THE DIAMONDBACK SMILES FOR THE CAMERA
While many of you were vacationing, traveling, or just relaxing on your school's spring break, I was working at the Cochran Mill Nature Center. I had just finished a 14-week stint of subbing at the high school, standing in for a parapro who had foot surgery, then for a teacher on maternity leave. It was great to have regular work and I really worked hard, as I also worked part time at CMNC.
THE BALL PYTHON CHECKS OUT MY ARM
I enjoy working with the animals at CMNC and sometimes I took an animal to school for our weekly science class. The students (and teachers) enjoyed the animals, too, except for the few who were scared of reptiles. Many weren't afraid and several "recovered" from their fright enough to take an interest in (and even touch!) some of the reptiles.
MRS. CHRISTINE AND I ADMIRE A BALL PYTHON
One of the Special Needs teachers, Mrs. Christine, once owned a ball python. She eagerly anticipated seeing and handling the one I brought from the nature center. Ball pythons are popular pets among reptile lovers.
MRS. CHRISTINE TELLS ABOUT HER PET PYTHON
They're called "ball" pythons because of their propensity to make themselves into a tight ball when frightened. (A couple of teachers and students emulated the ball pythons while Mrs. Christine and I exhibited our visitor.) Apparently the python gathers itself into such a tight knot that you can roll it, but our big guy was relaxed and curious, wriggling through our hands and around our shoulders, testing the air with his tongue to check out his new surroundings.
So . . . after becoming somewhat comfortable with handling some of the non-venomous snakes a the nature center, during our school's spring break I began cleaning the cages of the rattlesnakes, water moccasin, and copperheads.
REPTILE RICK WITH THE DIAMONDBACK RATTLER
(WAY TOO HEAVY FOR LITTLE ME TO HANDLE. NOT THAT I'M SCARED OF IT.)
Reptile Rick removed the large diamondback and canebrake rattlesnakes and I cleaned their cages. Then, I asked Rick whether I might help remove and replace the pygmy rattlesnakes. He gamely said, "Sure," and instructed me (probably wringing his hands while he watched my awkward efforts) as I worked with the two small rattlers.
MY FIRST VENOMOUS SNAKE WRANGLING
(AH, THIS IS MORE MY SIZE!)
That went pretty well, so I watched as Rick removed the water moccasin or cottonmouth. After I finished sanitizing the cage, I picked up the large snake hook and gingerly looped the cottonmouth on it. She tended to slide off. I kept gently picking her up and finally lifted her clear of the bucket. As I tried several times to lift the water moccasin high enough to put her into the cage, she continually slithered around, threatening to slide off the stick! The rest is a blur, but eventually I got her safely into the sparkling clean cage; however not before she panicked and sprayed me with musk. Her tail whipped around and I felt a fine mist fall on me from my hair to my knees. Fortunately it didn't smell bad or strong. After the snake was in her cage, I got a paper towel and wiped my face, neck, and arms. No one seemed to think I stank, but I didn't go into the raptor enclosure for fear of scaring the big birds with my new musk.
With the copperhead, I used the snake tongs. It has a pinching action to grip the snake. My main thought was to hold the copperhead firmly, but gently. I didn't want to hurt any of the snakes through my inexperience. I am sure Rick aged a decade as I struggled to get the copperhead into its cage. Somehow the head got pointed OUT of the cage, and that's the direction the copperhead took. In the tense struggle to get it INTO the habitat, my left hand wanted to go up and help push the snake into the cage. Not a good maneuver. Rick instantly pointed that out to me. INSTANTLY. He didn't yell or hit me upside the head, though. The man must have the patience of a saint and nerves of steel.
HOOKING THE DIAMONDBACK
Anyway, finally all the venomous snakes were back in clean cages and I was ready for the non-venomous ones. With these I didn't use a snake stick. I just reached into the cage and picked up the snakes. Rick removed a "visitor" from the water snake's cage, then watched as I got both of the other water snakes out. At first I was tentative and a little scared, but did as Rick said and just confidently (HAHAHA!) wrapped my fingers around the snake, picked it up, and put it into the bucket. No prob! I cleaned that cage and replaced the snakes.
REPTILE RICK WRANGLES THE CANEBRAKE RATTLER
(NOTICE RICK IS KEEPING A SHARP EYE ON THE SNAKE!)
Then it was time for Gary and Ditto. These are big rat snakes. I they are both about 8 feet long. Gary is black and quite thick. Ditto is a "designer" snake, white with a black back. He is thinner than Gary. They were fighting that day. Their fights are quite slow and gentle. One guy slides on top of the other, right up to the heads, and they sort of push back and forth. We expected Gary to win, since he's bigger, but it looked like Ditto came out on top (so to speak).
GARY AND DITTO FIGHTING
Anyway, by this time Rick was busy outside, so he just came in long enough to help move the large cage to a low table and walked out saying, "Just reach in and get them. You'll be fine."
I have carried Gary to the classroom and back several times and he behaved wonderfully, so I should have felt quite confident. Still I felt a little anxious. . . But, as Rick instructed, I just reached in and got them. They were both so calm and gentle that it really wasn't a problem. After cleaning the cage, I put them back into it with aplomb, since I had been successful taking them out.
Now I feel ready to handle the snakes with much more assurance. But the next day I went to the doctor and got a tetanus shot . . . just in case.
UPDATE: Recently while Reptile Rick was away, Gary, the black rat snake, began biting Ditto, his roommate. The director, Maribeth, and I watched for a moment as Gary bit quite hard several times on a writhing Ditto. Maribeth called Rick, who said, "Just reach in there and remove one of them." Maribeth did so. She did NOT use welding gloves, but did JUST AS RICK SAID and boldly reached into a cage of fighting eight-foot snakes with her little bare hand, grabbed Ditto and took him to another cage. Hear that, Rick? She did NOT bring big brown welding gloves from downstairs (that reached almost to her elbows) and use them to drag Ditto from Gary's clutches. I helped by standing well away and pasting my hands over my mouth. Everything was fine. Just as Rick said.
MARIBETH AND CAMPERS ON A LESS SCARY DAY
GARY (L) AND DITTO (R) IN NEW, NON-COMBATIVE HABITATS