There are worse things than snakes to think about…scorpions, terrorism, violence and crime—but even though snakes are not necessarily the evil many of us believe them to be, they’re by no means these innocent little cute critters to be loved and cherished either.
I would prefer not to think about snakes, of course, but high school and a friend’s misgivings about a marauding snake brought back a tidal wave of memories and experiences of the reptilian kind. So, the long and short of it is that snakes are slithering around my brain and possibly the back yard as well. What to do?...
My older sister has always been sort of a snake freak. Nice people would claim she had an interest in herpetology, but the truth of the matter is that while I took bugs and dogs to 4-H events, she took snakes.
I learned some useful stuff about snakes from Steve…for example, with the exception of the coral snake, whose pupils are round, all poisonous North American snakes have elliptical pupils. This important nugget meant that if I saw a snake, I need only throw myself on the ground and creep close enough to observe said snake’s pupils, and I would know whether or not to panic. The unfortunate aspect of being able to identify snakes before panicking of course, is that for non-athletic, slow-moving people like me—being eyeball to eyeball doesn’t leave nearly enough time to react.
Besides learning useful information about identifying cottonmouths, rattlesnakes and the abundant copperheads around our place in Georgia, I learned about common sense and modesty.
A day or two after my sister appear on a television program in Atlanta, displaying her friendly neighborhood snakes, which included a rattlesnake and a milk snake, she chased a snake into our pond to see what kind it was. She intended to prove to me that it was not a moccasin, and we could go swimming. She, after all, was a budding TV star and the black snake in question was not thick enough to be a moccasin, but was simply a harmless black racer.
I gave her a hard time after she got out of the hospital about how no one is infallible—and it’s sometimes better to leave the mystery in relationships, even between human and serpent. She was right, of course, that most poisonous snakes around our parts are proportionally thick for their length, and have diamond shaped rather than rounded heads. But being right about facts didn’t account for perception—the snake she actually managed somehow to catch was fatter than she thought—and was a moccasin.
Fast forward to the world’s greatest lunacy (in a tongue-in-cheek way)—an amusement park in the middle of nowhere with no income, no visitors—but such inspiration and so many animals no one should ever own. The lion, the monkeys, the horses and ponies and the coatimundis—all wonderful. But people wanted to see the snakes. More importantly, people would leave donations to see the snakes handled.
Did I mention I hate snakes? Yes, they eat vermin and insects, some even kill poisonous species; yes, they’re dry and not slimy and make attractive boots, purses and belts. But I hate snakes. Unfortunately, the amusement park was the focal point of my world when I was a teenager, and we needed snakes to draw in the occasional visitor. Truck drivers stopped occasionally, local folks, once even a car full of people from Atlanta. (The amusement park was in Greenville, Georgia, miles away from any populated town, and getting visitors from Atlanta was like striking gold.) While one or another visitor would put a dollar in the lion’s can or buy the macaque a soda, most would put money in the snake’s can—if the snakes were taken out of their cages.
Before you can take a snake out of a cage, of course, you have to put one in. Milk snakes were extremely common in rural Georgia, tended not to bite, were large enough to impress—but we found out after the first or second that they didn’t do well in captivity. After we lost two to whatever ailment claimed them, we began releasing them a week after we captured them. That meant my sister the snake freak had to go find milk snakes to augment the python and the rattlesnake I would not touch.
Sometimes, as I looked for the ponies hiding out in the kudzu, I would encounter a milk snake. Because the amusement park meant so much to me, I would actually find a forked stick, pin the snake, and begin my famous “I’ve caught a snake, come save me” shrieks. In cartoons people yell things like “eeeek!” when they see an animal they don’t like. The proper signal is “Ig!” I don’t know why, but the only words I ever got out around snakes was “ig, ig!” Eventually someone would venture out to find me, still horseless, but holding down a milk snake and crying “ig.”
Once the non-poisonous snake cage had an occupant, when someone stopped by to see the exhibit I would force myself to take the snake to show. At one time we were between milk snakes, but my sister had caught a fairly long bull snake. She insisted the snake was take and even named it, although I can’t recall what. (The python was “Sheba,” which I thought rather too mundane, but at least I remember.) So one sunny day when everything was perfect—it was my birthday, we were having fried chicken and business had been fairly good—someone honked up at “the development,” which is what we called our amusement park when we didn’t want to go for the whole name.
I excused myself and ran up to show off the animals, leaving the hated snake for last. I showed the lion, the monkeys, led kids around on the ponies—and then, I walked everyone over and showed off the snakes. I took the snake out and held it up, while everyone gasped and cringed. And the snake attached itself to my thumb.
The visitors decided to help by screaming hysterically, while I said dumb things like “Don’t worry about the blood,” and “These are non-poisonous and I really don’t think you should worry,” or words to that effect. I don’t know how I got the snake to let go, but I’ll never remember how completely that incident ruined my day!
Snakes have intruded in other ways in my life, from the dead milk snake my two brothers put in my baby brother’s crib as a joke—they say I broke a lamp over the older one’s head, though I’m sure I didn’t—to popping up as a recurring dream when I worked in the modern-day version of a salt mine. I must have dreamed half a dozen times of coiled rattlesnakes everywhere—coiled, crawling, there was no escape.
Most recently, my two sons are football coaches at a high school not far from the banks of the Rio Grande. There are countless new houses and building in an area that was recently just river bank. And the school has a rattlesnake problem. Every day we get a count. Snakes have gotten in the main building and are regulars on the track and in the weight room. After a recent flood, they found one on top of the ice machine outside the gym door—right at eye level. Perhaps because they don’t know what to do, the school is doing nothing—which makes me crazy. The administrators were told by a local environmentalist to place black tape around the bottom of the fence, to make rattlesnakes think a giant king snake is on the prowl. After all, king snakes kill rattlesnakes. My question is—if the snakes are already on campus, is keeping them from leaving a good idea?
Snakes will probably always drive some of us crazy. When I read about them in a blog, or dream about them, or tell my granddaughter how all things work for a natural balance and snakes are fine, I recognize that my real reactions to snake come from two emotions—fear and loathing. Nothing my sister says will ever change that…and I will no longer even attempt to get close enough one to identify it before screaming “ig” and running away.
Hey…with age comes wisdom.