• Lynette Mejia

The Wild Side

When you live as deep in the woods as I do, a few things are bound to happen. One of those things is a close encounter (or two) with wildlife. Here in the fairy tale forest we've seen lots of creatures over the years - coyotes, wild hogs, birds of every size, shape and color-but we've seen surprisingly few snakes, considering.

Let me just stop here and explain that I am terrified of snakes. And I come from a family with a distinct 'kill 'em and ask questions later' philosophy. Despite my fear, however, I don't subscribe to my family's point of view (though they love to tease me about it). I don't kill snakes, venomous or otherwise. Generally my reaction when I see one is to scream bloody murder, freeze, and then back away slowly. Crude, I know, but that's base instinct for you. Lately, however, in an effort to better understand and identify the things I'm afraid of (and possibly learn to react less...instinctively), I've joined a reptile and amphibian enthusiast group on Facebook.

In an alternate universe somewhere, I'm an ecologist; I believe that life, including all non-human life, is sacred, and that we should actively work to understand, preserve and protect it. Every ecosystem's native organisms have evolved in a complex and delicate dance with one another, choreographed over millions of years. It's a beautiful thing to see, kind of like knowing the planet's secret handshake. As I said, though, it's delicate. Take something out of that system, and the whole thing begins to collapse, leading to a chain reaction that does not end well for anyone, including us.

All of that is easy to say when you live in a concrete jungle and all this stuff is merely theoretical; when you can feel good about yourself because you re-posted an article you found on Facebook about saving cute baby seals or whatever. A couple of weeks ago, however, I had to put my money where my mouth was.

It was late afternoon and I was pulling weeds in one of my gardens. Head down, intent on my task, I worked my way around a tree pulling errant Chinese tallow seedlings and rogue patches of crabgrass when I came face to face (literally) with this:

Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)

Needless to say, I screamed.

To its credit, the snake never moved. My hand was literally within inches, and with my loud blundering around, it was probably terrified. I wouldn't have blamed it if the old protection instincts had kicked in. Luckily, they did not, and I did my usual back-away-slowly routine.

I immediately went inside and posted a photo to the group, thinking, oh, well today was interesting because it's not every day you have a close encounter with a venomous reptile. The next morning when I went outside, the snake was gone. Whew, I thought, problem solved.

No, of course not.

That evening, after the LOML had mowed the lawn, I walked out to double-check and sure enough, there was my frenemy, hanging out in the exact same spot as yesterday, albeit this time spread out lengthwise, giving me a full view of its beautiful markings. Despite the fact that I was afraid, I had to admire the absolute perfection of that camouflage.

At this point I'm pretty much begging the snake to leave and go find some other happy hunting ground. A little research suggested that newly emerging cicadas are a particular delicacy to Miss Contortrix, calling to mind the fact that lately I'd seen lots of abandoned carapaces clinging to the lower branches of trees. Great, I thought, I'm running a copperhead all-you-can-eat buffet.

Several people in the LARE group (Louisiana Amphibian and Reptile Enthusiasts, for those interested) suggested spraying it with the jet from a water hose, but frankly, I was too scared even for that. Instead I politely asked it one more time to leave, and went inside for the night.

The next day - no snake. The day after that - no snake. The next day - no snake. So I'm thinking Yay! It listened! I'm the snake whisperer!

You can probably guess what happened next.

That weekend my brother was in town for my daughter's high school graduation. On Sunday morning, as he was drinking coffee and we were walking around, I casually suggested we take a look at the spot where I'd seen the coolest, most beautiful, most terrifying thing I'd ever encountered since we'd moved here. Sure, he says. So we mosey on over.

And of course, there's the snake.

Even more frightening was the fact that although it was in the general area of where I'd first seen it, now it was chilling out in another flower garden several feet away. So it had moved. Needless to say, I was creeped out all over again.

At this point my brother calls his daughter over, a teenaged girl who has expressed some interest in the outdoors, although since she was raised in New Orleans she's still really squeamish about bugs and such. Come over here, my brother calls, and see this snake so that you can learn to identify one.

She came on over and we all agreed that the snake was, in fact, quite beautiful. My niece turned to go and immediately came very, very close to stepping on copperhead #2.

Yes, copperhead #2.

Curled up at the foot of the picnic table we keep under the trees, it regarded us placidly, like what's the big deal? as we all screamed and ran for our lives. I imagine that to the snake the whole incident was quite amusing.

To us? Not so much.

She'd almost stepped on a venomous snake. In sandals. In my backyard. Now I'll be surprised if the poor girl ever sets foot off concrete again.

Luckily, this story has a happy ending. Someone from the LARE group knew a guy who knew a guy, who kindly drove out that afternoon and captured both snakes, later releasing them far, far away in the middle of the Atchafalaya Swamp. As an added bonus he thoroughly checked every flower garden, leaf pile and hidey hole in the vicinity that might possibly harbor more surprises, and found nothing. It was probably just a mating pair, he said, hanging out in the cicada buffet, doing the cha cha with a little family planning on the side. I offered him my eternal thanks, and said that any time he wanted to have a little fun catching deadly reptiles, he was welcome to come on over.

So in the end, even though my niece and I nearly ended up in the hospital getting pumped full of antivenom, I was pretty proud that I'd stuck to my principles and made the ecologically sound choice of relocation rather than execution. Live long and prosper, little copperheads.

I don't think I've cured the fear just yet.

But here's to life on the wild side.

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