Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Great Snake Escape

So, while I'm thinking about snakes...

I grew up in the same town as I went to vet school in, and my step-dad was a professor at the University. Some of his research involved him doing fieldwork in the summers, in the caves and deserts of the southwestern U.S and in Mexico. Sometimes he (plus or minus a sibling or my mother, who would sometimes accompany him) would return with the unexpected: Handwoven woolen blankets form Mexico, beads and T-shirts from Oaxaca, a pillowcase full of bats brought back to establish a research colony. The bats were my favorite - all except the time when I opened the refrigerator to discover that several of them were wandering around loose inside. But that's another story.

One of the things my step-dad brought back from the field was a Sonoran bull snake. She was a beautiful patterned creamy gold and chocolate, spotted along her back and sides. Less wedge-shaped of head than a rattler, she could none the less, when threatened, flatten her head til it looked remarkably like that of a pit viper. Combined with a rattling hiss, an S-shaped striking posture and the rapid vibration of her tail, she could strengthen her rattler impersonation impressively - and did, until she became used to us. She was around three or so feet long when she first came to us. I'm not sure why my step-dad decided to bring her back, but she arrived cozily tucked up in a pillowcase knotted shut to keep her in. We were not allowed to handle her at first, in order not to stress her too much. My step-dad told us she wasn't a dangerous species - she could certainly strike and bite, if pressed, but had no venom - but she was to be allowed time to adjust before we handled her. A subgroup of the gopher snakes, she was of a robust breed, a constrictor that in the wild subsisted on mice, rats, gophers and other small rodents - although birds and eggs might also be eaten. The observation that bull snakes and rattlers rarely live in close proximity gave rise to the speculation that they might also eat baby rattlesnakes for breakfast (and let me tell yuo, this is not a job for wimps.) However, whether or not that is true, it is (apparently) true that where bullsnakes prosper, rattlers are rare.

We set her up in a large aquarium with a heat lamp, some rocks and coarse sand for landscaping, and a water dish made from the deep lid of a canning jar (which she frequently knocked over as she moved from basking spot to resting spot.) I will say she seemed to accept this change in circumstance with a minimum of fuss, being by and large a placid, easy-going sort of snake. If you put your hand into the cage to stroke her, she might merely flick her forked tongue at you, or she might lift her head and begin to twine about your arm. Certainly if you took her out, she'd wrap herself around you in a leisurely sort of fashion, looping around your arm or slipping her head between the buttons of your shirt to try to wrap about your waist. It's hard to say if she enjoyed being stroked along the sinuous line of her body, but she at least seemed to like it; she didn't shy from it, at any rate, and sometimes appeared to seek it by bringing her head near someone's hand. But perhaps she was just tasting our scents with her quick black tongue.

She was pleasant to touch, at any rate. Her scales were sleek and smooth as lacquered wood, and the incised overlapping pattern of them had a pleasing texture under our fingertips. She had a leisurely way of crawling along one's arm, and her muscular embrace was surprisingly satisfying in some visceral way. I find that one hard to explain, but it falls into the same category as the pleasure of feeling the strong, curved muscle along the crest of a horse or the rounded weight of my Finn-dog's thigh pressed against my toes when he lays at my bare feet. There's a pleasure in feeling the thoughtless vitality of other creatures, expressed even in stillness. Perhaps it reminds us of our own energies, rooted in every microscopic cell, inescapable no matter how banked they may be under the layers of civilization. We are, at the core of it, animals. All the sophistication in the world cannot erase the knowledge, echoing in our bones, that however unlike us they may be, these creatures are our brothers.

And so it was - for me, at least - with Missnake. As scaleless and warmblooded and hair-bearing as I am, I felt some kinship with her, and marvelled at her differences even as I felt our similarities. Hers was not the same sort of interaction as you'd get with a dog or a cat, but it had its own distinct pleasures none the less. Sometimes we took her for "walks" inside the house. It wasn't really a walk, since snakes have no legs (I know! Amazing!), but we'd hold onto the end of her tail and let her crawl around exploring the floors with us scooting along in her wake, bent double to let her use as much of her body as possible, gripping only the last inches of her tail. She was surprisingly fast on a level surface, so holding onto her tail was a necessity, lest she escape and find her way into some heating duct from which she could not be rescued.

She was fed a diet consisting mainly of mice. Since she wasn't doing her own hunting and was fed regularly, it wasn't that long before Missnake (a thoroughly unsuitable name, I thought, but it wasn't up to me) was approaching 5 feet in length. About the time she passed the 4.5 foot mark she became noticeably stronger, presumably in consequence of both increased girth and the increased length to leverage it. We'd wake up in the morning to find that the lid of her aquarium - which was constructed fairly heavily of pine firring strips and hardware cloth - had been shifted in the night.

My room was on the same floor as hers, very near where her aquarium rested, so often enough it was me who woke in the morning to discover that she'd shifted the lid sometime in the night. We tried weighting it with various items - a rock, a brick, a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica -but Missnake (shudder, that name) was both long enough and strong enough now that the inevitable happened. One night she managed to push aside the lid of her cage, volume XIV (W through Z) of the Encyclopedia Britannica notwithstanding. I woke up to see the lid askew and Missnake absent and unaccounted for.

Naturally I alerted the troops (parents and assorted siblings) and we searched the house. The house being three stories and 19 rooms, not counting closets, crawl space, attic, garage and various storage bins and cubbies, built-in and otherwise), this took some time - but we were, in the event, unsuccessful. We found not hide nor hair - nor scale nor scute - of her.

There was of course the possibility that she'd made it out of the house and gone walkabout (crawlabout? Slitherabout?) out in the countryside of Northern Colorado all on her lonesome. I'd have been sad about that; she was a nice snake, the name notwithstanding (and that was hardly her fault, after all), and I would have worried about her. (I know this is foolish - she came from the wild in the first place, and managed fine without us - but you know how it is. You take care of something, pet it and admire it, stroke its smooth lacquered scales and feel its sinuous muscularity hugging your arm, you get attached.)

On the other hand, the bull snake is the natural enemy of the rattler, so maybe if she'd escaped she might have saved me a certain amount of near-cardiac arrest later in life.

Still and all, we wanted to find her, so Steps Were In Order. My mother, who I will point out is no dummy, had a little think on the subject. First order of business, she figured, was to determine whether or not Missnake was still in the house. Accordingly she set up a handy Snake Motion Detection scheme. Bear in mind that this was back in the 1970's (Yes! I AM so old I'm almost mummified, why do you ask?) and the idea of using nanny cams and so on was not yet even a twinkle in some engineer's eyes. We were low-tech in those days - but creative, for all that, and my mom (having had to devise means of surviving the chaos of having more or less accidentally produced a large number of offspring possessed of varying amounts of abundant and unrestrained energy, not to mention a certain slant for the nefarious -and here I'm not mentioning any names, but I'm looking at you, MaskedMan!)... where was I? Oh, yes. My mom, as a matter of self-preservation, had had plenty of practice in the use of her creative talents. Being a logical sort, she figured that (being as how she was a snake and all) Missnake could not move from one room to the next without dragging her length along the floor. Hence the Snake Detection System: a line of flour sprinkled across the threshold of every room in the house. In the morning, every flour line was inspected for telltale drag marks. Every evening, it was repaired from the scuffs and disturbances of having five children, a dog and a cat traipsing about the house.

It was soon apparent, from a smear of flour between the family room and the utility room, that Missnake was indeed still in the house. Based on the direction of flour drag, the utility room -with its built-in cubbies and laundry bins and boot box and closet - was thoroughly inspected, without good result. Flashlights were shined into and under every likely and unlikely spot, but no luck: Missnake seemed to have been taking lessons from Mata Harri, and was nowhere to be found.

This state of affairs continued for several days. Then, at last, a break in the case: My mother, alone at home after the rest of the inmates were off variously at school or work, happened into the utility room, intent on doing some laundry, and chanced to look at the washing machine just in time to see the end of Missnake's tail disappearing under the edge.

Too late to grab her, my mom got down on the floor and pressed her eye to the space under the machine, just in time to see the shadow of the long, muscular body working its way up along the barrel of the washer. Concluding that Missnake had found a handy perch up near the top of the barrel, Mom got to her feet and inspected the top of the washer. Clearly the solution was to take the top off the washing machine, but how?

Well, the obvious first move was to call Sears (it was a Kenmore washer) and talk to their service department. Accordingly, Mom dialed them up and was soon on the line with one of the service technicians.

"Hi. I have a Kenmore washing machine," my mom began, relaying the make and model to the tech. "I need to know how to take the top off of it."

There is a pause. "Why do you want to know, lady?" asks the technician (or words to that effect, presumably wondering what kind of crackpot he has on the phone. Someone who wants to use their machine for making illegal hooch, perhaps? Or maybe someone newly arrived from living in a cave, who doesn't understand how to operate a washing machine? Or perhaps some foolish do-it-yourselfer, who is unaware that Sears would happily send someone to the house to service the machine?)

"Because our five-foot-long bull snake just went up inside the machine and is currently wrapped around the barrel, and I'd like to get her out," my mom says, with some asperity.

"Oh," says the technician, his demeanor shifting abruptly away from suspicious and skeptical and towards direct and businesslike. "Well, you'll need a Phillip's head screwdriver. The first thing you'll want to do..." and he proceeded to give clear instructions in an orderly fashion.

Strangely, he did not offer to drive right out, take the machine apart and extract the snake himself. I can't think why not.

However, my mom was more than equal to this task, and we all arrived home from school that day to see Missnake resting comfortably under her heat lamp, with four volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica and a cinder block stacked atop the lid of her aquarium. Mom regaled us with her adventures of the day, we all pressed our grubby little noses to the glass of the aquarium and welcomed Missnake back (offering her a celebratory mouse as a welcome home present), and harmony reigned. Until I had a thought.

"But what if she gets loose again?" I said.

"Don't worry. Your step-dad is going to make a better lid for the aquarium this weekend. Aren't you, dear?" she said, with emphasis. My step-dad agreed that yes, indeed, he would absolutely love to do that, giving the impression that he had in fact been longing for such an opportunity and was only too thrilled to be provided with an excuse to engineer something of the sort.

I don't recall exactly what modifications were made, but I do recall that the lid to the aquarium was a lot bulkier after that.

That was Missnake's last Walkabout in the house. After a couple of years, when she was as large and robust a snake as a steady diet of mice could make her, my step-dad was again going back to her neck of the woods for another field season. It was decided that it was time for Missnake's tenure in our household to come to an end. Her aquarium was getting to be too small to accomodate her powerful length, and she seemed increasingly interested in escaping to go exploring. Accordingly, she was tenderly cuddled up again and carefully transported back to the desert of the southwest, where she was returned to her old stomping (or slithering) grounds, robust and healthy and ready to terrorize the diamondbacks of Arizona.

I imagine she's long gone to dust, but I remember her fondly. I was never afraid of snakes, but she taught me to appreciate them in more immediate and personal terms, and for that I thank her even now. She left behind her other lessons, as well: how to walk a snake, build a snake detection system, and get the top off a Kenmore washing machine, amongst them. Not to mention that if you should wish to contain a determined reptile, it will take at least four volumes of the Encylopedia Britannica to do so.

They do say knowledge is power, and I guess that's proof, of a sort. But it might also be proof that the stubborn vitality of life will continue to rise up when least expected and push aside any number of layers of knowledge and sophistication to have its way. There's a certain loveliness to that, a reassurance that settles in the pit of my being, an anchor against the more disheartening tides of the modern world. No matter what we do, life will have its way - and keep on having its way, no matter how we try to keep a lid on it.

Not a bad legacy for one little snake.


MaskedMan said...

Nefarious..? Moi..?!
But of course! It is, after all, a little brother's sacred and beholden duty to be nefarious!

I never used the 'Missnake' construction - I always have used 'Miss Snake' - seems more respectful.

As you, I very much enjoyed her - She was calm and docile and patient - A paragon of serpentine virtue. There was something just 'right' about having her curled in a double-bight across your shoulders, under you collar, or having her twine up your arm, under your sleeve, and poking her head out of your collar. Plus it gave certain other neighborhood kids the willies. Which was fun.

She was HUGE for her species when she left, and was likely a serious shock to the rattlers in her community when released - Monster Bullsnake on the loose!

Hope this doesn't double post (Blogger ate the previous entry, apparently).

AKDD said...

Supposedly they can get up to 9 feet long (!) but four(ish) is more usual.

Anonymous said...

I loved that story--thanks for sharing!

I need orange said...

"Knowledge is power" ---------- tee hee....... :-) :-) :-)

I like snakes. I don't like bugs, especially ones that have designs on my person or my belongings, but snakes? I have no problems with them. Easy for me to say, I guess, since we don't really have any issues with poisonous snakes in Michigan.

Dragon43 said...

Pictures, Oh come on, pictures.......

Great chapter.

Barb said...

We used to have a good sized bull snake living in the barn. It could be startling to turn a corner and find him, but he was a most welcome resident!! Best rodent control you can get!

AKDD said...

Thx, guys, glad you enjoyed it!

And Barb, yeah - great rodent control, with the added benefit that they're great rattler control too!

Della said...

Loved this story! It evoked childhood memories and an affection for a snake I never knew. I'm tickled by your aversion to "Missnake," because I'm that way about names that just feel wrong too.
So glad you're writing more these days!

Anonymous said...

I always went with Miss Snake in my head, too. And I can still remember the smooth strength thing, and the feel of her muscles flexing as she made her way up my arm. Nice memories.