When state agents raided 83-year-old Al Robbins' cluttered reptilian laboratory last month and confiscated two dozen snakes, including rattlers and cobras, they touched off an unexpected storm of protest.
For 35 years, Robbins, a self-styled herpetologist and magician, has been known to thousands of San Joaquin Valley schoolchildren as "the snake man," and news that he had been charged with illegally keeping and selling poisonous snakes came as a shock.
"We're outraged. They (state Department of Fish and Game agents) clearly mishandled the whole process," said science teacher Mike Huckert, who was 10 years old when he first saw Robbins perform at a school assembly. Each year, Huckert books Robbins into the Rosedale Junior High School in west Bakersfield "because he is so good teaching children about snakes."
Authorities say they have received hundreds of letters supporting Robbins and questioning the use of undercover agents to stage a nighttime raid on the laboratory behind Robbins' home in northeast Bakersfield. Even the local newspaper asked in an editorial if there was not "a better alternative in handling the matter."
"He broke the law," said Capt. Ralph Labrum, newly assigned to the Bakersfield office of the state Fish and Game Department. After a mother questioned whether Robbins' snake act was safe, Labrum assigned undercover agents to investigate and then ordered the Feb. 25 raid.
Robbins is scheduled to appear in West Kern Municipal Court Friday on eight misdemeanor charges involving keeping wild snakes that are protected by law and twice selling rattlesnakes illegally to undercover agents, charging $35 for each snake.
Robbins freely admits that he keeps scores of reptiles in his laboratory, including venomous snakes, but, he said, "These reptiles are no longer poisonous because I've surgically removed their venom ducts."
His laboratory, once a two-car garage, is crowded with glass-walled snake containers, files and boxes. Wall shelves are lined with hundreds of preserved and bottled reptiles of all kinds, a collection built over a half-century.
Several times a month, the sprightly Robbins loads up his old car with a dozen or more of the snakes--including Captain, a 150-pound, 19-foot-long Indian rock python--and drives to schools as far north as Visalia and as far south as Glendale, charging $100 a performance, plus expenses.
Robbins charges that the state set out to entrap him.
"Somebody called from Fresno and asked if I would sell some snakes, and I told them to come on down," he said. "I had some rattlesnakes because people are always dropping them off, just leaving them with me--they know I'll take care of them. I only asked for $35 (each) to cover the cost of doing the surgery."
Robbins acknowledges that he had not obtained permits to keep the snakes, but he added: "The Fish and Game people have known about me for years. Their local man even told me that he would help me get a special permit because my situation is unique. They don't have the kind of permits I need, so he told me to just keep on going, and he'd help me, but then he was killed in an accident."
He was referring to the late Lt. John Reed, a Fish and Game agent stationed here who died earlier this year. Ralph R. Swenson, a Modesto wildlife biologist who is a friend of Robbins, confirmed in an interview that he heard Reed tell Robbins "to carry on" until something could be worked out to get the permits needed.
Without state permits, it is against the law to keep or harm reptiles such as rattlesnakes and king snakes that are protected wild species. Nor can they be sold, Capt. Labrum explained. State permits can be obtained to keep poisonous snakes, but not to transport them. He was unaware of any agreement between Reed and Robbins, he said, nor had he known about Robbins' role in the schools before the raid took place.
"We weren't heavy-handed with Mr. Robbins," Labrum said. "He sold the snakes and he was fully aware that to do so was illegal. And he was in possession of the other snakes illegally, so we acted."
"He makes a very worthwhile effort in the schools, I'm sure," said Kern County Dist. Atty. Edward Jagels. "But our problem is that these laws exist and he did not have permits. We want to work out something, maybe give him probation, but no jail time, if he agrees to get the appropriate permits."