The Fast and the Venomous

I have been, am, and always will be the guy who is happy to deal with snakes. I like ’em. I respect ’em. I’ve had the training to safely handle them, and I’m just as happy to get them out of human areas than the other humans are. Well, maybe not quite.

I grew up pouncing on any snake I could find. Eventually I worked out the best ways to grab that involved the fewest number of bites. I worked for a summer as a rattlesnake wrangler. Helped out a few veteran herpetologists. I know what I’m doing. And I know my limits.

There’s an expression: there are old herpetologists, and bold herpetologists, but there are no old bold herpetologists. It’s the kind of job that’s self-regulating. Naturally selecting, if you will. And this is no joke. People die all the time from handling dangerous snakes improperly. I’ve known a few. Known.

There are ways to approach and handle a snake that reduce the danger. Like keeping the snake–and yourself–calm, for example. Minimizing anxiety means the snake is less likely to strike. Most snakes can detect your heartbeat, and can register excitement as a threat. There’s also the skill of being able to predict where the snake is likely to retreat to–by foreseeing where the head is, you can try to be where it isn’t. Or you can try to give the snake a bag to crawl into or a stick to hold onto–playing off its own instincts. It’s easy, once you get the hang of it.

And then there’s the snake that breaks all the rules.

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Mark this one, and mark it well.

I’ve mentioned the Fer-de-lance before, in one of the pages above. It’s the one whose title is a disclaimer. This is the viper responsible for the most bites–and the most deaths–of any snake in the Americas. The venom is potent, its camouflage makes it almost invisible, and it gives no warning before striking. When bothered, it can do a tricky little maneuver where it starts to crawl away and then reverses, whipping around towards you. It can jump, climb, and swim. Oh, and it can squirt venom when it’s really pissed.

But its the unpredictability that really makes this thing dangerous. It’s one of the snakes I don’t play with–I avoid when I can and urge others to leave them in peace. But that’s not always an option where we are. See, the South Pacific Coast of Costa Rica boasts one of the highest concentrations of terciopelo, in part improved by the widespread plantations of African Oil Palm that create the all-time ideal habitat for them. We see them often, and often in our living spaces.

Last week, I got called to remove one from our animal rehabilitation area where interns spend many hours after dark. I was happy to oblige, but when I saw the snake even I balked a little. It was an adult female over 5 feet long. Probably pregnant. Very angry. Especially after I dragged her out of her little hollow stump by her neck using an extendable grabber claw. A claw that proved to be weaker than she was, since she twisted her way out of the grip several times. She also anchored her tail on a sapling, so to get her into a bin I had to clamp down with both hands and lift her over my head so her tail couldn’t touch the ground. That’s how we got her length.

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Pictured here, post-release, from a safe distance. Because I didn’t allow anyone close enough to film during the action.

The encounter left me exhausted. Dealing with theses things is a hell of rush followed by a hell of a crash. But later that night I was woken by a call about another snake–this one in the kitchen. This fer-de-lance proved to be a young male, but that just meant he was small and quick enough to hide under all the available spaces in a restaurant-size kitchen. I shooed everyone out, then spent the next fifteen minutes chasing that little bastard around, out from under stoves and in between cabinets. But he must have tired before I did since I got him to coil around my stick and plopped him into a box.

I released the snakes across a river a little ways into the forest. Made sure everyone got a look so they knew what to watch out for. Because it’s March. Birthing season for fer-de-lance. And where there’s one, there’s easily more. I’m going to be busy.

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My patented release technique of kicking the bin over and yelling, “And don’t come back!”

But to reiterate my first point: I’m not stupid. I’m not a showboat. I treat these snakes with the respect the threat deserves. I plan ahead and know what to do if someone does get bit. I don’t mess around and I keep people safe. It’s why I’m still alive. I’m neither old nor bold. Well, maybe a little.

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