It might as well be Paul McCartney up on stage.
Inside the Tomball Community Library on the Lone Star College campus, Clint “The Snake Man” Pustejovsky brings out five small snakes, asking reluctant parent volunteers to hold the slithering specimens. He then pulls a nine-foot albino Burmese python named Ruben from a box like a rabbit from a hat.
“Pythons are native to Southeast Asia and enjoy a diet of large rats and small rabbits,” he shouts, with the youthful enthusiasm of a boy showing off his baseball card collection, before his voice is drowned out. Ruben, like Pustejovsky, is a show-stopper. The 200 children in the room jump to their feet, screaming and squealing louder than Beatles fans. It’s pure pandemonium…at the library…over snakes.
Pustejovsky and his wife Michelle have been teaching people about snakes and other reptiles through their company, Texas Snakes & More, for 15 years, explaining how to identify snakes, sharing safety tips and dispelling stereotypes about the misunderstood animals. In some cases, they pass on their passion for herpetology to the next generation. “I love the big ones,” declares 9-year-old Austin Hunter, who’s standing on his tiptoes at the library demonstration. He eagerly taps his grandmother’s shoulder: “Do you think Mr. Clint can come to my birthday party in September?”
Pustejovsky was younger than Austin—just 5—when he first fell for snakes, coming across a hognose playing possum at Spring Branch’s Binglewood Park. Now 56 years old, he remembers being instantly smitten by the reptile, which, he’s quick to point out, was not venomous, but a “good snake.” That early encounter sparked a herpetology hobby that would last a lifetime. Pustejovsky went on to study every book, read every article and, yes, hold every snake he could get his hands on. “My older sister said that I always had a way with animals, even as a toddler,” Pustejovsky says.
Dr. Larry White of Briarcrest Veterinary Clinic, who treats Pustejovsky’s animals and shares his lifelong passion for reptiles, agrees. “Clint has done more toward the advancement of snakes than anyone I know,” he says, “from putting together identification guides to rehabilitating injured reptiles. Certain people are born with a gift for animals, and Clint has that gift.”
As Pustejovsky grew up, however, he realized not everyone shares his affinity. When he was 12, he and a buddy discovered a diamondback water snake in the Brickhouse Gully near Oak Forest. The other boy’s father thought it was a cottonmouth. “His dad tried to kill it with a shovel, screaming to stay away,” Pustejovsky recalls. “I grabbed the snake—making it madder than a junkyard dog—let it bite me, and proved that it wasn’t venomous. I realized two things in that moment. First: Most people, including avid outdoorsmen like my friend’s father, don’t know anything about snakes. Second: I wanted to protect them.”
In a sense, Pustejovsky’s been preparing for his current gig all his life. “I took a couple of snakes to my Cub Scouts meeting to show my friends,” he remembers, “and when our presenter didn’t show up that afternoon, I demonstrated my snakes and talked about their traits to the group.” Later, taking a public-speaking course as a UH communications major, he presented a talk about—you guessed it—snakes.
There are only four types of venomous snakes in Texas, Pustejovsky always explains—rattlesnake, copperhead, cottonmouth and coral—and according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, getting struck by lightning is more common than getting bitten by one. But whether or not a snake is venomous, he emphasizes, people should not handle them in the wild. “When you see a snake, take three giant steps back,” he says. “They don’t want to chase you—they just want to be left alone.”
Pustejovsky wants humans to stop killing snakes, and to that end, he tries to correct misconceptions about them and lessen people’s fears. “My grandfather told me that all triangular-headed snakes were venomous, but that’s not true,” he says, exasperated. “The majority of triangular-headed snakes aren’t poisonous. Aggressive snakes don’t necessarily make venomous snakes.”
Pustejovsky worked as a technical writer in the oil and gas industry for 10 years before, in 2001, visiting the East Texas Herpetological Society Expo and realizing he could hold his own among the experts. He went home and joked to his wife that he should start a snake-education company. To his surprise, she thought it was a brilliant idea.
“We were both tired of the technical-writing business, so when I got laid off with a nice severance package, I told him to take the leap of faith and use the money for the business,” she says. “I love watching him work his passion. Seeing him light up on stage when he talks to people about snakes, seeing children get excited about holding snakes, seeing adults face their fears and learn to appreciate snakes—all of that makes it worth it.”
Since starting his company, Pustejovsky has done thousands of library demonstrations, birthday parties, festivals and corporate events, drawing crowds of up to 3,500 as he showcases his den of friendly, non-venomous snakes, tortoises and lizards and lets participants hold and pet the animals. Today, he estimates, nearly one million people and counting have seen his enlightening show.
“If just a quarter of our audiences stop killing snakes because of me, I’ve won,” says Pustejovsky. “That’s my goal in life. My gravestone will read, ‘More snakes have their heads because of Clint.’”