The Outside Blog

Adventure : Books

A Liberal With a Gun

Dan Baum was “a pudgy, overmothered cherub” of five when he first shot a gun, he writes in his new book Gun Guys: A Road Trip. At summer camp, an adult showed him how to use a Mossberg .22-caliber rifle. “I cannot remember the names of my neighbors’ grown children or the seventh dwarf,” Baum writes, “but to this day I can summon every detail of that rifle and its metallic, smoky, chemical aroma.”

Despite the fact that he came from a gun-averse Democratic household, Baum fell hard for guns, and he’s been trying to figure out why ever since. In every other respect, the 56-year-old journalist is as liberal as they come—a believer in “unions, gay rights, progressive taxation, the United Nations,” and President Obama. A few years ago, having already written books about drug laws, the Coors brewing dynasty, and the people of New Orleans, Baum decided that it was finally time to tackle what he calls “my gun thing.” He worried that gun guys wouldn’t accept him if he didn’t look the part, so he signed up for an NRA-approved concealed-carry class and got a permit to carry a handgun. Then he shoved a .38-caliber Colt Detective Special in his waistband and set off on a cross-country road trip, stopping at gun stores along the way in search of “the essential quality” about guns that, “like anchovies on pizza, impassioned some people and disgusted others.”

The book is sure to anger people on both sides of the chasm. Baum criticizes the NRA, pokes fun at his gung-ho firearm instructors, and argues that anyone who wants to carry a gun needs “much much much much better training” than what’s commonly offered. On the other hand, he treats people who want tighter gun laws with suspicion, he unapologetically defends the cultural resentments of straight, white men, and he ignores the phenomenon of mass shootings, at least in the body of the book, addressing them in a postscript written after James Holmes killed 12 and wounded 58 in Aurora, Colorado, and Adam Lanza murdered 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Baum is a quirky writer with an original point of view, and with Gun Guys he’s made an important addition to the literature. A clear, stylish writer, he has a knack for getting gun enthusiasts to open up—their stories are compelling and sometimes surprising. Here, Baum talks to Jason Fagone about the appeal of the AR-15 rifle, the link between gun love and social class, and how carrying a firearm changes the way you look at the world.

What I like about your book is that you write frankly about guns as seductive objects. They work on the psyche in ways that aren’t talked about a lot.
I’ve always wanted to get at why we love these things so much. I live in this liberal, Democratic, gun-hating world, and I like guns, so I’m often in the position of feeling like a closeted gay man. We wouldn’t say terrible things about black people or gay people, but it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about testosterone-poisoned gun freaks. Meanwhile, the NRA—which I hate, and which doesn’t represent me—is making all kinds of assumptions about gun people, and the left is, too. So I said, I’m going to go out and talk to gun guys.

You’re an unlikely narrator for a book about gun love.
I don’t look like a gun guy. I’m a Jewish boy from the suburbs of New York. Nobody had guns there. It was a million miles from gun culture. Because I don’t look like a gun guy, I got a concealed-carry permit. It was my entrée. If you carry a gun, you’re one of them. But I also wanted to see what it was like to carry a gun.

I like your description of how carrying a gun changes the way you look at the world.
Changes everything.

You say it puts you in a state of mind called Condition Yellow. What is that?
Condition Yellow is.... I don’t want to say a state of hyper-vigilance, because that makes it sound bad. But it is a heightened awareness of everything that is going on around you. It is an awesome responsibility to walk around with a gun. You’ve really got to have your shit together when you’re wearing a gun. It really tightens the laces on your life in kind of an appealing way. That’s Condition Yellow. When I wasn’t wearing the gun—when I was visiting a state that did not honor my concealed-carry permit, or when I knew I would be drinking—I would go back to Condition White, which is a state of obliviousness about your surroundings. And I would realize how much I liked Condition White. That’s where you daydream, and it’s where art happens, and I like that, too. Ultimately, I decided to stop wearing the gun, because I got burned out on Condition Yellow. I think it’s left me in a kind of Condition Pale Yellow.

In the end, it seemed like you doubted your ability to actually stop a violent crime. You weren’t enough of a warrior.
Yeah.

I don’t want to spoil it, but you go through a very intense kind of shooting test involving a sophisticated machine used to train police.
And after I go through that, I get a better gun. For a while, I go further into the gun carrying.

You get a Glock.
And I don’t like it. There’s no reason to like a Glock. I like old guns. The Glock is just an utterly charmless man killer. That’s all it’s good for. It has no aesthetic value. But it really shoots well, and it holds a lot of bullets. When the Aurora shooting happened, in the movie theater, I had stopped carrying my gun by then, but what went through my mind is what I’m sure went through a lot of gun guys’ minds, and that was: Damn, I wish I had been in that theater with my gun.

Do you think you could have stopped James Holmes?
I don’t know. I’d like to think I’d have kept my head, waited for a clear shot, and taken it. And I believe that whether I hit him or not, I’d have upset his rhythm. Again and again these mass shooters kill themselves when the police show up. (Though not Holmes. He simply seemed to run out of enthusiasm.) Adam Lanza, Seung Hui-Cho, the Columbine shooters.... They don’t want a gunfight. They want to kill a lot of people. So I like to think that, if Holmes had seen a muzzle flash, it would have at least made him pause. In any case, I don’t see that things could have been worse with someone shooting at him.

You talked to a lot of angry gun guys on your trip. What were they so upset about?
The bulge of the gun-guy demographic is middle-aged, straight, white men who have not finished college. That’s a demographic that has really suffered in the past 30 years. They haven’t had a wage increase since 1978.

You write that these guys have had “their livers pecked out while women, immigrants, blacks, and gays all seemed to have become groovier, sexier, and more dynamic players in American culture.” Do guns make these guys feel powerful and important again?
There are two things. One is: the NRA comes along and says to them, “You’re angry because the liberals want to take away your guns.” The other is: living alongside firearms is a big self-esteem builder. You feel good about being somebody who is capable and clear-headed and skilled enough to be around these incredibly dangerous things, and maybe even carry one, without anyone getting hurt.

There’s an interesting scene when you visit the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. You’re getting a tour from a guy in the NRA’s education and training division, and you prod him to tell you why he loves guns—and he gives you a very direct answer.
When you talk to gun guys, they talk about how, oh, guns are like cameras—they’re these beautiful devices. But there’s no denying that there’s a death element to gun fascination, and I really hadn’t heard that from anyone. So I go to the NRA toward the end of the book. I find this one guy who I like. And I say, Come on, man, this is all about death. I thought he was going to deny it, but he goes, Yeah, this is about death. And it is. I mean, to be a gun guy—not just to carry a gun but to be around guns—it’s the same kind of thing that skydivers have, or free climbers. You’re getting this little contact high from the Grim Reaper.

Let’s talk about the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, which, as you know, is the type of weapon Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook and Holmes used in Aurora. You start the book with it. The first time you go to a gun range, you take a rifle made in 1900 for the Spanish-American War, and you find that you’re the only guy who has an old gun. Everyone else is shooting black AR-15’s. What did you discover about the appeal of this weapon?
It’s portrayed now, post–Sandy Hook, as some kind of bizarre outlier to the gun world. Who needs an AR-15? Why would any hunter or any decent person want an AR-15? It turns out—and this was a surprise to me—that the AR-15 is the whole gun business. It’s all anyone wants anymore. It’s all you see at rifle ranges. Half the guns in a gun store will be AR-15’s. Why? Because they are incredible rifles. There’s very little recoil, thanks to a big spring in the butt. It’s very accurate. But more than that, it’s modular. It all comes apart, so you can endlessly swap out pieces. New stock, new pistol grip. You can even change the caliber, in seconds, just by snapping pieces on and off. There is a bottomless universe of shit you can buy for your gun.

You write that attempts to ban the AR-15 are “stupid.”
Yes.

But if I wanted to ban the AR-15, I’d use your reporting to make the case. You write: “My own rifle punched me like a prize-fighter, and to fire a second shot, I had to throw a heavy bolt lever up and back, forward and down. With this gun, I barely brushed the trigger, as gently as flicking crumbs off a tablecloth. ... It was effortless, like shooting a ray gun. ... Imagine a guitar that made you play like Eric Clapton.” It really does seem like a fundamentally distinct class of weapon. Why is it stupid to want to ban something that puts tremendous lethal firepower in the hands of inexperienced shooters?
For one thing, there are gazillions of them already out there, so unless we do a house-to-house search, we’re still going to be living with these things. As for why anyone needs an AR-15, that’s not a question we ask in any other context. We don’t ask why anybody needs an eight-cylinder SUV or a 6,000-square-foot house. And I would argue that the SUV and the house may be limiting our human future more than the AR-15. If you look at FBI statistics, these guns are used in about 3 percent of killings a year. If you really want to do something to make us safer, ban handguns. Which I think would be nuts.

What about a ban on high-capacity magazines?
I’ll send you a YouTube video of a guy changing a magazine in a second. One second.

Sure, but Jared Loughner—the Tucson shooter who killed six and injured 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—fired 31 bullets in 15 seconds from his Glock. There were 33 rounds. Lanza fired about 150 rounds from his AR-15 in just a few minutes. Police got to the Aurora movie theater within 90 seconds of the start of Holmes’ rampage, and by that time he’d already killed 12 and wounded 58. It seems like introducing even a minor inconvenience could save lives.
My first book was about the politics of the drug war, so I have an instinctive prejudice against bans. I think banning things that lots of people want is bad policy. It produces the opposite effect of what you want. It’s caustic to people’s respect for the rule of law. And it’s undemocratic. People who talk about banning the AR-15 and banning large-capacity magazines are rooted in unreality. A lot of this impulse to ban is seizing an opportunity to stick it to the other tribe, and I really hate that.

One issue I have is that, when you talk about the flip side of gun love, your sensitivity and nuance go out the window. You seem to think that people who don’t love guns are just snobs. I kept waiting for a moment when you’d acknowledge that those who want tighter gun laws might be genuinely concerned about gun violence. But that moment never came. You put “epidemic of gun violence” in scare quotes, like it’s something that’s been invented to tar gun owners.
Violent crime is half of what it was 20 years ago. We have done an incredible job in this country. It is an unalloyed piece of good news. It is a public-policy victory. And I devote three of 18 chapters to the dark side of guns—a young man murdered, another disabled, and a chapter about a former gangbanger who killed a man.

We’ve still got the highest rate of gun homicide in the advanced world. We still have 30,000 firearm-related deaths every year. Five hundred murders last year in Chicago, and 331 in the city where I report, Philadelphia.
Chicago, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the country.

Yeah, but as David Frum has pointed out, there’s not a wall around Chicago. Guns can come into Chicago from other places. There are other problems. Suicide. Teens who try to kill themselves with guns tend to succeed, as you point out in the book.
That is bad. That is definitely bad. Look. Going back to your question about the motives of the gun-control people—

I can tell you that, personally, the reason I don’t want to be around guns isn’t that I have some pathological aversion to them as objects. It’s that I think they’re dangerous. I have a four-year-old daughter. If I had been out with her and had seen you open-carrying your handgun in Whole Foods, my impulse would have been to come up and tap you on the shoulder and ask what the fuck was wrong with you.
It’s well and good to say I have a four-year-old daughter and I live in Philadelphia and I don’t want anything to do with guns. But, forgive me, it’s a little bit like saying I don’t want anything to do with gravity. I mean, the country is full of guns. We can’t do away with air crashes by repealing gravity. The gun-control side—and this has been especially true since Sandy Hook—has been depending on an emotional argument. You just made, really, an emotional argument.

I could cite statistics. Studies show that more guns equal more homicides, across all sorts of metrics.
Private firearm ownership per capita in the United States has gone up tremendously in the past 20 years. Gun laws have generally gotten looser everywhere in the past 20 years. And gun murders have fallen by half. So I don’t know why you say more guns equals more homicide.

Those are the findings of David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Places with more guns have higher rates of homicide.
David Hemenway, frankly, is a partisan on this issue. As is Gary Kleck on the other side. These guys have an agenda. I don’t trust them. But it’s Hemenway who has found that guns are used to save lives 80,000 times a year, which means guns may be saving more lives than they’re taking.

In one chapter, you quote a lawyer at the Goldwater Institute who makes an argument I’ve seen a lot: that the Second Amendment exists in part to let citizens arm themselves as a “bulwark against tyranny.” He’s talking about doing battle against the U.S. government if necessary. Do you think that’s a valid point?
I don’t believe we’ll get to the place where we have to take our rifles out of the closet and overthrow a tyrannical government. But I do think that the widespread private ownership of guns bespeaks a relationship between the government and the people that is unique and that I like. I’ve lived and worked all over the world, in countries where the only people with guns are the military and the police. I don’t like it. And I’m not sure most Americans would like it.

Your other views are so progressive, though. To be a progressive, you have to believe that the world can be improved. But it seems like, at the heart of so much Second Amendment absolutism, there is this dark vision of inevitable, lawless decay. Like: The world is screwed. You may as well start burying AR-15’s in your yard.
No, no, no. It’s not that.

Am I misunderstanding?
Yeah, I think you are. There are definitely a lot of gun guys who feel that way. You know, when they make the argument—like Aaron Zelman’s genocide argument, that gun control precedes genocide—

Aaron Zelman. This is the late head of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. He wrote a book called Death by “Gun Control,” arguing that gun laws led not just to the Holocaust but also to eight other genocides.
I was born in 1956. You were probably born in the '70s? We’ve lived in a pretty good era in the United States. But in our lifetimes, people wearing Gap and Benetton clothing were lined up in front of pits and shot for being who they were. This happened during our adulthood. And these were not savage Africans. These were Europeans! These were white folks, wearing the kinds of clothes we wear, and carrying the kinds of consumer products we carry. They were lined up and shot, for being who they were, in Bosnia.

Sorry: savage Africans?
Well, you know, when it happens in Africa, I think we all have a tendency to go, well, it’s Africa, right? But this happened in Europe. We’re not talking about the Nazis. We’re talking about the '90s. So I cannot completely dismiss Zelman’s argument. I also lost half my family in the Holocaust. And I do kind of share his sense of wonder that the vanguard of the gun-control movement in this country are the Jews.

You talk about being a progressive. I’ve been appalled at how my fellow quote-unquote progressives have this sudden, newfound adoration of police power. I mean, hello? We used to oppose excessive police power. We used to be all about civil liberties. And now you’ve got “progressives” talking about confiscating people’s property.

Who’s talking about confiscation?
Andrew Cuomo. Under New York’s SAFE Act—passed under “emergency” conditions, so that legislators got only 20 minutes to read the bill—assault rifles and magazines have to be taken out of the state in 90 days or surrendered. A similar law is being debated in Missouri and Colorado.

You say it’s an admirable thing that we give ordinary people this level of trust with firearms. And many of the people you meet in your reporting are model gun owners. But what about all the guys on a site like AR15.com, who post psychopathic rants about the United Nations?
Oh yeah, they’re scary.

And what about the kid you encounter who’s shooting into a rock face and the bullet’s pinging back at him? Doesn’t the easy availability of guns in America ensure that many people who shouldn’t have them will have them? You don’t engage with these people.
I take exception to the idea that all the people in my book are responsible gun owners. I really did try to represent the knuckleheads and the malevolent, too. Brandon Franklin, a 22-year-old I knew from my reporting days in New Orleans, gets murdered. And I interviewed a guy who killed a guy. A gangbanger. So they’re not all good guys, for one thing. But as the guy at the Goldwater Institute put it: we are a big, messy, polyglot country with a tremendous amount of freedom. A certain amount of bad shit is going to happen.

You argue that if Democrats try to tighten gun laws, they’ll only alienate voters who could help them accomplish other things that you believe in—action on climate change, income inequality, and immigration reform. Newtown seems to have changed this calculus, though. Has it changed your views about gun control?
No. I think Joe Biden, whom I love, is making mistakes here. The gun-control side is underestimating the force of the reaction they’re in for.

Mass shootings only appear tangentially in the body of your book. The Fort Hood shooting, Virginia Tech, the Wisconsin Sikh temple—they come up in the postscript, but that was written after Aurora and Newtown. Why didn’t you feel the need to address them?
They’re very rare. They seem like they happen all the time, but a statistically insignificant number of Americans die in these events.

Nine hundred people in the past seven years, according to USA Today.
Yeah. Which is a lot of people. No question. I and probably a lot of other gun guys believe that if somebody wants to do it, they’re going to do it. We can tinker with the gun laws all we want, but Timothy McVeigh did not use a gun, and he killed more people in his single act than any of these shooters.

You seem to despair in the book about the two sides coming to any kind of agreement. They’re too far apart.
Yes, and if I’m harder on the progressives, it’s because I think they’re largely responsible for this. It’s because of their sanctimonious, self-congratulatory sense of superiority to the gun people, and their desire to win a tribal point by smashing the idol of their opposing worldview. They drive gun guys into a defensive crouch.

You’ve laid out what progressives can do: listen to gun guys, respect their views. What can gun guys do?
Gun guys have to lock up their fucking guns. Much of the bad shit that happens in this country with guns happens because some honest person who bought a gun legally in a gun store left it unlocked. Thieves get them, and then they go into criminal hands. Kids find them, depressed teenagers find them. Adam Lanza found his mother’s guns unlocked. I think gun guys need to pull up their big-boy pants. And if they won’t, then we need to have laws that impose criminal penalties if something bad happens with your gun.

You also support universal background checks.
And putting them online, where we can all get them.

Did the road trip change any of your other, non-gun-related political views? Are you still an Obama supporter?
Oh yeah. I’m no less a tax-and-spend liberal Democrat. I’m a big Obama guy. But I must say, I do understand now the sense that we are all overmanaged and underrespected as citizens. I think we have lost a tremendous amount of individual agency in this country. The abhorrence on the part of the left that an armed citizen might have been useful at Sandy Hook or Aurora seems rooted in this instinctive liberal horror that any individual could be vigorous and capable and independent-minded enough to do something that dramatic. To actually intervene in a situation like that. And as somebody who instinctively cares more about the collective than the individual, I think we’re misguided there. I think the collective is better served by vigorous and capable individuals in the same way a machine works better with higher-quality parts.

You’re trying to speak to both sides in a debate where there really aren’t a lot of centrists. There’s a gap in the middle.
People will hate this book on both sides. When I think about what The New York Times is going to do, if they review it at all, I pucker up. I mean, Terry Gross isn’t going to have me on. We’ll see. Both sides are the fucking Taliban. It’ll either be a huge hit or I’ll go get a job.

Jason Fagone is a contributing editor at Wired and Philadelphia. His book Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America will be published by Crown in November.

Dan Baum has been a staff writer for
The New Yorker and has written for Harper’s, Wired, and many other magazines. He’s the author of several books, including Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans.

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Galleries We Like: Mark Laita's Snakes

Consider for a moment the drive of professional photographer Mark Laita as a teenager. At 15, having just picked up his father’s camera and discovered the joy of shooting, he hatched a plan. He would photograph rock concerts in Chicago. “That was really the thing I kind of sunk my teeth into,” he says. “I’d wait outside overnight for tickets and get front row seats to pretty much every show that came through town.”

From 1976 to 1979, before Ticketmaster had turned scoring front row seats from a labor of love for the masses into a bidding war for the bourgeois, Laita grabbed a sleeping bag and camped out night after night in ticket lines. He bought four tickets and scalped two in order to make money. He was an omnivore, buying seats to see everything from quirky punk bands at small halls to Frank Sinatra at Chicago Stadium. Along the way he shot the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, and The Who.

He never got backstage access, but he did learn one crucial lesson shooting from the front row. “Just capturing that moment that is a little more compelling than other moments,” he says. “I just think, shooting concerts or sports, which I did shortly after that, was a really great exercise in honing that moment that is more interesting than that moment fractions of a second before or after.”

By 18, he had sold photos that appeared on the cover of Guitar Player and Cream, but realized there was little money in shooting rock concerts. He found what he didn’t like by shooting other things on whims, not unlike a juvenile snake discharging its venom into all the wrong creatures. He tried sports for a year. “I felt like a parasite rather than an artist,” he says. “But shortly after that I met Curtis Kulp, a commercial still life photographer who did a lot of advertising work. He let me come in and help him out and work with him as an assistant for several years, and that’s really how I learned everything.”

Three years later he graduated from Columbia College with a degree in photography. He shot the Sears catalog for a year and earned enough money to move to Los Angeles, where he eventually set up a studio for advertising shoots. That may sound boring, but it’s how he earned a living and perfected his craft. Laita still shoots advertising campaigns during the week, but on nights and weekends and “vacations,” he works on book projects. His latest effort, Serpentine, went on sale on February 26. We called him up to find out how and why he decided to dedicate more than a year of free time to shooting the world’s most venomous and colorful snakes.

You’ve shot everything from snakes to underwater creatures to Mexican wrestlers to ornithology specimens. How do you pick your book projects?
I just select subjects that resonate with me. I certainly am not an animal photographer. Because my last two books are animal books, people assume that I’m an animal photographer. For that reason, I’ll make sure I never shoot an animal again, not for a long time. But I think animals are cool, and particularly snakes and fish. Underwater creatures are almost like space aliens to me. They are just so unusual and crazy and varied and beautiful. They make for a wonderful subject. There’s all of the symbolism behind snakes, which adds to all the magic, but they’re really beautiful—their colors, textures, and the way they move. They’re so graceful. There’s no other animal that really moves like that. That is why I chose snakes, but it could have been any subject. It just happens I found snakes to be interesting on several levels.

How did this project come about?
I photograph a lot of things on the side. I do it for myself and a lot of people never see it. I shot snakes maybe a dozen years ago, and I always remembered how that was a really compelling subject, but I never really pursued it. The first snakes I photographed were pythons or boas. I’d go to a pet shop, find a beautiful one, bring it to the studio, and shoot it. That’s cool, but I knew that there were a bunch more exotic snakes that were a lot more interesting than pythons, and I was right. So I just put in the legwork, did a lot of traveling, and got access to those creatures.

Can you give me a breakdown of the places you went and how you found the snakes?
Yeah, and all of this is listed in the back of the book, but it was collectors, breeders, zoos, venom labs, and serpentariums in Central America and in the U.S. In Florida, there’s a great collector. The zoo in San Antonio was great. There’s the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, in the middle of Nowhere, Kentucky, that’s one of the best in the world. So there’s all of these really unusual and great places and a ton of great collectors. In meeting one person, they’d say, “Oh, you gotta go see this person in North Carolina.” So I’d go there.  I’d go to Kentucky, or New York, or wherever, and by reaching out I’d meet all these people that have these great collections.

Two things really stand out about these photos. I’m wondering if you could talk about why you picked a black background? Also, the snakes seem to be pretty bright in terms of their color. Did you photograph them after they shed, or do something special with the lighting, or photograph them at a certain stage in their life or....
There were snakes that I wanted to photograph, but my timing was wrong. I’d go down to Florida and want to shoot a snake. Say I’d go down to shoot a king cobra, and get that photograph, and then he’d have a rattlesnake that would be really wonderful to photograph, but it would be just getting ready to shed. Shortly after a snake sheds its skin, its color is more intense, its patterns are more vibrant. So I would make multiple trips down to the same place to get snakes at the right time. Because, to me, this project is not about snakes. It’s about color and movement and patterns. That’s why I shot it on black. I’m not showing you what snakes are all about. I’m just showing you how cool color and form can be. The black background just highlights that. It just happens I’m using snakes. I could just have easily chosen fire hydrants or toothbrushes.

Did you have any experiences with snakes as a kid?
Yeah, growing up in Michigan and Chicago I was catching snakes all of the time, but never anything that was dangerous. There are some very dangerous creatures that you want to pick up and handle, but you know it’s not something you do with some of these creatures.

Do you remember your first encounter with a poisonous snake?
I never found a poisonous snake in the Midwest. When I came to California, I found a rattlesnake in the backyard and I was fascinated with it. I handled it very carefully, but not in a way that I was going to get bitten. I don’t know what type it was. There are frogs in our backyard so they come to eat the frogs.

What was the toughest shot in this book?
The king cobras were tough. The owners didn’t even really want to let me photograph them. They saw how I was working with some of the smaller snakes and they were like, “Well, you can’t do that with a king cobra.” And, you know, this book wouldn’t be a book without a king cobra in it, so I knew that was something I had to have in there. So, basically, what I ended up building was a four-foot by four-foot by four-foot plexiglass case that housed the snake and that was OK with the owner and it didn’t compromise the photograph.

There were some very venomous species, but they were smaller, so if you’re three feet away, they can only move so quickly. A king cobra can move across the room in about two seconds. But a smaller snake, a two- or three-foot snake, you could run away from.

How did the process work?
Well, one other thing I should probably mention was that I was shooting them on black velvet. And for some reason, the black velvet seemed to neutralize the snake’s ability to move, which I never mentioned before. I look like a total jackass here standing next to these very poisonous snakes, but once you put a snake on velvet, there’s something about the velvet that would prevent them from trying to move in the direction they wanted to. They would try to move, but they’d kind of squirm and stay put.

What about handling the snakes?
I had snake handlers for each of the venomous species. We would kind of just let the snake do its thing. They would put it on my background and I would let the snake do its thing. Then they would reposition it and put it in the middle of the set. That’s how we shot.

What picture are you the most proud of?
They are all wonderful, but some of the species I had a harder time finding, like the Philippine pit viper that’s on the cover of the dust jacket. That to me was such a prize because it was such a rare species, and the specimen that I photographed happened to be wildly colorful. I saw some others of the same species and they weren’t quite as electric. That one was probably the hardest to find and maybe the biggest payoff because it was so brightly colored and beautiful. And there are certain snakes, like the blue Malayan coral snake, that I had to buy from an importer.

How much did it cost?
I don’t know, maybe $1,000 or $500.

How did you find that Philippine pit viper and why did you want it?
Just the combination of that magenta and chartreuse—it’s such an unusual color combination to find in nature. That’s what attracted me to it. How did I find it? I just asked around with some of the collectors for a really beautiful Philippine viper. I talked to someone who owned one at one point, but sold it. And I talked to the person he sold it to, and that person led me to a third person, and that third person led me to his basement in upstate New York and I just flew up there and we photographed in his basement. And he had a lot of other exotic vipers that were beautiful as well.

So he was just an avid collector that ended up having the snake?
Yeah, it was just.... The next-door neighbor probably doesn’t even know he owns a bunch of crazy exotic wild species. He was missing half of his fingers. Always look out for neighbors with missing fingers.

You were bitten by a black mamba during shooting. Can you walk me through what happened?
I was photographing with a collector who owned a black mamba. He said: “It’s very calm. It’s very docile. You don’t have to worry about it.” He was handling it like it was a boa, like it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t feel we needed to house it, like we did a king cobra, so I photographed it for 20 minutes or so, and it was fine. It wasn’t angry or out of control at all. And the handler turned his back at one point to grab a drink or something and then the snake approached my leg.

Knowing not to run away or move, I just stayed put, knowing that if I didn’t move, it’s not going to strike me. I stayed still and asked him to get me my little point and shoot camera, and I took about 20 to 30 pictures of the snake around my foot, thinking this doesn’t happen every day and let me get some pictures of this. Then he was like, “OK, let me pull this thing away.” He got his hook to pull the snake away, but had inadvertently snagged the cord that connects my camera to the strobe. If you look at the photo it’s this red cord that’s dangling down and is caught in his hook. When he grabbed that cord, the cord kind of dangled, and that’s what led the snake to strike my leg. I was taking pictures the entire time, so my face was behind the camera. I felt something on my leg, but it didn’t feel like a bite. I just thought he hit me with his hook. I kept taking pictures, and after a minute or so, the handler goes, “Dude, you got hit.”

I look down at my leg and there was blood everywhere. The snake had bitten me. Both its fangs had punctured the artery in my calf. I bled heavily. It wasn’t just stuck in my muscle. Both of the fangs hit my artery. It was an older snake, and sometimes older snakes will save their venom for prey they’re going to eat. Certainly he wasn’t planning on eating me, so he may have saved his venom for that reason. Or, it may have flushed out, because I bled so heavily. I’m not sure why I wasn’t poisoned. Nothing happened. He asked me how I felt, and I said I was fine. And then we waited five minutes. And I was fine. And then 10 minutes and I was fine. My breathing. My heart. I wasn’t dizzy. Nothing happened. Here I am a year later.

Holy cow.
The funniest part of the whole thing was later that night I was looking at the pictures and I had no idea I had captured the bite. The bite happened so quickly that no one even noticed that it had happened. In those 20 or 30 images of the snake around my foot there is one with the snake and its jaws in my leg.

What was going through your head?
Well, there’s a little bit of panic. Then you go into denial. I think there was venom at the lab, at the hospital nearby, but I didn’t seem to be reacting. I mean, we were ready to go. He was ready to take me and I just said, “I don’t know that anything is going on.” I’ve heard from snake people since then that the effects from snakebite can happen hours later.

Huh.
I think that, because it hit my artery, something would have happened right away if it was going to happen. So that’s why we didn’t go to the hospital. I thought I’d be passed out by now if something was going to happen.

That’s amazing.
Yeah. It was nuts.

This project was a huge amount of work for you. Can you talk about what you got out of it?
I like sharing things that are amazing with the world, and that’s basically what it is. It’s as simple as that. I’m not trying to make money on it. There’s not much money to be made. Basically, the same reason a writer writes books, the same reason a songwriter writes songs.

Has anybody said anything about the pictures so far that has resonated?
I guess people have found it interesting. I can’t say I’ve had a whole lot of feedback, so I don’t know.

What about the snake owners? Have you shown the pictures to them?
I sent some early copies of the book to them, and they all loved it. The snake guys would love this book no matter what. They could be terrible photos of snakes and they’d love it. I didn’t really do it for the snake people, but they’re going to love it as much as anybody.

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The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

Pepperberg and I walked to the back of the room, where Alex sat on top of his cage, preening his pearl gray feathers. He stopped at her approach and opened his beak.

“Want grape,” Alex said.

“He hasn’t had his breakfast yet,” Pepperberg explained, “so he’s a little put out.”

Alex closed his eyelids halfway, hunched his shoulders, and looked at her. His narrowed eyelids and hunch made him look crabby.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Pepperberg said to him. “See, I can do it, too.” She narrowed her eyes and gave him a stony look, imitating his expression. Alex responded by bending his head and pulling at the feathers on his breast.

To me, she said, “He’s in a bad mood because he’s molting, and sometimes when he’s like that he won’t work.” She spoke to Alex again, “You’ll get your breakfast in a moment.”

“Want wheat,” Alex said.

Arlene Levin-Rowe, the lab manager, handed Pepperberg a bowl of grapes, green beans, apple and banana slices, shredded wheat, and corn on the cob. Pepperberg held up the sliced fruits and vegetables for Alex, who seized them with his beak. Sometimes he held them with a claw and tore them into smaller bits. If he didn’t want something, like the green beans, he said, “Nuh,” meaning “No.” It was an emphatic “Nuh”—short, and decisive. His voice had a slightly nasal and digitized quality, but it was also tinny and sweet, like the voice of a cartoon character. It made you smile.

Under Pepperberg’s patient tutelage, Alex had learned how to use his vocal tract to imitate about 100 English words, including the sounds for all of the foods she offered him, although he called an apple a “ban-erry.”

“Apples may taste a little bit like bananas to him, and they look a little bit like cherries, so Alex made up that word for them,” Pepperberg said.

Alex could also count to six and was learning the sounds for seven and eight.

“I’m sure he already knows both numbers,” Pepperberg said. “He’ll probably be able to count to 10, but he’s still learning to say the words. It takes far more time to teach him certain sounds than I ever imagined.”

Alex was also learning to say “brown.” As a kind of learning aid for “brown,” Pepperberg placed a small wooden block painted chocolate brown next to Alex.

After breakfast, Alex preened again, keeping an eye on the flock. Every so often, he used his claw to pick up the toy block and held it aloft as if showing it to everyone in the room. Then he opened his beak: “Tell me what co-lor?”

“Brown, Alex. The color is brown,” Pepperberg, Levin, and the other assistant replied in a kind of singsong unison. They stretched out brown into almost full two syllables, emphasizing the “br” and “own.”

Alex listened silently. Sometimes he tried part of the word: “rrr ... own.” Other times, he again held up his block and repeated his question: “What co-lor?” And the trio of humans replied together: “Brown, Alex. The color is brown.”

Then Alex switched to the number seven: “Ssse ... none.”

“That’s good, Alex,” Pepperberg said. “Seven. The number is seven.”

“Sse ... none! Se ... none!”

“He’s practicing,” she explained, when I asked what Alex was doing. “That’s how he learns. He’s thinking about how to say that word, how to use his vocal tract to make the correct sound.”

It sounded a bit mad, the idea of a bird willingly engaging in lessons and learning. But after listening to and watching Alex, I found it difficult to argue with Pepperberg’s explanation for his behaviors. She wasn’t handing him treats for the repetitious work or rapping him on the claws to make him say the sounds.

“He has to hear the words over and over before he can correctly imitate them,” Pepperberg said, after she and her assistants had pronounced “seven” for Alex a good dozen times in a row. “I’m not trying to see if Alex can learn a human language,” she added. “That’s not really the point. My plan always was to use his imitative skills to get a better understanding of avian cognition.”

In other words, because Alex was able to produce a close approximation of the sounds of some English words, Pepperberg could ask him questions about a bird’s basic understanding of the world. She couldn’t ask him what he was thinking about, because that was beyond his vocabulary, but she could ask him about his understanding of numbers, shapes, and colors. To demonstrate, Pepperberg carried Alex on her arm to a tall wooden perch in the middle of the room. She then retrieved a green key and a small green cup from a basket on a shelf. She held up the two items to Alex’s eye.

“What’s same?” she asked. She looked at Alex nose-to-beak.

Without hesitation, Alex’s beak opened: “Co-lor.”

“What’s different?” Pepperberg asked.

“Shape,” Alex said. Since he lacked lips and only slightly opened his beak to reply, the words seemed to come from the air around him, as if a ventriloquist were speaking. But the words—and what can only be called the thoughts—were entirely his.

Prior to Pepperberg’s study, scientists believed that birds could not learn to label objects. Assigning labels to items was something that only humans could do, linguists such as Noam Chomsky had argued in the 1960s. Scientists were also certain that birds could not understand concepts such as “same” and “different,” or “bigger” and “smaller.” Yet for the next 20 minutes, Alex ran through his tests, uttering the labels for a range of items (key, cup, paper) and distinguishing colors, shapes, sizes, and materials (wool versus wood versus metal) of various objects. The concept of “same/different” is considered cognitively demanding. It required Alex to pay attention to the attributes of the two objects and to understand exactly what Pepperberg was asking him to compare—their color, shape, or material. He had to make a mental judgment and then vocally give her the answer, using the correct label.

Next, she and Alex moved on to some simple arithmetic, such as counting the yellow toy blocks among a pile of mixed hues. Animals’ ability to count is a much debated subject, but Alex seemed able to do this (and Pepperberg had published several papers attesting to his skill). He even understood the concept of zero, or none, as he called it—again, the only animal, other than two chimpanzees, so far known with this ability.

And, then, as if to offer final proof of the mind inside his bird brain, Alex spoke up. “Talk clearly!” he commanded, when one of the younger birds Pepperberg was teaching mispronounced the word green. “Talk clearly!”

“Don’t be a smart aleck,” Pepperberg said, shaking her head at him. “He knows all this, and he gets bored, so he interrupts the others, or he gives the wrong answer just to be obstinate. At this stage, he’s like a teenage son; he’s moody, and I’m never sure what he’ll do.”

“Wanna go tree,” Alex said in a tiny voice.

Alex had lived his entire life in captivity, but he knew that beyond the lab’s door there was a hallway and a tall window framing a leafy elm tree. He liked to see the tree, so Pepperberg put her hand out for him to climb aboard. She walked him down the hall into the tree’s green light.

“Good boy! Good birdie,” Alex said, bobbing on her hand.

“Yes, you’re a good boy. You’re a good birdie.” And she kissed his feathered head.

Reprinted with permission from Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell. Published by The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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