Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why would anyone want to keep a snake?

A recent news article published in Florida--and circulated on the web--quoted several keepers who attribute their fascination with snakes to a thrill that comes from owning "dangerous" animals. They say they get off on handling "something that could kill you." This, for the most part, is a load of manure. It's true that there will always be a narrow slice of the population who finds validation in owning a venomous snake just because it's venomous, or a giant constrictor just because it could get big enough to kill a human. It's the same as people who keep pit bulls because of their violent reputation.

So what do most snake lovers see in the scaly, cold-blooded creatures?

Speaking for myself, snakes, like all reptiles, are interesting on several levels. Even though we have a dog and some cats, I'm not big on the traditional slobbery, stinking, hairball pets. My preference is cool, smooth and hypo-allergenic. To me, watching and handling snakes is relaxing. A smooth-scaled snake, such as a kingsnake or ball python, feels like living glass as it glides through your hands and over your arms. Creeped out? Don't be. It's like a massage. In fact, some spas in foreign countries are using snakes in their massage treatments to great effect. Closer to home snakes are being used to encourage interaction among nursing home patients and to calm patients in psychiatric facilities.

Another turn-on for me is the variety of color. In Honduran milk snakes alone one can see a glossy riot of rings ranging in color from red to orange and white to yellow...all separated by jet black. And that doesn't even include the color-affecting morphs. Albinos, anerythristics, hypos and extreme hypos produce insanely bright oranges and whites, grays and silvers.

Corn snakes come in over one hundred color and pattern morphs, as do ball pythons. Reticulated pythons are catching up.

Even in wild-type (non-morph) specimens there is tremendous variety. One keeper, Thomas Davis, says. " baseball cards, but alive. How cool is that?"

I couldn't agree more.

As living creatures, consider how snakes thrive without limbs. How they survive on all continents except Antarctica. How they live from sea to mountain to desert. This interests many of us. As does the fact that species of boas and pythons contain the remnants of a pelvic girdle and tiny spurs...the last vestiges of legs. There is a certain fascination in watching a snake eat, unhinging the jaws and swallowing prey whole. And in realizing how efficient the snake's digestive tract is, breaking down even hair and bone. And did you know they smell with their tongues?

Then there is the satisfaction of caring for a living thing. Snakes, in general, are easy and rewarding to keep, making it easy to have several. And that's a good thing, because keeping snakes is addictive.

Finally, some people have an attraction for things outside the mainstream. We root for the underdog or revel in the music of an underground band. We enjoy trying to understand the misunderstood. Snakes have always been special to me. Even after dabbling in turtles, lizards and frogs I've always returned to the legless, the narrow fellows in the grass.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Snake in the Grass

While mowing the grass this morning I came across a welcome visitor: a hognose snake. When disturbed, these harmless hams put on a great show. First comes the hissing and puffing. They inflate their already fat bodies to twice their normal girth, then expel the air with an intimidating hiss. To enhance the menacing illusion, they flatten their heads in a cobra-like display. Sound scary? It's all a bluff; they don't even bite people!
If the scare tactics fail, hognose snakes have one more card to play: they will often play dead, flipping onto their backs, convulsing and flopping their tongues onto the dirt before "expiring." The funniest part is that if you flip them over, they will roll onto their backs again as if to say, "no, really, I'm dead." As kids, my brothers and I loved seeing how many times we could get these snakes to roll over.
I was hoping this one would go through the whole act, but all he did was huff and puff...and poop all over my hands. I kept him inside long enough to finish mowing and snap a few pictures before returning him to the yard so he could hunt for toads tonight. Hognose snakes use their upturned snouts to dig into toad burrows and pull out their prey.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Baby Hondos

These baby Honduran milk snakes hatched in September. I have two of the tri-colors left for sale. The tangerine is sold.

King Snake

My mom used to be deathly afraid of snakes. So when she picked up a shovel and killed the speckled king snake in our backyard, she had no idea that the next year she would be buying me the exact same thing for my birthday. I think I was twelve or thirteen. It was early summer and talk had turned to my birthday (I probably turned it that way). Where the idea came from I don't know. Was it the king snake book I'd checked out from the LeBlanc Middle School library? Was it the kid at summer camp who had talked about his own pet king snake? Maybe it was the memory of that snake my mom had killed. Somehow I got it in my head that I needed a king snake.

The pet shop was called Peaceable Kingdom and was run by a couple of old hippies. They were weird, for sure, but nice enough. One thing I remember is that it was the cleanest pet shop I've ever entered. Even though they had cats, my allergies never flared up in that place; that's how clean they kept it. It smelled of fresh corn cob bedding.

My mom had reluctantly agreed to buy me a snake for my birthday, so we went to Peaceable Kingdom, the only local pet store that dealt in reptiles, to ask questions and look around. They showed me their stock of speckled kings and I was hooked! Such shiny awesomeness! Alas, I had to wait. My birthday had not arrived, and besides, even the meager $35 price tag was a big deal in those days. The waiting was unbearable. I fantasized about raising my very own king snake. About holding it and showing it to my friends.

Just before my birthday we went back to Peaceable Kingdom. I darted from cage to cage. Where were the king snakes? There were corn snakes. Rosy boas. Boa constrictors. Iguanas. Where was my speckled king snake? The hippy-wife came around to help us. My heart pounded as my mom timidly asked about the snake. I knew what the lady was going to say. I knew all the beautiful, gleaming speckled king snakes had been sold.

"Oh, I remember you!" she said. "We have one left."

I don't remember ever being so elated about a snake as when that lady emerged from the storeroom holding my first king snake.

After my mom paid the bill and we were leaving with my snake and a few supplies, I heard the lady call from behind me.

"Happy birthday!" I turned to say thank you and she handed me a book. "Here you go." It was the T.F.H. Book of Snakes, by Thomas Leetz. I was overjoyed!

I looked at that book--and read and re-read it-- until the pages started falling out and and I could quote my favorite parts. After over twenty years the snake is long gone, but I still take down the TFH Book of Snakes from time to time, flip through the pages and think about those magical days.

Thanks, Mom. And thanks, Hippy-wife.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

First Snake

It was a sunny day around 1980, which would put me about five years old. I was riding in a dusty sky-blue '72 Chevy pickup called Blue-tcher, a name I had given it when I was a toddler because I couldn't say "blue truck." My father was driving. The road was probably somewhere in the reforested area between Sulphur and DeQuincy, Louisiana. We were most likely on one of my dad's scouting trips--he was always on the lookout for new hunting spots--or maybe we were just out for a ride so he could relieve some stress. I would learn all about driving to relieve stress later in my life.

A seemingly inconsequential thing happened then, but it was something that would ultimately make a huge impact on the rest of my life: a ribbon snake shot across the road in front of the truck.

"Get it for me, Daddy!" I didn't think he really would. But then he was out, the truck barely stopped, he cleared the ditch in a leap and landed on the snake an instant before it would have disappeared behind a barbed-wire fence. Seconds later it was in my hand, biting and musking. My first snake.

I don't remember what ever happened to that snake. I'm sure it escaped (perhaps with help from my mom) or died due to my lack of experience. I DO know that it was followed by a number of other ribbon snakes over the years and that it sparked an interest in reptiles that has never waned.

My father was never into reptiles, but that didn't stop him from bringing home the occasional turtle, lizard or snake for me. Anything scaly that he found on a construction site was destined to be loved by his little boy.

Thanks, Dad.