I used to be a bit of a sissy when it came to snakes, and by extension nearly all reptiles. A few of my childhood friends had pet snakes of course, but I never even got into going to the reptile house at the zoo truth be told. The only reptiles I liked were turtles, and they are so different as to be considered by most of us as a separate group, incorrect as that notion is. So turtles were the only reptiles we kept as kids. We even dug a nice little pond in the backyard and filled it with water for those box turtles who were “lucky” enough to be saved from predators in the nearby woods.
I taught science some years ago in an outdoor setting, a semi-desert chock-full of snakes and lizards. I simply had to overcome my distaste at touching snakes at that point, since the school-kids who I taught there would have never taken me seriously if they knew I was afraid of reptiles. I learned that handling a large gopher snake was not at all as unpleasant as I had believed. Like anything you just need to go slow and get used to it. It did not take me as long as I expected it would to get over my aversion to the slimy-muscular feel of their skin.
I encountered plenty of rattle snakes on this job as well, and there were a couple close calls. One dark evening I was approached by a young girl, just as I was packing up a telescope after an observing session. She said there was a rattle-snake in their cabin. I was skeptical but went up the hill to find all of them standing outside in their jammies, beyond excited (imagine a group of school girls on a camping trip and you have the picture). I scoured the cabin but found nothing. On the way out, smirking at yet another city-kid over-reaction to being in the outdoors, I heard the tell-tale rattle. I shone the flashlight around and heard it again, coming from underneath the eaves of the A-frame cabin. I crouched down and there he was, a big rattler coiled and glaring at me.
I moved the girls further away, getting their slightly less-panicky chaperone to keep watch on them while I fetched a snake stick. This is a pole with a sort of grabber on the end. It allows you to grasp a snake behind its head and capture it without getting too close. I then crouched down and while shining the flashlight with one hand reached under and slowly approached the snake with the snake stick. Just when I thought he was mine, he decided to make his move. He slithered right for me. Since I was laying on the ground, I couldn’t move out of the way quickly enough and had to make a capture attempt before I was ready. Luckily my coordination was with me that night and I got him. I don’t like to think about the alternative, with that big ugly snake wanting out of there with nothing in his way but my big ugly face.
Since then, I have gotten close to some fairly impressive snakes and reptiles. There was one in southern Nepal, a rock python who had recently consumed a deer. This was the biggest snake I’ve ever seen. And my guide, who grew up around there, had never seen a bigger one. He estimated it was at least 7 meters long! I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo and this one was bigger than any they have.
In Venezuela, I got pretty close to a fer de lance, the deadliest snake in the Americas (see image). I saw a black mamba crossing the road in South Africa, and got much closer to a boomslang (see image). And in Indonesia I visited the islands of the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard. It is very disquieting watching these monsters watch you. The look they give you is unmistakable: they are waiting for you to make a mistake, just calmly waiting for you to become their dinner.
On a hike recently in the eastern Columbia River Gorge near home in Oregon, I saw a couple snakes and an alligator lizard (see images above). It’s been a long winter and a long time since I’ve seen a reptile. I suppose I am completely over any lingering fear of snakes and lizards. Now all they do is make me smile, as I know they are harbingers of warm sunny afternoons ahead. In addition, they are fascinating creatures, real holdovers from Earth’s bygone days. All they want is a slow-paced lifestyle with plenty of sunbathing. What’s not to love?
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