When it comes to tiny crawly creatures, Barney has an eye like a hawk.

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Barney Tomberlin is a lizard man, a snake man, and a bug man. He is a hardworking Good Samaritan.He is the unofficial mayor of his town. And his favorite creatures are those that slither, creep, and crawl—animals with too few legs, or too many.

Barney the Bug ManI met Barney while doing research for a rattlesnake book. I was looking for an expert, someone who had studied these animals in the wild. A friend of mine, who is a biologist, told me, “Barney is your man. He knows rattlesnakes as well as anybody around.”

I drove to Portal, the southern Arizona town where Barney lives. Portal is a one-street town, with a cafe, gas station and store, post office, and a library shaded by huge old cottonwood trees. Most of the town’s sixty-three people live outside of town, on ranches spread across the desert landscape.

I found Barney in his yard, watching a tarantula cross the sand. We greeted each other, and then Barney continued watching the giant spider.

“I thought you collected those animals,” I said, wondering why he didn’t pick up this one.

“I do,” Barney said. “Unless they live in my own front yard.”

Red-Kneed Tarantula

Red-Kneed Tarantula

Barney collects insects and spiders for scientists and museums. He catches rattlesnakes, “milks” them of their venom, and returns them to the wild. He sends the venom to drug companies, where the venom is used to make medicine.

Barney also captures snakes, tarantulas, lizards, and beetles for television programs and movies. Afterward, he releases them in their natural environments so they can go back to their homes.

Barney’s traps are a series of fences—one foot high and fifteen feet long—set in remote sections of desert. At the end of each fence, an open coffee can is sunk into the sand. Crawling animals bump into the fence, follow it, and drop into the can. This kind of trap leaves the captives unhurt.

Barney showed me how to pull a beetle or millipede from a can with a pair of tweezers. I was nervous about the bark scorpions. They can deliver a painful sting.

“I’ve been stung a few times,” Barney said. “I’m still around to talk about it.”

Barney and I spent the afternoon collecting seven hairy tarantulas with red fur on their knees, two beetles with “horns” on their heads, and six millipedes. Barney let at least one hundred black-backed beetles go. “Not much call for beetles,” he said.

On the way home, Barney stopped his truck several times. Each time, he had seen an interesting creature. I asked him how he was able to spot tiny animals while traveling fifty-five miles an hour.

Ground Beetle

Ground Beetle

“I’ve trained myself to see little crawly things,” he explained.

Toward evening, Barney nearly ran his truck into the side of a cow that was standing in the middle of the road. I screamed.

“If you can see a three-inch grasshopper, how come you can’t see a cow?” I wanted to know.

“I haven’t trained myself to see big animals,” Barney joked. “Only small ones.”

The next day was packed with events. Minutes after I arrived at Barney’s, a woman drove into his yard. She had been bitten on the ankle by a rattlesnake while she was watering her flowers. Barney examined her ankle. There were fang marks, but no swelling or other signs of venom injection.

“A dry bite,” he told her. “You were fortunate.” He explained that rattlesnakes sometimes bite without injecting any venom.

At noon, Barney and I were eating lunch in the cafe. Halfway through the meal the owner asked Barney if he could take over in the kitchen for a few hours. She had been called away.

Barney went into the kitchen. “Come back at four,” he said to me. “Then we’ll go looking for rattlesnakes.”

At four, Barney told me that something else had come up. There was a wildfire in the mountains west of town. “Let’s take your truck this time,” he said. “It’s newer, has better tires.”



We drove for two hours on rough dirt roads. When we came to the area of the fire, Barney walked off with the chief firefighter. I helped fight the fire, beating out flames with my jean jacket.

At sundown Barney reappeared, soot-faced and tired, like me. As I drove down the mountain, I hit a sharp rock, which ripped a tire.

“You have a flat,” Barney said.

I changed the tire while Barney watched. When we were under way again, he explained why he hadn’t helped me with the flat.

He had been a firefighter. But then he’d had a heart attack. His doctor told him that he had only a year to live—and that he should not do heavy work. “That was seventeen years ago,” Barney said. “That’s why I didn’t help you. I can walk around and tell people what to do, but I can’t do much myself.”

Barney took a deep breath and then went on. “I figure I beat the odds, but who knows what’s in store? I consider each day a valued possession.”

“You’re a lucky man,” I said. “You have a town full of people who count on you, and work you love.”

Horned Beetle

Horned Beetle

“True,” Barney said, grinning. “I don’t do much complaining. I enjoy myself.”

Our conversation ended when Barney yelled at me to stop. He’d seen something by the side of the road. It was a horned beetle, three inches long. The back of the beetle was iridescent with a display of shiny colors.

“This is a great find,” he said, holding the beetle close to his face, peering at it. “This is a beauty. Perfect.”

“It’s been that kind of day,” I said, smiling. “Just about perfect.”

Barney didn’t seem to hear me. He was busy examining the beetle as it crawled across the palm of his hand.