginia town. Those were the days when the neighborhood kids would run off to the woods and turn over logs and rocks just for the adventure of seeing what weird creatures they could find beneath.
“I was fortunate to grow up in a rural area,” O’Dell says. “We had a forest back of our property lines in town. My brother and friends were constantly running around, all summer. When the street lights came on it was time to come home.”
Four years ago, O’Dell moved with his wife Sharon and the couple's daughter to Kill Devil Hills to work as system administrator for local law enforcement, but his true passion is changing the way the world relates to snakes. The biggest challenge, he says, is in fighting what people think they know.
“Any snake in water is a water moccasin,” O’Dell says, listing examples of “wrong” knowledge. “Any patterned snake is a copperhead. Any snake making a buzzing noise is a rattlesnake. Any snake with a triangular head is a venomous. People freak out and kill it.”
Whenever he can, he adds to his long, limbless reptile menagerie.
Last month, he opened his home to another "problem child" snake: a Giant Madagascar hognose snake that was refusing to eat for its original owner.
"We figured out the issue and have him eating now — he's doing much better," O'Dell says. "These guys can get 6 feet long and as large as my wrist, so I'll be interested to see where he is after a couple of years of good meals."
Even O'Dell's parents were not thrilled with his hobby, and were purposely kept unaware their son was keeping snakes as a teenager.
Yet he continued to research and study them, focusing on the positive aspects of the animals. O’Dell maintains they are fairly simple creatures, yet endlessly fascinating.
The simple part is their behavior. Snakes are cowards, he explains.
“They run away first,” he says of a snake's behavior when confronted. “They are bluffers. Second, they puff up, flatten their heads, or vibrate their tails to sound like a rattlesnake. Lastly, they are warriors–they will fight if left with no other opportunities.”
Despite this rational description of behavior, a large number of people harbor that irrational fear of snakes. When you encounter a snake, unless you frighten it, hurt it, or smell like food, you are going to be ignored. Most of the fear arises from ignorance.
“People fear what they don’t understand,” he says.
O’Dell tells of a woman who was so frightened by snakes it became debilitating. Whenever she saw one in her garden, she would lock herself inside the house, cry, hyperventilate, and not set foot outside the rest of the day. O’Dell took it upon himself to change her behavior.
“I asked her if she was OK that her 5-year-old grandson would develop this same phobia? Would she like us to bring a snake over to make him more comfortable?”
To O’Dell’s surprise, the lady agreed. So O’Dell and his wife Sharon brought in a rainbow snake for the child to handle. He was fascinated. The grandmother, who happens to be a talented artist, started seeing the beauty of the snake and kept moving closer, eventually doing the unthinkable — touching it herself.
The result of this supervised close encounter was that 24 hours later, while working in the garden, she saw a snake slithering by her. Instead of running, she went over to look at it, even identifying it as North Carolina’s indigenous corn snake.
“That is what education is capable of doing in a very short period of time,” O’Dell says.
Changing people’s attitudes toward snakes is the way O’Dell wants to change the world. He is doing that by educating children, through schools, libraries, and public demonstrations.
He shows them non-venomous snakes he has rescued or owners have abandoned, such as a partially paralyzed albino corn snake that is “incredibly gentle.”
“Everyone likes cute and fluffy things, and I try to help them see this same fascination with all these creatures,” he says. “To see how a snake has adapted and overcome limitations such as no limbs, no external ears, and no eyelids. It has every possible disadvantage in survival, yet it not only survives, it thrives.”