Confession time: I LOVE SNAKES. Big ones, little ones, local species, exotic species, I think they are all adorable. I have loved them since I was a small child, as far back as I can remember. I am not sure exactly how this happened. My dear mother (who turns 86 TODAY, Happy Birthday Mom! - and please don't read the rest of this blog post because it is going to creep you out big time!) is terrified of snakes. Not just a little bit, either. She doesn't like to look at them, be in the same room with them, see them on TV, or look at their pictures in a book. My Dad tolerated the nonvenomous species, but would kill any copperhead or cottonmouth that wandered into the yard. If he saw a nonvenomous snake, he would use a stick or broom to make it slither away before Mom saw it. But he had no interest in studying them, handling them, or otherwise interacting with them.
And somehow this sweet Texas Baptist couple produced ME. Even as a child, I loved snakes; I loved watching nature shows about them, reading books about them, looking at them in the zoo or wildlife park, and watching them if I saw one in the wild. I remember the first snake I ever held; I was around 8 years old and we were at Big Bend National Park at a reptile show, and the park ranger was passing around some small kingsnake or other. I let it slither from hand to hand, looking into its unblinking eyes and feeling the tickle of its tongue on my skin until finally the woman sitting next to me told me to quit hogging the reptile!
A year or two after that, Mom and Dad got me a copy of Roger Conant's FIELD GUIDE TO REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS OF EASTERN NORTH AMERICA, which included our half of Texas. After that it was off to the races! I captured every non-venomous snake I saw and measured it and recorded the details in a notebook I bought for that purpose. If I found a copperhead or moccasin on our place, I would kill it and then record its vitals. I must have captured and recorded over a hundred reptiles and amphibians over a three year period, until my interest in Indian Arrowheads gradually crowded out my budding career as a herpetologist. But I still caught every snake, lizard, turtle, or frog that I could, even if I no longer logged them in my notebook.
But there was one thing I could not do as a kid, and that was have a snake as a pet. I begged, I pleaded, but Mom was inflexible. Lizards were OK, salamanders fine, even a pet tarantula and a baby caiman at one point (South American alligator), but NO snakes. No matter how tiny or inoffensive, they were met at the door with a firm refusal. So I played catch and release throughout my teen years.
As an adult, I got my first pet snake almost as soon as Patty and I got a place of our own - a fat, friendly ball python named Monty. He was my girl's constant companion growing up; he was between 3 and 4 feet long and they would run through the house when they were little, with him draped over their shoulders like a scarf! He lasted until they were around 12 years old, finally dying of old age. Nowadays I have three pet snakes in my classroom: An albino corn snake named Napoleon, a San Luis Potosi Kingsnake named Osiris, and a gorgeous Brookes' Kingsnake named Onyx. They are all very tame, and my students love to get them out and play with them. And of course, I will still get out of the car to help a snake across the road any time I see one, and if it's a rat snake I bring it back to our place and let it go so it can keep the mice and rats away.
Which leads me to this afternoon's adventure. I had been home from school for a good bit, had already eaten supper, and was chilling out in front of the computer when Patty came in and said: "Big snake in the yard!" (Patty is not afraid of snakes at all, although she's not as crazy about them as I am.) I asked her to show me, and sure enough, there was a dandy Texas Rat Snake, about 4 - 5 feet long, about ten feet from her car, its head raised up off the ground surveying its path. I grabbed it by the tail, let it thrash a minute, and then eased my other hand under its body to support its weight. (One thing I learned from the late lamented Steve Irwin is that snakes are much less likely to bite when you pick them up by the tail.) After he had calmed down a bit, I used my free hand to grasp the snake behind the head and told Patty to take a few pictures. I was holding the snake towards the camera, posing and hamming it up; the snake's tail, which was free, was twisting around my body trying to find a firm hold - and suddenly it went down the sleeve of my t-shirt! By the time I realized what was happening, the snake had managed to back 2/3 of his body length down my shirt and around my torso. OK, it was fine, I wasn't freaking or anything. But after getting home from school I had changed into a very comfortable pair of old sweatpants. And I hadn't bothered to tie the drawstrings, so the waistband was really loose. The snake's wriggling tail was quick to discover another place it could fit through, and suddenly I realized that there was a scaly, slithery reptile tail trying to wrap itself around my buttocks!
Patty was starting to laugh really hard now, and even though I was still holding the snake by the head, 2/3 of his length was now inside my shirt (or worse!). Of course, once a snake gets inside your shirt, they are almost impossible to dislodge by pulling on them. They will wrap their tail around the fabric and pull the shirt off of your back if you yank too hard! So I swallowed hard and let him go, and immediately he draws his head all the way back into my sleeve, then switches direction and starts crawling out from under the back of my shirt - mercifully, choosing NOT to go down my pants leg! Patty is really cracking up now, squeaking between laughs: "You have a TAIL!! and your tail has a head!" But the last 1/3 of the snake was still inside my waistband, and his head wasn't quite reaching the ground, so he wouldn't let go! Between cackles my wife advised me: "Flex your knees so he can reach the ground!"
I did as she said, and once he had a good purchase on the driveway, the last of the recalcitrant reptile crawled free of my rear regions and hit the ground, while poor Patty was holding her sides laughing and commenting: "It looked like you just pooped out a snake!" (Thanks, dear, that was very helpful!)
At any rate, the reptilian crisis wasn't over yet. I was following the rat snake as he crawled across the yard, just enjoying the smooth and effortless way snakes can move when they are in a hurry - and suddenly he goes under my Nissan XTerra. No big deal, I walked around to the other side and waited for him to come out - only he DIDN'T! Looking for a secure place to hide from the strange creature who had terrorized him, the wily serpent had crawled up into my wheel well! I checked under the car to make sure that he wasn't anywhere near the engine fan, and then started the car and left it running for a bit. Sure enough, he started to emerge, then saw me and ducked back under the car. I went after him, but before I could get a good grip he bit me on the hand and slithered upwards into the engine compartment. I tried lifting the hood and getting to him from that side, and he bit me AGAIN! Now, let me say, rat snake bites really don't hurt. Even this nearly five foot long snake has tiny little teeth that can barely break human skin. But by now the snake was irritated and I was too, so I used my wife's car to run the errand I had been planning and let the snake have all the time he needed to climb down and crawl away.
I hope he is gone by morning.