April 8, 2011
It’s an odd coincidence that, on the same day I heard the cobra that escaped from the Bronx Zoo had been recaptured alive and well I found a dead garter snake in my yard. The garter snake was clearly a young one, only about eight inches long, with a pistachio-green stripe running down his back. He was curled up. The days are warm now , but the nights are cold and I’m afraid that’s what got him. I have vague memories of visiting the Bronx Zoo as a child. I don’t remember the reptile house, but I do remember in one of the open areas finding a dollar, holding it up, and yelling, "Did someone lose this?" But that’s another story. I must have been born with a love of snakes. When I first saw the animated version of Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi I cried over the deaths of Nag and Nagaina. Maybe it’s genetic. My grandfather loved snakes, although, to be more precise, he loved putting them in the middle of the sidewalk where my grandmother would see them and run screaming. Finding a dead snake always makes me sad. It takes me back to when I was only five or six and used to play in a vacant lot behind my house. One day I found a dead boa constrictor in the drainage ditch. Even at that point I’d read everything about snakes I could get my hands on so I recognized this magnificent creature and thought it must have escaped and died of exposure. Now I wonder if it hadn’t been "released" by some bonehead who didn’t know what he was getting into when he impulsively bought a young, beautiful snake. A few years later I’d have a happier encounter with a boa constrictor. The local children’s museum had a small menagerie of animals. Most of them were local wildlife that had been injured and rescued-a possum that had been brought in with a broken leg, a hawk or owl that had a damaged wing. There was also a massive snapping turtle in an aquarium, and a collection of snakes, including a boa named Lydia. I was part of a lucky group that got to have our pictures taken with the animal of our choice. The snapping turtle wasn’t available so I went with Lydia, who I draped over my shoulders as though we were in a music video. The woman taking the pictures was using an old fashioned Instamatic camera, and when she went to develop the film she turned out the lights leaving me in the dark with a great big snake draped over my shoulders. Most people would find being in the dark with a snake pretty terrifying, but Lydia just put her head down and, I think, went to sleep.
A few years after that I got a pet snake of my own-a garter snake I named Slither.Slither liked to strike at my hand every time I opened the cage, although I was usually holding his food, so I don’t think it was anything personal. After a while Slither outgrew his cage so I released him in a wooded area where, I hope, his descendants still live. Being a native I think Slither would fare better than a non-native boa would. Slither and Lydia were, of course, non-poisonous, but I had my encounters with poisonous snakes as well-three in one week, even. Every summer I spent a week at a place called Camp Ozone, in East Tennessee, which is home to three types of poisonous snakes. I’m pleased to say that I’ve met them all. The first night of one of my weeks at Camp Ozone I was walking back to my cabin when my flashlight caught something slithering along the ground. "Snake!" I yelled, wanting to share the experience with my fellow campers. I would have kept my mouth shut if I’d known a couple of counselors with sticks would come running and kill it. I don’t think they even knew until it was dead that it was a copperhead. Okay, copperheads are poisonous, but it was just crossing the path, and if I’d been a little bit later or a little bit earlier leaving the dining hall we probably wouldn’t have met. A few days later down by the lake someone spotted a cottonmouth, also known as a water moccasin, although I wouldn’t want to put my foot near one. My mother used to be afraid of me catching snakes because she was concerned I’d catch a poisonous one. I assured her I could tell poisonous snakes by their vertical pupils, and she’d always say, "If you’re close enough to see their eyes it’s too late!" I never got a good look at the cottonmouth’s eyes, but there was no need-there was no mistaking the thick, black body and arrow- shaped head. There’s more than one way to tell a poisonous snake. The night of the big campfire I was sent to collect firewood, and, in a clearing off the path, I found a large pile of timber with a curled up rattlesnake on top of it. He was big enough that, even outside of striking distance, I could see his vertical pupils. He glared at me balefully and seemed to be saying, "Keep your mouth shut, kid." I did. I went looking elsewhere for firewood. My most memorable snake encounter, though, was in Florida. Down there you find a lot of exotic species that boneheaded people buy and then release and which then, thanks to the climate, breed and threaten the locals, but I was lucky enough to meet a local, specifically a hognose snake. It was trapped in a rain gutter next to the road, so I got off my bike and helped it out. Hognose snakes are non-poisonous but they like to put on a show of impersonating their poisonous cousins. This one thanked me for helping it out by hissing and puffing up and even pretending to strike, falling just short of where I was standing. It was quite an entertaining show, but since it failed to satisfy me the snake resorted to its next trick of playing dead. And when that didn’t work it held up a dollar and said, "Did you lose this?"