Research, adventure draw prof to Congo

Kate Jackson

Snakebitten is the last word herpetologist Kate Jackson would use to describe her first year as an assistant professor of biology at Whitman College. Nevermind that the word carries a bias and isn’t in her vocabulary. Forget that Jackson loves snakes, collects snakes and studies snakes in her occupation. Fortune has smiled on her — and on the college through her work — since she arrived.

As Whitman Magazine went to press, Jackson’s book about snakes, science and survival in the Congo, “Mean and Lowly Things,” had reached No. 1 on the Amazon.com sales chart among herpetology titles. Three weeks before Commencement, she presented her research to an audience at the Smithsonian Institution. The same day, National Public Radio interviewed her for a feature story.

Mean and Lowly Things“I didn’t really know what to expect about any of this — the teaching or my book,” she said. “It’s the same way in my field work. But yes, I’ve survived.”

Two years ago in northern Congo, she nearly didn’t. On the third-to-last day of a month-long expedition, deep in the swamp forest near the village of Impongui, Jackson met up with a forest cobra. She was clearing a brick pile when the village children screamed and she lunged — for the snake.

“What I see is a mid-body coil of a black snake with large scales, skin stretched tight so that there is a bit of white skin showing between the scales,” she writes in her book. “Mehelya. I recognize it as the same as the one I caught in the first brick pile and grab hold of the disappearing coil.”

But the head of this snake isn’t square-snouted like the Mehelya. And the bronze color at the sides of the head is wrong. In the same split-second that Jackson identifies the yellow-banded underbelly in her grip as that of a forest cobra, and shifts her hold to get control of the head, the snake strikes. Its left fang pricks her right thumb.

“I was very upset, of course,” she said stoically. “I felt I’d done something stupid. My greatest fear was having a child get bitten by a snake by having seen me do it.”

Jackson survived the accident, of course, but not without emergency measures, extreme pain and no small amount of anxiety. What she worried about most was that the cobra might be the last venomous snake she’d ever catch. To prove she hadn’t lost her nerve, Jackson found and bagged a night adder in the forest outside the University of Brazzaville before she left Africa. “It reassured me,” she said.

Jackson grew up in Toronto, the elder of two daughters of English literature professors. She met her first friend of the suborder Serpentes — a Northern Water Snake — on the edge of Lake Ontario when she was 5. “My sister was scooping water to put into a tire. Without realizing it, she turned up a juvenile Northern and dumped it on my leg.

“I screamed, but our baby sitter would have none of it. ‘What do you mean making a ridiculous fuss like that, a big girl like you?’ she told me.” Soon after, Jackson asked herself the same question. And then she was hunting and collecting snakes.
Growing up, she often imagined herself as a zookeeper or a veterinarian. Then, on a high-school career day, she got her first glimpse of the herpetology department of the Royal Ontario Museum. In that instant, she knew she’d found her world.

Jackson in the CongoThe title of Jackson’s book comes from Aristotle and explains the larger purpose in her work. “To understand the world, we must understand mean and lowly things,” Aristotle wrote. “People are drawn to charismatic megafauna — the gorillas, the elephants,” Jackson said. “They don’t understand the interrelationship of living things in the ecosystem. They don’t consider where the megafauna would be without snakes and toads.”

The first step in protecting species, Jackson noted, is collecting and identifying them. She chose the Congo for her inventory of “herpetofaunal biodiversity” because it is largely undescribed, and because she’s an inveterate adventurer. For Jackson, the more removed from civilization, the better.

Her inspiration, as a field scientist and writer, comes from Mary Kingsley, the 19th century English explorer and author. “She was a braver explorer and a wittier writer than I,” said Jackson. “More eccentric, too. She thought it very unladylike to wear men’s clothes in the wild. There she was in the middle of West Africa, trudging through swamps in Victorian dresses.”

— Keith Raether