Sunday, June 13, 2010

When it comes to wild animals in the house, I usually try and draw the line.

This past Sunday I had just returned home from a wacky weekend at the beach and I was watching the evening replay of the World Cup match between the US and England.  The English goalie had just goated a goal to tie the score and it seemed like a good time to grab a cold drink.

I headed for the kitchen and stopped dead in my tracks. Slithering along the baseboard in the main hallway of my house was a black snake the size of...well, it was big. I stared in utter amazement, wondering if I was hallucinating. I’ve had bats and birds get into the house before, but never a snake.
I cautiously walked over to my unwelcome guest to get a better look. It slowly coiled itself around the leg of a very expensive antique chair at the entrance to our dining room and then did that snake thing with its tongue, feeling the air and scoping me out with its unblinking, shiny black eyes.

I’m not afraid of snakes. In fact, I have had several close encounters with snakes over the years. I did field survey work for a long time out on the Kaibab National Forest near Grand Canyon, where I regularly crossed paths with the local rattlers and came to respect their predatory skill and never back down style.

As a general rule, most humans fear snakes. It’s bred in our bones, and fueled by the Bible and countless myths and stories about the evil and dangers surrounding the snake. But think for a minute how scary we must be to a snake. We must seem incredibly threatening, towering over the snake like a giant, like a tree. Now, throw in our hostile and unpredictable behavior, and it should be pretty clear that the snake has much more to fear from us than vice versa.
But what happens if a snake does attack? Well, a few years back I was doing a tough trek in a forgotten canyon called – I’m not making this up – Carcass Wash. It’s a beautiful oasis in the middle of the Waterpocket Fold in southern Utah. I had hiked down to Lake Powell for a swim and was into mile fourteen of a very hot fifteen mile hike. I had a Walkman on and was thinking about the chilled beers sitting in a cooler in my truck, when – BAM! – I suddenly felt a burning sensation on my left shin. Instinctively I recoiled sideways away from the danger. Facing me was a very angry rattlesnake that I had evidently just missed stepping on. He had defended himself by biting me in the leg. I looked down and could see two bloody fang marks above my right ankle.
I won’t regale you with what happened after that, but I can tell you that it never entered my mind to hurt that snake in retaliation, which, after all, was merely protecting itself. If I hadn’t been listening to head-pounder music and dreaming about beer, I would not have nearly squashed the poor creature. After getting treated with snake venom at the Escalante Hospital, I returned home with some very wild memories and a punch line delivered to friends and strangers alike for many months thereafter. “I didn’t get sick from the snake bite, but the snake died.”

The one thing I vividly remember about that snake in Carcass Wash was its defiance and complete lack of fear. It coiled itself into a tight ball and felt the air with its tongue as its tail rattled out an angry beat. “Bring it on!” it seemed to hiss.

As I looked at the uninvited black snake in my dining room, I was seeing that same face of steadfast survival. The black snake had stumbled into the great unknown and was faced with what surely seemed – and could have easily been – a life-threatening situation. But he was not backing down a bit.
I don’t have a lot of experience herding snakes. It’s just not a skill that we suburbanites have any real need to master. And out west there was always plenty of room to just run away.

So, I was faced with a dilemma. I didn’t want to hurt the snake, but I didn’t want it in my dining room either. So what was I to do?
We all have probably seen that Australian nut-job on TV in the black boots and khaki shorts, who went around grabbing the world’s most poisonous snakes and waving them at the camera like he was playing with a slinky toy -- that is, until a stinray stabbed in the friggin' heart and killed his stupid ass.  Crikey, Mate!  When he encountered a snake, he somehow gets his boot onto the top of it’s head and then quickly grabbed it behind the ears and lifed it up. It looked easy as pie. But as I considered that approach I was stymied by how you actually make that initial move, the one where you pin the snake’s head down – especially in bare feet. You see, the snake would definitely sense the foot move and strike as soon as my size twelve got into range.
A tool of some sort was needed. I looked around the kitchen and considered hand-tongs like you use for picking up spaghetti. They work for crabs, so why not snakes? I felt like an idiot, holding my little tongs, as I faced off against Mr. Snake – who I was now calling Blackie, because you really can’t play with a snake unless you can talk to them. I quickly came to the conclusion that sticking your hand in the face of a snake is even dumber than sticking out your foot.

I headed for the garage in search of some larger tool with which I could get rid of the black snake invading my kitchen. I considered a rake (too big and unwieldy), then a shovel (perfect for killing, but not shooing), and settled finally on a broom. For good measure, I picked up a golf club. On my way into the patio I left the door open so Blackie could have a straight shot out of the house. Using the broom as my primary mover I warily approached the snake. He tongued the air and slowly raised his head as if preparing to do battle.
What the heck was I doing, fighting with a snake in my kitchen? I just wanted to watch the soccer match.

I tried to push the snake toward the kitchen door with the broom. Blackie struck defiantly at his attacker. I used the golf club to try and sort of lift the back end of the snake along.

At this point Blackie decided to retreat and it slid behind the refrigerator. This was not good. The battle was degenerating into a “come and get me” disaster. I briefly wondered if there was a number I could call to get someone to come and rid me of my intruder – you know, like Snakebusters. But that clearly wasn’t happening on a Sunday night.

I bent down and looked under the refrigerator. I could see nothing. I stood up and said, “Blackie, go HOME!”

I went back to the library to check out the soccer match for a few minutes and settle my thoughtrs.  The americans were in full defensive mode and the English were peppering the U.S. goal relentlessly.

I returned to the kitchen and pulled the refrigerator out from the wall and peered into the open space, but Blackie was nowhere to be seen. After five minutes of searching and poking at everything in the kitchen and porch with my trusty golf club, it was clear that my snake friend had indeed gone home. He must have followed his own scent back out the way he came in. That’s very cool. I didn’t know snakes could do that.

I am still uncomfortable with opening up my home to the local wildlife. But then again, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of some of these darn crickets that are roaming around my house these days.

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