You can have your “Cinderella” or “Snow White” or Sleeping Beauty”. When I was a child, I didn’t go to bed at night dreaming of princes or princesses or happily ever after. I went to bed dreaming of Baby birds, fawns, foxes and flying squirrels. I still do.
I’m a wildlife rehabilitator. I tell people this and get a blank look in response. I try to be humorous and say that I rehabilitate wildlife, but only if they are really ready to change. The look goes from blank to suspicious. I offer to show them whatever baby animal I am carrying in my ever present basket or purse and they back away. I actually had a check out girl run off screaming when a baby squirrel I had forgotten was in my overalls pocket, pooked his head out to say hello. It’s ok. I’m used to it. My husband, “the Saint” is not. He cringes a lot.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve done this. Long before we needed licenses from the state to possess wildlife, I’ve possessed it. It was usually in my top dresser drawer. You never knew what you would find in there. Most of the time, there was a cord from a blue heating pad trailing to the nearest outlet. It was to keep warm the assortment of baby birds, newborn cottontails, chipmonks and well, the ocasional snake that temporarily occupied the drawer. My mother learned to never open it. Snakes made her scream….they still do.
So here I am, some fifty years later, still taking in baby or injured wild life. Thankfully, they reside in an assortment of cages, baskets and boxes both outdoors and in my studio. You never really know what you’ll find here at any given time. I take in everything from fawns to bob cats and still, the occasional snake. (yes, they get injured too) If it’s a busy day or I will be in martial arts or belly dance class late, I have to take them with me. Baby birds have to be fed about every 20 minutes, daylight to dusk and it’s pretty tough to find a babysitter for birds….or snakes for that matter.
My husband “Jim the Saint” puts up with it all, or as my mother did, he has simply given up and embraced the lifestyle. He builds cages. He holds down injured fawns while I stitch them up or set broken legs. He casually brushes the odd kitten off the counter or calmly herds the errant raccoon back out the door. Like my mother, he hates snakes. He hasn’t ventured into the crawl space without a stick since the two foot milk snake escaped. I mostly feel bad for him, but in all honesty, sometimes that’s where the fun begins.
The word snake nearly begs to be written in capitol letters or bold typeface. Seldom is the word uttered in a normal tone of voice or volume. Frequently it is heard shrieked as an exclamation or shouted in warning. Sometimes it is spoken with a grimace or shudder. Always, the word is bathed in emotion. People feel strongly about snakes. I don’t know anyone who views them with ambivalence. They are either staunch defenders of the species, touting their virtues as vermin and insect eaters, or the type who has never viewed one without their feet moving rapidly in the opposite direction. I personally, know some people to whom the mere mention of the word “snake” will send them searching for the nearest long handled weapon.
I have always taken the defenders side with snakes. While never actually being able to say I am fond of them, I have respect and a general lack of fear towards them. That is, as long as I know where they are and they do not surprise me. Garter snakes lying in the middle of my garden soaking up sunshine are fine. Sneaky blue racers hiding under the front step waiting to shoot up your skirts are something else.
My father lived in a rather dilapidated house. He was not high on the handyman scale and to his dying day never noticed that there was a “Home Depot” only 10 miles away. Come to think of it, he wasn’t exactly in the lawn maintenance business either; his grass was tall and unmowed and resembled a scraggly meadow…in a drought. The front stoop to his house was a two step affair with one step missing. It was wooden and I’m sure, once had all its boards intact. It was fashioned such that you grasped the door handle as you leaned forward to take the first step. Since that was the step that was missing, you probably leaned heavily as you clung to the door handle for support. I was in this process one day when a large blue racer, obviously startled by the speed of my arrival, shot straight up through the absent step and under my long full “prairie” skirt. I’m not sure if he actually wrapped around my leg or just became tangled in the skirt, but it required some pretty fierce dancing on my part to get him out. I never went into my father’s house again without first throwing one of the handily ready beer bottles at the steps.
My mother, is of the “SNAKE! Good God get the hoe!” variety. I must have put her through fits with the endless numbers of pets of the tubular variety I dragged home. I remember one particularly fat garter snake that I captured and imprisoned in a large pickle jar with holes poked in the tin lid. She seemed quite content to lay in the bottom of the jar on a bed of grass eating every cricket we tossed in to her. One day though, she seemed rather lethargic and I brought her out to the kitchen and asked my mother to keep an eye on her. I had to reassure her numerous times that the snake was much too fat to fit through the holes in the top. What I didn’t realize was that while the snake itself was indeed too large, the baby snakes she was to give birth to that after noon were not. About the time Guiding Light came on, mother noticed that there was something moving on the kitchen table. Never one to admit that she needed glasses; this required her to get up and approach the pickle jar. I could hear the screaming from the neighbor’s yard. I came tearing home at top speed only to find her standing on the living room couch and repeatedly shrieking the word SNAKES” without ever taking a breath. I got to the kitchen just as the last of an unknown number of tiny baby garter snakes was slithering out the top of the pickle jar and onto the table. Seeing that there were already a dozen shoelace thin snakes sliding across the floor, under the cupboards and washer/ dryer, I figured we were in for an exciting summer. We were. Little snakes show up at the oddest and most unexpected times.
By the time my son Levi, came along, I had decided that boys and snakes should go hand in scale. We picked up several pencil sized brown snakes out of the green house where I worked. We kept them in a terrarium in his room and fed them garden worms and pet store crickets. Brown snakes should be the ambassadors of the snake world. They are tiny, a pleasing leaf brown color, slow moving and loathe to bite. Levi’s third grade teacher did not share his affection for the species and made him empty his pocket after every recess.
At the time, my husband James was in the Navy and on active sea duty. This entailed that he should be away from home much of the time and he did indeed, spend several months in a row on the opposite side of the world. Of course, we wrote letters and there was the occasional phone call, but unbelievably, the subject of snakes never came up.
I guess he must have been on one of those long extended voyages when Levi became obsessed with a striped ribbon snake at the pet store. It was about two feet long and had lovely yellow and green stripes. It ate goldfish out of a bowl, so it would not require Mom going out at midnight and digging up garden worms. I agreed that he could have the ribbon snake if he released all his little brownies. Of course he agreed and we left the pet store with one snake, 5 small goldfish and about $35 dollars worth of supplies. We took the snake home and installed him in a lovely environment with full spectrum lights, hot rock and pool. I then spent the next several months searching for that snake on a weekly basis. It was the most incredible escape artist I had ever seen. I cannot count the times I would go to put on a shoe and find the snake curled up in the toe. We found him in the toilet once (that friend never came back to our house) on top of the refrigerator and frequently in the potted plants. Each time I would drop him back in his tank and put a little more duct tape on the top. By the time the snake left (not long after James found it curled in HIS shoe), the cage looked like fort Knox with screens, duct tape and a couple bricks sitting on top of the tank.
Some months after we added the ribbon snake to our household, James came home on leave. He was home for several weeks and still apparently never knew there was a snake in the house. I don’t know what he thought was in the 30-gallon tank by his son’s bed, but maybe he just felt better not knowing. Regardless, he found out one Saturday afternoon.
Levi was off playing at the house of one friend or another (it was Navy Housing, there we a LOT of choices), James and I were spending a leisurely day at home. He was down stairs watching TV and I was putting laundry away in Levi’s room upstairs. I happened to notice that the lid to the snake cage was slightly ajar and started casually looking about the room for the snake. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement in the window. I went over and found the snake had crawled out a small hole in the screen and was hanging out the second story window by just the tip of his tail. I didn’t think I could pull the snake back through said hole without injuring it, so I decided that the easiest thing to do would be to have someone catch the snake from below when I flicked its tail through the screen.
I called to my husband to get a towel out of the bathroom and then stand under Levi’s window. The poor man, feeling guilty for being away from the family so long, complied without question. I instructed him through the window to hold the towel up like firemen’s net and catch what I throw down. I never thought to tell him that I was throwing down a snake. How would I know he might object to catching said snake?
He innocently got into position and, bless his heart, held up the towel. I said, “catch” and flicked the snake’s tail loose from the screen. He claimed later, that it appeared to be moving in slow motion as it hurtled towards his face. He claims to clearly remember the look of utter malice in the snake’s eyes as it approached the towel. He was absolutely positive that snake was going to end up down his shirt and do him great bodily harm. Well, at least it encouraged him not to miss. All I saw was the snake go out the window, fall a few feet and plop into the waiting towel. No fuss, no muss.
He met me halfway up the stairs with the towel firmly gripped in his two hands. I had to pry his fingers loose from its folds. I opened it up, checked the snake and put him back in his home adding more duct tape and another brick to the top. I finished putting away the laundry and came down stairs.
James was hunched down in his recliner with a glass of scotch in his hand. His eyebrows, normally distinctly separate and well arched were now a single furrowed line shadowing steely eyes. I could see the chair shake as he occasionally shuddered. “Why do you have a snake in the house?” He growled.
I shrugged and said, “ I don’t have a snake.”
“Then what was that thing flying out the window at my face? My God woman, it must have been four feet long.
“It was two feet and it’s your son’s pet.”
“Pet SNAKE?” He fairly roared.
I could see signs that this was taking an ugly turn so I decided to take the offensive. “You’re the one that said we didn’t have space for a dog. The cat bites him and his mouse died.” I said matter of factly.
“We had a MOUSE?”
“Don’t you read his letters?”
“He’s eight for God’s sake! I can’t figure out the spelling, let alone the content. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were afraid of snakes?” Ah ha! There we go, turn it around and get him another scotch. “I’m not psychic, you know. If you would tell me your personal feelings, then I would surely be sensitive enough to honor them for you. After all, you are my husband and I love you.” There we are, full house all the cards on the table, feelings, communication, and the “I love you” trump.
“Well,” he grumbled as he picked up the TV changer, “Just let me know about these things, will ya?”
I learned some things that day. First my husband is fairly gullible. Second he really, really hates snakes and third, we’d be getting that dog pretty soon.