Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1999
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JUNE 1999


"Non-conventional" doesn't begin to describe Tim Hoen, a lab technician who spends his free time rescuing reptiles and talking to birds. Oh, and did we mention that he keeps an 18-foot python in his garage?

S C I E N C E    &    T E C H N O L O G Y

Cold-Blooded Compassion
By Gary Dorsey
Photography by Mark Lee

It is the day after the Preakness and yet another orgiastic festival of 90,000 has left Pimlico's huge infield steeped in the detritus of Budweiser and buckets of KFC, tip sheets, and Sun papers. The temperature climbs into the 90s and the stink of stale beer overpowers small crews of volunteers picking trash.

Chicken bones, beer cans, slimy coldcuts, condoms, sanitary napkins--the pickers bend down into the most amazing and revolting accumulation of garbage.

Scouring one plot, wearing rubber gloves and T-shirts, scientists and grad students from Hopkins's Biophysics Department work with determination. But under those ballcaps and behind those sweaty brows float doubts.

What am I doing here?

What time can we leave?

Where's the bathroom?

A lanky, laughing figure with the most liquid blue eyes and a shaggy haircut bags another crumpled box of half-eaten fried chicken.

Larry Zeitlin, a research scientist, looks at this awkward, gawky, gabby man and thinks, Geez, Tim's so selfless. How can I say no?

At the end of the day, Tim Hoen and friends will have raised another $4,000 and purchased 81 more acres of rainforest in Costa Rica. Nesting beaches for leatherback sea turtles, a coastal reserve for red-eyed tree frogs, and four species of poison dart frogs will be protected.

On Monday morning, Hoen will be back in his Jenkins Hall lab cleaning the animal cages, feeding the mice, and administering a new contraceptive jelly to the vaginas of rabbits and rodents.

Hey, it's a dirty job, as they say, but ...

Happily, Tim Hoen is just made that way.

Pass the vitamin-dusted crickets, please!
Keeping a voracious menagerie of snakes, lizards, turtles, and iguana well fed is a lot more complicated than opening a can of Alpo. Here are some of the culinary creations Tim Hoen has to whip up at chow time:

"Bernadette" the 18-foot Burmese python: As a youngster, she got by on eating frozen rats several times a week. Now that she's almost full size, Bernadette has graduated to devouring frozen goats, about one every three months or so.

"Simon" the aquatic turtle: He loves supping on live animals, like earthworms, slugs, and newborn mice and rats. And he doesn't neglect his vegetables; favorites include mushrooms, mulberry leaves, and dandelions. To help ensure strong shells, he and his other omniverous turtle friends also get a specially prepared pelleted diet, developed by the Fort Knox Zoo.

"Lady Di," the herbivorous spurred tortoise, from sub-Sahara Africa: High-fiber is the ticket here. Lady Di each day chomps her way through a tray full of dark-green lettuce (no iceberg!), carrots, beets, and some beans and peas. Hoen has to ration the peas, though, since too much protein can lead to liver and kidney damage.

"Beauty" the blue-tongued skink: About twice each week, she consumes a small dish of vegetables, fruit, mice, vitamin-dusted crickets, and mealworms.

"Zivio" the iguana: He eschews meat in favor of various vegetables including kale, collards, and Swiss chard, and a little fruit.

PROBABLY NOT VERY MANY people who live in a trailer have raised more than $150,000 and donated it all for environmental protection. And probably not too many people with a simple high school education appear as authors on scientific papers published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases and Biology of Reproduction.

But right here, squeezed between Dr. Philip E. Castle of the National Institutes of Health and Drs. Kevin Whaley, Thomas Moench, and Richard Cone of the Johns Hopkins Department of Biophysics is that guy again, Timothy E. Hoen, Parkville High, class of '72, Hopkins research technician, 1999.

The paper, one of several in which Hoen appears as a collaborator, is titled "Contraceptive Testing of Vaginal Agents in Rabbits," and it may provide, according to Hoen, perhaps the most complete description in the literature about rabbit semen collection. As a member of Cone's lab team, Hoen finds himself at the forefront of research in the forefront of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

"That's the paper I'm most proud of," he says. "In the academic world, being second author in an article for some people is--yew! Not so great. But we spent many years developing these techniques and doing this study, and unlike many scientific papers, where the researchers just say, 'This is what I did, here are the results, and here are my interpretations,' our paper tells you exactly, step-by-step, how you do it. In a lot of papers, the materials-and-methods sections are a little weak, that's my opinion. But here we tell you exactly how to make a device that collects rabbit sperm.

"How do you do that? How do you inject different fluids into a rabbit's vagina? I mean, specifically, how do you do these things so you can replicate a study accurately--collect semen, not stress or hurt the animals, time after time? So now, if someone wants to do a follow-up, here it is, they can use this paper and be light-years ahead.

"Because it's tough. A rabbit is not an easy animal to work with. A rat or a mouse--a lot easier. You walk into a lab with mice, they don't notice a thing. But step in there with the rabbits, they stop, they start looking around. Rabbits are sensitive animals. They're also bigger and stronger. They can hurt you. They scratch you. You cause any discomfort to a rabbit and it screams. A high-pitched scream. The last thing you want is a rabbit screaming--whether it's out of pain or anything else ... fear. Who knows what else is going on in the body when they have that much emotion going on? Believe me, a rabbit stresses very easily."

A conversation with Hoen is like a movable feast. It begins the day you meet and it never ends.

WHY WOULD PEOPLE GIVE me money for the rainforest? What's the hook? Well, a lot of reptiles are found in the rainforest. And the pet industry as a whole, to me, needs a lot of improvement. A lot of animals they sell--I'm talking professional pet store people--it's about money for them. Well, that's fine, money's okay if you're selling furniture or inanimate objects. But when you're selling living things, there must be more consideration than just money. Not to say you can't make a profit on animals, but it has to be in a way that has some consideration for their well-being. Is it going to be cared for? Is it healthy? For some people, it's just about cost. Why would you spend $10,000 or $20,000 on a snake? It's not because of the snake, believe me. It's worth $20,000 because of how many you can breed and sell out of it ..."

While you're waiting for him to get around to answering his own question ("Why would people give me money for the rainforest?") he also perambulates around the front of his house, a trailer tucked deep in the craw of Harford County horse country. A visit to Hoen's house is a tour that begins with an introduction to a butterfly bush, 10 or 12 varieties of grasses in the "yard" he mows thrice a year, pear and cherry and peach trees, and a brief stop at an artificial riverbed and pond down the bank that he built to recreate a natural habitat for turtles.

By the way, the fencing for the transplanted riverbed? That comes from an abandoned drive-in movie theater. The plastic sheeting that lines the pond bottom comes from a junkpile he found after the Preakness. One snake cage is made of a prison bedframe. He creates reptile pens out of plastic barrels.

Hefting "Lady Di," the African spurred tortoise, is no easy matter. She weighs about 35 pounds now and will exceed 110 pounds when she's full-grown. (The African spurred tortoise is the third largest in the world.) Lady Di is great with her feet, says Hoen: "She can dig a tunnel you wouldn't believe."
A lot of this stuff, he just found in somebody's dump.

In our tour, he avoids the garage off the driveway, a two-story building that looks bigger than his house, and steers us toward his trailer. He motions back, however, and says, cryptically: "I have an animal in there that if it gets away, we might lose a few dogs in the neighborhood."

Inside the trailer, where he lives with his wife of 20 years, Diane, the foyer is neatly layered with shelves of skulls and skins and animal shells. A wild boar's skull he found in the Everglades, a huge loggerhead turtle skull he found at Rehoboth Beach, a beaver skull came from something he found in the woods ("Buckwald!" he says picking it up to show it's big orange teeth). Here are boxes of snake egg shells and fossilized shark's teeth 30 million years old that he plucked from the wintery waters of the Potomac River. All kinds of leftovers he retrieves from local roadkill. Like a raccoon's solid bone penis ("It's hard all the time," he marvels. "Just pops out and he's ready to go"); he hopes to collect more and use them as swizzle sticks to surprise dinner guests at a future party.

There's an 18-foot coil of python skin from southeast Asia stowed in a corner. The animal in the garage, by the way, he says, is also an 18-foot python, a goat-eater named Bernadette. "My goal is to get her to 20 feet," he mentions, a task that may require three goats this year.

But before he can go on, it's feeding time.

In the kitchen, Hoen chops and grates and lovingly sprinkles vitamin supplements atop colorful, crunchy mounds of kale, collards, carrots, romaine, yellow squash, mushrooms, and radish tops. Three big platefuls balance in his arms as he saunters to a door next to the living room and slips into a warm, well-lit spot alive with snakes, turtles, skink, geckos, and lizards. A male iguana as long as his forearm freely leaps atop a cage for lunch while his mate, restricted in a large corner space filled with thick grape vines, has just laid an egg.

"Okay, Mr. Pig!" he says to the male, as the iguana greedily chomps into a heap of greens. "Don't spill it. You're always spilling it."

"C'mon, Mr. Puny, get in there!" he chides a large, lone box turtle struggling to climb over three companions to get to his share of salad. "The big guys'll eat it all."

The turtle suddenly scrambles over another's shell and plunks down into a bed of kale.

"Let's go, honey, get those eggs out."

"How are you today, baby?"

"There's the old lady."

It's as if you're not even in the room. Dozens and dozens of reptiles are engaged in Hoen's many ongoing conversations. When he's done, he remembers that he hasn't answered that question yet, the one about why people give him money for the rainforest.

Everybody describes him as a modest fellow, which may be one reason why his wife, a stockbroker, puts up with his obsessions.

But first ... "Hey," he says, "have you ever seen one of these guys?"

Before handling "Bernadette" the python, Hoen must first announce himself by gently stroking her while he stands behind a six-foot plexiglass shield. Otherwise, she might mistake him for food. At 300 pounds, says Hoen, "No man alive can pull her off you if you make a mistake."
IN 1993, TIMONIUM BECAME the site for the first Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Show. The people in the third-floor biophysics lab at Jenkins Hall had heard Hoen talking about the show for at least a year. But the way he talked, some people didn't even know he was the guy who started it.

"How do you make sure the animals are cared for and healthy?" Hoen asks, off on his usual spiel. "How do you get the knowledge out there to protect pets and endangered species, both? By creating the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show, we've got a forum for all the experts to come together here in Maryland once a year to meet the public. You bring in the best people--hey, they might not all have college degrees, they may not be the president of a zoo, but a lot of them are like me, they've been breeding certain animals for 20 years and they can say, This is what I've learned. This is what's needed to change the way animals are treated. And that to me is very powerful."

Every September, Hoen pitches tents at the fairgrounds and runs the two-day show that he spends much of the year organizing. Professional herpetologists and amateur hobbyists meet. He runs a reptile and amphibian rescue service to take in as many unwanted pets as he can, transports animals, finds them adoptive or foster homes. People don't realize how often reptiles go unnurtured and abandoned in the homes of so-called pet lovers, or how often a cute little snake becomes a big, unwanted problem. Right now Hoen's rescue service has an immediate need for foster homes and adoptive families for iguanas and large snakes.

One hundred percent of the proceeds from the two-day fundraiser/show go directly to a land trust run by the Nature Conservancy in Costa Rica. (No money goes toward administrative costs, Hoen points out.) The property purchased and protected is in the Talamanca/Carribean Biological Corridor, Guanacaste National Park, and the Monteverde Dloud Forest.

Between the Preakness and the reptile show, Hoen and his friends have purchased more than 2,500 acres of rainforest.

"Every year, I nominate him for [Hopkins's] Martin Luther King service award," says Zeitlin, who has now worked with Hoen in the biophysics lab for a decade. "What he's doing is incredible."

IT'S ALL A PART OF a whole to Hoen, whose rare and wonderful life is staked to twin beliefs of compassion and biodiversity. He spends days protecting rare turtles, sitting in eagle's nests, skulking through swamps, watching frogs mate, testing rabbits, raising snakes, talking to birds.

Resting in the student lounge at Jenkins Hall late one afternoon, Hoen tells childhood stories that sound just as outrageous-- sitting in eagles' nests, wrestling with bears, mapping bat caves and traipsing after lizards, snakes, and bats with his notorious "Chickenhouse Gang" in Pikesville.You've just happened to find him mid-journey.

He admits that his life may seem a little strange. But he has been this way ever since he can remember.

"Yeah, I clean the cages and do animal maintenance around here," he says. "That's okay. It doesn't bother me. As a matter of fact, at one time that was what I thought was the best I could ever get. So really, I'm ahead of the game. And guess what? I'm making a difference."

Science writer Gary Dorsey's latest book, Silicon Sky: How One Small Start-up Went Over the Top to Beat the Big Boys Into Satellite Heaven, has just been published by Perseus Books.