Volume 12, Issue 33 ~ August 12 -18, 2004
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Bay Life
by Steve Car

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

Just back from a wacky weekend at the beach, I was watching the evening replay of the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong and Team Postal were steadily moving up the grueling Plateau De Beille in the Pyrenees, and it seemed like a good time to grab a cold drink.

Heading for the kitchen, I stopped dead in my tracks. Slithering along the baseboard in the main hallway was a black snake the size of … well, it was big. I stared in amazement, wondering if I was hallucinating. I’ve had bats and birds get into the house before, but never a snake.

I cautiously walked 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. Then it did that snake thing with its tongue, feeling the air and scoping me out with its unblinking, shiny black eyes.

Bit Once
I’m not afraid of snakes. We’ve gotten close over the years. I did field survey work 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, 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 like a giant, like a tree. 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.

What happens if a snake does attack? 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 in mile 14 of a very hot 15-mile hike. I had a Walkman on and was thinking about the chilled beers sitting in a cooler in my truck, when — BAM! — I 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, 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 — albeit a lie — delivered to friends and strangers alike for months thereafter: “I didn’t get sick, but the snake died.”

The thing I vividly remember about that snake in Carcass Wash was its defiance and 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.

Divided Attention
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 easily could have been — a threat to its life. But it was not backing down.

I don’t have a lot of experience herding snakes. It’s just not a skill that we suburbanites need to master. Out West, I’d always had 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. What was I to do?

I went to see how Lance was fairing on his ride up what appeared to be Mount Everest without the snow.

Team Postal was cutting through the competition like a blue, pedal-driven knife. It was hard to tell what might happen, but Lance was looking strong and seemed to be well positioned. The announcer predicted a grueling last 10 miles and a close finish.

When I went to check on Mr. Snake again, I discovered that he had moved into the kitchen. This was definitely progress, but I still had no idea how to handle my snake problem.

We’ve all seen on TV that Australian nut-job in the black boots and khaki shorts who goes around grabbing the world’s most poisonous snakes and waving them at the camera like he’s playing with a slinky toy. When he encounters a snake, he somehow gets his boot onto the top of its head, quickly grabs it behind the ears and lifts it up. It looks easy. 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. The snake would definitely sense the foot move and strike as soon as my size 12 got into range.

A tool of some sort was needed. I 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 Mr. Snake, who I was now calling Blackie, because you really can’t play with a snake unless you can talk to it. I quickly concluded that sticking your hand in the face of a snake is even dumber than sticking out your foot.

So I detoured around the infuriated snake and went to check on Lance.

The sheer Spanish mountain was chewing up the riders and spitting them out, but Lance and three rivals were still muscling their way to the top.

Headed for the garage in search of some larger tool, I considered a rake (too big and unwieldy), then a shovel (perfect for killing, but not shooing) before settling 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. 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 bike race.

Two Triumphs
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 to lift the back end of the snake along.

That’s when Blackie retreated 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 like Snakebusters to come and rid me of my intruder. 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!” Then I headed for the den to watch the final few kilometers of the bike climb.

It was now a two-man race as Lance and an Italian rider named Ivan Basso pushed themselves up the steep, snaking mountain as thousands of flag-waving spectators cheered like lunatics. With less than a kilometer to go, the two cyclists were riding side-by-side as Lance deftly made his move, breaking away from Basso with an amazing burst of speed and crossing the finish line first with his fists pumping the air in victory.

It was time to go battle Mr. Blackie again. For good.

I 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, I concluded 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 I wouldn’t mind getting rid of some of these darn crickets roaming around inside these days.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.