Ross Allen: Florida’s Own Reptile Wrangler
Ross Allen spent his life studying, capturing and commercializing reptiles, bringing to life one of the state's first tourist traps, and he also forged an unlikely kinship with author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
When the author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings moved to Florida in 1928, what worried her most were the snakes.
She and her husband Charles had tired of living in New York, so they bought a farm southeast of Gainesville in a hamlet called Cross Creek. She hoped to grow oranges, raise chickens and focus on writing.
But she had a terrible phobia about snakes. Just seeing a picture in the dictionary, she once wrote, gave her “the all-overs.”
“I had the common misconception that in Florida they were omnipresent,” she confessed in her memoir, Cross Creek. “I thought, ‘If anything defeats me, sends me back to urban civilization, it will be the snakes.’”
Once she’d settled in, she added, “they were not as ubiquitous as I expected, but I saw one often enough to keep my anxiety alive. A black snake actually ran at me.”
The ones she feared most were the Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, large and venomous. Rawlings even made a rattler the villain of her Pulitzer-winning 1938 novel The Yearling.
Then Ross Allen invited her to go on a rattlesnake hunt, and her attitude changed.
The Ultimate Showman
Mention the name “Ross Allen” to most Floridians these days and you’ll get a blank look. Toss it at a Florida native over age 60 and you’ll get a knowing nod. I recently mentioned Allen to my father-in-law, who’s in his 80s and grew up in Tarpon Springs.
“Oh yeah,” he said, smiling. “The Snake Man!”
Allen, who ran the Ross Allen Reptile Institute from 1929 to 1975, was a superstar in pre-Disney Florida. He was a one-man tourist attraction, a daredevil who’d wrestle a gator at the drop of a hat, a scientist who discovered dozens of new species and published hundreds of papers, a self-promoter who appeared in movies, television shows and the cartoon “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” Every biographical sketch of Allen that I’ve read sums him up with one word: “showman.”
“He loved being in the limelight,” recalled former Reptile Institute employee Scott Shupe, now the director of education for the Kentucky Reptile Zoo & Venom Laboratory and the author of The U.S. Guide to Venomous Snakes and Their Mimics. “He had Hollywood in his blood. He loved speaking to crowds”
Allen collected snakes the way some people collect stamps or coins. He waded into the Everglades to grab any slithery reptile he saw. He roamed the globe picking up exotic creatures to display back home. He put on exhibitions to show how fast he could “milk” a snake, draining its venom into a jar to be turned into medicine to treat snake-bite victims.
He was bitten several times himself, once even lapsing into a coma, another time nearly losing a thumb. Yet he went right back to showing off his snakes, which satisfied him like nothing else.
Over the years, he inspired hundreds of young people to explore nature and collect snakes. Many credit him with starting them on the path to becoming herpetologists.
He loved being in the limelight. He had Hollywood in his blood.
— Scott Shupe
The son of an itinerant newspaper ad man, Allen was a master of publicity. He told Rawlings up front that he’d invited her on a snake hunt hoping she would write about it. She agreed, although she confessed later that the prospect “made me numb all over.”
On the drive south toward Lake Okeechobee, she asked Allen to tell her about snakes. He talked and talked, his tone very matter-of-fact. She took detailed notes, partly to keep herself distracted. Once they arrived and began scouring the scrub for rattlers, she became extremely n-n-nervous.
“I hope never in my life to be as frightened as I was in those first few hours,” she wrote. “I kept on Ross’ footsteps…sometimes jolting into him when I thought he might leave me behind.”
Allen, by contrast, “hunted casually, calling my attention to the varying vegetation, the hawks overhead, to a pair of rare whooping cranes that flapped over us.”
Allen’s time spent wandering in the wilderness made him an expert on not just reptiles but everything about the landscape. He was regarded as an early advocate for the conservation of Florida’s natural wonders.
Especially the ones he could wrestle.
Gators in the Tub
Allen was a superb swimmer. When movie crews visited Florida to shoot Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies (there were a dozen made between 1932 and 1948), Allen served as a stunt double. If the script called for the Ape Man to wrestle some creature underwater, Allen dove in to do it.
At the height of his fame, Allen commissioned a friend named C.J. Hylander to write his biography. Published in 1951, the cover of Adventures with Reptiles: The Story of Ross Allen shows a barefoot Allen, dressed in khakis and a white T-shirt, grappling with a gator underwater, his legs wrapped around its torso, his hands holding its jaws clamped shut.
The only surprise is that he’s not smiling at the camera.
Small wonder that Rawlings sounded smitten by him. Allen was not only daring, intelligent and articulate, but he had a muscular build, steel blue eyes and a winning smile.
He had a taste for matrimony, if not monogamy. He was married five times and had seven kids.
“He wasn’t a perfect person, by any means,” Shupe said. “He loved the women, but he also loved science and show biz.”
Allen’s home and work life blurred together. At a 2014 family reunion, one of his daughters told the Ocala Star-Banner, “Our house was the nursery for animals that weren’t big enough to put in the exhibit. We had baby alligators and baby otters in our bathtub — at different times, of course.”
Florida’s state archive offers a large selection of Allen photos, most of them showing him holding a snake. There’s even a video. It begins with him diving into a river to grapple with a gator. Later there’s a scene where he and his son Tom take turns doing combat with a 20-foot anaconda.
He wasn’t a perfect person, by any means. He loved the women, but he also loved science and show biz.
— Scott Shupe
Allen and the anaconda go rolling around and around in a crystal clear spring. Then Tom takes a turn. As the snake begins coiling around the boy’s legs, Allen slips in to finish the contest. Then they bag the snake up to take back to the Reptile Institute.
I’ve watched that video twelve times and every time I wind up shaking my head at Allen’s casual manner before and after what looks like a death struggle.
“I love herpetology and want to do everything I can to further it,” Allen once said. I am not sure how filming a wrestling match with a 20-foot anaconda furthers herpetology, but it did grab attention.
Allen was largely self-taught on the subject. He was born in Pittsburgh, but his family moved around, eventually landing in Winter Haven. He joined the Boy Scouts and discovered his love for collecting snakes, turtles and other animals. He earned the rank of Eagle by age 14—a rare achievement—and learned taxidermy. He spent a year in college, but when the 1920s Florida land boom went bust, Allen dropped out to support his family.
At first, he ran a taxidermy shop out of a barn on the edge of Winter Haven. He sold a lot of stuffed gators to tourists, so he rounded up as many live ones as he could. Soon word got around Winter Haven that a crazy guy on the edge of town had a bunch of gators and snakes. People showed up to see for themselves, interrupting his work to ask questions.
To discourage the rubberneckers, Allen started charging admission. Instead of driving them away, droves of sightseers flocked to his place, cash in hand. It dawned on Allen that this was an easier way to make a living than taxidermy.
By 1929 Allen was displaying about 60 alligators on his property, ranging from two to four feet long. Allen believed he had sufficient security. He was wrong. One day, according to Adventures with Reptiles, they all escaped into downtown Winter Haven.
To say this gator invasion caused an uproar would be an understatement. Allen dashed around recapturing his escapees, but soon thereafter got a visit from stone-faced town officials. They assured Allen that while they liked him personally, they did not want another such incident and strongly encouraged him to relocate.
Fortunately, one of Allen’s friends had a solution. His friend was putting on swim shows at a nearby attraction and suggested he try his luck there too. The friend was Newton Perry, who two decades later bought Weeki Wachee Springs and hired women to dress as mermaids. The place Perry told Allen to try was Silver Springs.
On his excursion with Rawlings, Allen showed her how he used a U-shaped stick to scoop up rattlers. An old friend joined their hunting party, and he and Allen caught dozens of snakes they dropped into a cage in a truck.
The sound of all those rattlers attracted more snakes to the truck, and they hid in its shade, which freaked Rawlings out even more.
Only the calming presence of Allen kept her from running home screaming. Before long, he’d teach her to appreciate a snake’s qualities as a living being—even its beauty.
Silver Springs became a tourist attraction in the 1870s. The owners charged people to ride around in rowboats with a glass pane in the bottom. They could see fish and turtles swimming in water so clear it looked like air.
In 1924, a couple of canny entrepreneurs bought Silver Springs and began offering gas-powered glass-bottom boat tours, which proved even more popular. Five years later, Allen showed up with plans for a reptile show.
The owners made him promise to display only alligators. They feared snakes would scare people away. Soon, though, Allen’s charm and expertise with snake handling won them over. His Reptile Institute quickly became Silver Springs’ most popular draw. Children, especially those interested in snakes, were particularly welcome.
Kraig Adler, a Cornell University biology professor, remembers visiting the Reptile Institute with his parents when he was 12. When Allen learned of the boy’s interest in snakes, Adler told me, “he spent two hours giving me a personal tour of his reptile institute, inside and out. Even took me into the rattlesnake milking theatre where he demonstrated the technique for visitors. There must have been a couple dozen rattlesnakes curled up all over the ground floor. Some of them quite large.”
Allen answered every question the boy asked, talking like a teacher, not a showman. Adler became not just a fan but a customer of Allen’s mail-order snake supply—one of many. He sold rattlers, of course, but also more exotic reptiles, such as iguanas from South America, to collectors all over the country.
“I bought a lot of reptiles from him during my high school years and he often slipped some extra specimens in the box without charge,” Adler said. “He encouraged many young people like me.”
A Snake Break
Ending a full day of rattler hunting, Rawlings, Allen and Allen’s friend set up camp. After dinner, Allen announced, “We couldn’t have a better night for catching water snakes.”
He took Rawlings to a nearby creek and showed her how he grabbed non-venomous snakes with his bare hands. He held each snake up and talked about the distinctive patterns of its scales.
“Wouldn’t you like to hold it?” he asked, offering her one. “People think snakes are cold and clammy, but they aren’t.”
She accepted the snake because she didn’t want Allen to see she was frightened. To her surprise, she found that “it lay trustingly in my hands, a thing that lived and breathed and had mortality like the rest of us. I felt an upsurgence of spirit.”
Living in a Fishbowl
Allen knew his ticket-buyers wanted to see more than just animals. In 1935 he built a Seminole Village and began hiring Native Americans from a Seminole reservation in South Florida to live in it, put on alligator-wrestling exhibitions and sell souvenirs.
“It was a full camp for crafting, cooking, and living, but set up so the tourists could wander around,” explained Dave Scheidecker of the Seminole Tribal Historic Preservation Office. “Tribal members would cycle in… There was a general shrugging bewilderment that people would pay just to watch them live, but it was also stressful, and some likened it to living in a fishbowl.”
Visitors to the Seminole Village asked why there was no totem pole like the ones they’d seen in the movies. Seminoles don’t make totem poles, they were told, but the tourists insisted. Finally, one craftsman carved one because, Scheidecker explained, “the Seminole realized that tourists wanted to see their expectations met over authenticity.”
The wildlife shows and Native American lore all grew out of Allen’s experience in Boy Scouts. He remained a booster of Scouting all his life, sponsoring a large annual campout on the grounds of his Reptile Institute.
In 1962, Allen led a squad of scouts and adults on a remarkable hike across the state from Daytona Beach to Yankeetown, a straight line of 153 miles. They covered it in just 13 days, with photographers and TV cameras sometimes tagging along.
The Seminole realized that tourists wanted to see their expectations met over authenticity.
— Dave Scheidecker
The hikers carried no tents or food, instead building shelter from what they found along their route and eating whatever they could catch. The menu included not just rattlesnakes but also armadillos, frogs, squirrels, rabbits, freshwater eels and gopher tortoises.
Not everything went according to plan. One day Allen tried to show the boys how to catch a skunk so it wouldn’t spray its captor. As a photographer snapped photos, the skunk blasted Allen straight in the face.
“The pain was fierce and I was blinded,” he wrote later. Three boys got sprayed too. Later they roasted their attacker for dinner.
Something similar has happened to Allen’s reputation in recent years. Something he boasted about has caused a stink.
The Value of Venom
After the nighttime snake hunt with Allen, Rawlings awoke feeling a new confidence. She volunteered to go snake hunting on her own while Allen and his friend hunted in another area.
When she spotted a rattler, she called Allen over. He encouraged her to use his L-shaped stick to capture it. She succeeded, but when she raised the stick to drop the snake into the cage, she accidentally dropped it on Allen’s boot. This happened three times.
Each time, Allen held still, waiting for Rawlings to try again. Finally, she said she couldn’t do it. He “reached down with his smooth quickness and lifted the snake back of the head and dropped it in the cage,” she wrote.
They headed home with 32 rattlesnakes, all of which would be turned into a product. And that was the problem.
Allen didn’t just collect snakes himself. He spread the word that he’d pay kids up to $1 per foot per snake to bring him more reptiles. Bring them they did, often several at a time in bags and pillowcases. A scientist with Florida’s state wildlife commission later wrote that Allen “initiated the large-scale commercial harvest of rattlesnakes in Florida.”
Allen could afford to pay because he earned top dollar for the venom that he collected and sold to pharmaceutical companies. He did a particularly brisk business during World War II thanks to demand from the military. One estimate says Allen was milking the venom from up to 300 snakes per week.
At some point, the man who loved snakes began treating them not as individual animals but as something he could turn into multiple saleable items.
“If you look at it in the context of his time, rattlers were common throughout Florida and seemed like a threat to people,” Shupe said. “He bought every rattlesnake that people brought to that facility. He used them in his shows, and then he slaughtered them for their skins and sold the gallbladders to China, where they were supposed to be an aphrodisiac.”
That’s not all. Allen bought a cannery and began canning rattlesnake and gator meat, advertising that each one had been cooked in “Ross Allen’s supreme sauce.” One employee estimated he canned 35 to 50 rattlers a day, preserving their skin and rattles for sale to tourists. In 1948 alone, Allen canned 5,000 rattlesnakes.
A lot of young herpetologists today are pretty critical of the things that Ross Allen was involved with. He treated rattlers like a renewable resource.
— Scott Shupe
Between the meat, the skins, the rattles, the gallbladders, the venom and the outright snake sales, Allen had turned his institute into a factory that ran on rattler parts. While his contributions to science and conservation are substantial, Shupe said, the way he commercialized wild snakes leaves a bad taste in the mouths of modern scientists.
“A lot of young herpetologists today are pretty critical of the things that Ross Allen was involved with,” Shupe said. “He treated rattlers like a renewable resource.”
Since Allen died in 1981 at age 73, the population of rattlers has gone into a nosedive. They’re now rare in several states, including Florida. The Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates for endangered wildlife, contends rattlers “are in steep decline because of habitat destruction and human persecution.”
In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was investigating whether to add the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake to its list of threatened species. So far it has reached no conclusion.
Her initiation into the Ross Allen Reptile Collector Society now complete, Rawlings reviewed the change in her attitude.
“Back at the Creek, I felt a new lightness,” Rawlings wrote. Still, “it would be impossible for me to ever feel affection for a snake.” Yet she had learned something important from Allen.
One night a venomous cottonmouth invaded Rawlings’ bathroom. When she discovered the intruder, instead of running away screaming, as she once would have done, she confronted the snake boldly, as she’d learned from Allen.
Well, not exactly the way he would have. She beat it to death with a copy of her Pulitzer-winning novel.