Sunday, February 17, 2008

Memories of Biology

Our university sends an email notice board to those on email. I read the subject line of the special notice board the other day and stopped. I didn't want to open it. Condolences to the family of Dr. Richard "Dick" Bothner, it read. Please don't take this the wrong way, but I hoped it would be his wife, a child, something. I didn't want to think that it could be him.

My favorite undergrad. professor died on Friday.

I am quite upset.

When I returned to teach at SBU about 2.5 years ago, I kept telling myself to get in touch with him just to say 'hi' and I never did.

Things kept getting in the way. I was too busy, I didn't think about it. Did I think he would live forever? He must have been in his eighties.

This is a note - don't put things off. Say hello. Talk.

Now he's dead.

And I have memories. And they are damn good memories. [Warning - read no further if you have trouble watching nature shows that depict death.]

He was a herpetologist in the biology department. He had any number of snakes in his office in appropriate cages/containers. It was pretty cool to visit. I remember his constrictor - boa or python, I don't recall. He also had this vivid green viper that was just beautiful but nasty looking. I remember that he fed it one of the lab rats. Picture this - a little white rat in the cage with this predator. He told us that lab rats have no instinct to stay away from these critters. The viper sat waiting for the rat to make its move. I don't think it even breathed. The damn thing walked right up to the viper and BAM - this viper pounced, mouth full of rat, body wrapped around. All you saw was this little pink tail sticking out. He then told us that when you take a field mouse and put it in the cage, it cowers in the corner because it knows what's up.

He also had a king cobra in a cage. One day he took it out for us to see. "Take a look at its eyes," he said as he brought the beast closer to us. We inched back and he told us we didn't have to worry. Well, perhaps not, but at my house this isn't a parlor game. The creature was amazing. Dr. Bothner's passion was infectious.

He also took students to the Everglades over the Christmas break. The class was called Ecology of the Everglades. We learned everything you would ever need to know about the Everglades and then we traipsed through. I remember driving in the SBU vans and abruptly stopping. Out pops Dr. Bothner with his snake rod thing (I am sure it has a name. I don't remember it.) There was a diamondback rattler snaking (pun intended) its was across the street. In what we would later call the stereotypical moment of the trip, as we got out to watch him grab this snake and give us the requisite information about it, out popped an Asian tourist from a passing car with his Nikon camera snapping away. I don't know why I think that's so funny.

I also recall walking across a saw grass meadow. Dr. Bothner told us to be wary of our surroundings. He told us to look down as we walked because this was the home of one of the most venomous snakes in the world. "They call it the 3-step snake," he said "because if it bites you, you have 3 steps and then you're dead."

Um, I was the most conscientious snake spotter. I like to call it Darwinian, but I wasn't going down via snake bite! Luckily, we didn't see any deadly snakes - or luckily no one had to test the 3-step theory. It would have been wonderful to see such a creature.

It was also in one of his classes that I had my biggest wish I hadn't said it moment. He taught comparative anatomy. We dissected animals in this class. Each week in lab, he would test us on the animals. He would put pins in different parts and ask us to identify them. Each of us had a cat to dissect. Since cats are only one sex each, and we had to study the anatomy of both sexes, when we studied reproductive organs, we had to view a classmate's cat. Some people didn't heed his warning to dissect with purpose and ended up butchering their cats because they didn't know what they were doing. They didn't fare as well. I worked with a classmate (a dude) who had a male cat. We were comparing anatomy because we would be quizzed the next week. I noticed that he had done quite a nice job with his dissection. Instead of saying that, I said "Nice testicles," to which he replied "thank you very much."

Ah, to be 19 or 20 again!

He had quite a sense of humor and quite a life story. He loved his students, he loved his snakes, and he loved teaching.

Dr. Bothner - you will be missed.

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