SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — About a month ago, a group of 5-foot-long, arm-thick western diamondback rattlesnakes emerged from hibernation at a ranch just east of Clines Corners. Tom Wyant — the man some consider New Mexico's go-to "snake guy" — watched the groggy-eyed serpents weave in and out of each other's paths, zigzagging their rough, diamond-shaped scales over the cracked desert dirt.

Lounging in the sun before heading back to their den, the snakes shook their maraca-like tails — a kind of music to Wyant's ears.

"I'm really enthralled by western diamondbacks," he said. "They're such fascinating critters."

Wyant, 69, has been a wildlife enthusiast his entire life. And those who know him today would say that snakes, specifically, are his life.

Since moving to New Mexico in 1964 — originally to Las Cruces to work for NASA and then to White Rock to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory — Wyant has led numerous volunteer orientations, hosted a handful of educational outreach programs, participated in several Scouts and summer camp events, and rescued an estimated 50 to 100 snakes a year, all with the goal of raising awareness to help protect his favorite animal.

It's a passion that borders on obsession.

Although Wyant emphasizes he's not a veterinarian or a certified specialist, and refuses to call himself an expert, he's the person wildlife centers and police rely on for snake rescue and relocation throughout most of northern New Mexico. He sometimes receives up to four calls a day to pick up snakes that have been dubbed a disturbance or are injured.

With every snake he catches — using handmade hooks he creates from golf clubs and store-bought metals — he does a thorough inspection, just to be sure the snake hasn't been harmed. If the snake is healthy and intact, he provides food and water before taking it to a safe area for release.

For those that are wounded, he keeps them in his care for rehabilitation. And if the snake is so damaged it won't be able to survive again in the wild, Wyant adds it to his pack of educational snakes that he keeps in two separate rooms of his home — one for venomous species, one for nonvenomous — heated to a toasty 78 degrees. Here, he creates mini-shelters by cutting a hole into old cereal and snack boxes, and places them inside large terrariums.

And to introduce some of the collection:

Meet Casper, the albino bull snake that can't survive in the wild due to the lack of pigment in his skin; Elote, a New Mexico corn snake that Wyant says is useful for teaching; Fearless, a bull snake recently hit by a car that no longer has a tongue; Elvis, a captive-born Mexican mountain king snake; Davy, a western diamondback rattler.

All are snakes under Wyant's care, used to educate the public.

"Snakes have their own personalities and I like them all," Wyant said. "If there was enough interest in people who have a fear of snakes to learn — if people could try to address their fears — we'd all be more harmonious."

Wyant said his ultimate goal is to address myths and misconceptions by showing snakes in educational settings. He said he wishes people understood that "snakes are not evil. It's only when they sense a threat that they will attack."

Although predators, disease and weather pose threats to snakes, Wyant believes humans are the ultimate danger.

"Snakes aren't the problem; people are," he said, adding that his interest in protecting snakes was first piqued when he moved out West and witnessed the reptiles being mistreated.

"You wouldn't believe the things that people do to these animals," he added, recalling the time he witnessed someone drop a hammer onto a rattlesnake from a second-story window, and when a bull snake was repeatedly run over with a car.

"They shoot 'em, beat them up, chop 'em into pieces," he said. ". Just unimaginable things."

People who love snakes appreciate Wyant.

"He's in it to educate others on a subject that he finds so important," said Bob Meyers, the founder and director of the American International Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque. "He's just one of the nicest guys in the world. He's got high moral standards — everything about him is just top notch."

Meyers said he doesn't understand why some people seem to think that violence against snakes is an exception to animal cruelty. A sign in his museum sums up his perspective: "The zoo doesn't sell rhino horns, the aquarium doesn't sell shark fins, and we don't sell rattlesnake rattles."

In 30 years of snake handling, Wyant has had "one and hopefully my only" venomous snake bite, incurred while trying to force-feed a sick blacktail rattler in 1992. The bite, which he describes "like a wasp sting at first," was undeniably painful, but Wyant said the accident is not the norm — and, besides, "it's not like the snake went out of its way" to hurt him.

Sensationalized snake interactions are not the story Wyant wants to tell. He said he wants to provide information on the animals' behaviors and how to avoid conflict.

Because most of the calls Wyant receives for relocation and rescue are from residents who have snakes in their homes or backyards, he recommends that people become familiar with what causes the animals to gravitate into neighborhoods in the first place.

"Snakes are looking for food, water and shelter, so they're going to be around areas where they can find those things," he said, adding about 80 percent of calls he gets are from people who have bird feeders. He usually can predict exactly where snakes are hiding: wood piles, rock walls, garbage bins and dense vegetation.

"It's all because of rodents," he said. "They come looking for seeds, and the snakes are looking for them."

The job snakes play in the food chain is one reason Meyers is surprised more people don't advocate for them. "Their role as a predator eating rodents is crucial. Without snakes, all our crops would be eaten. So, even we need (snakes)," he said.

When he released the recently rescued western diamondback off a rugged trail in White Rock, he watched wide-eyed as it "posed," coiled in a figure-eight-like shape with its dizzied rattle facing upward, before making its way to a den Wyant had scouted.

"I've done this so many times now, it's like second nature. I'm happy to see the snakes happy," Wyant said. "It's also my way of helping people."

Now that Wyant has retired, he and his wife, Penny, have time to focus on Enchanted Trek Travel — a cruise company they founded together in 2008. And, of course, he has more time to devote to the snakes.

"I just love these animals," Wyant said. "There are so many myths and misconceptions out there. I just want to set the record straight."

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Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.santafenewmexican.com