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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Cruising for Snakes

Greetings Earthlings!

My e-mail load is handled for the moment, either that or I have forgotten what I was supposed to be doing. If I had the same old inbox notification as the early days, which played a few notes of a tune, it would sound like a symphony around here most of the time.

Yes, I have been playing with these silly electronic devices since the days of Arpanet, but that is a whole 'nother life. In the 1980's we did things in Dos. Then Windows 1 came along and it was miraculous. And so on and so forth. Now time is measured in nano-seconds and everything "takes too long". Have we actually done ourselves any favors with speeding up our lives? I have to wonder.

The forecast for beautiful downtown Fallon is for partly sunny and 67F. I think we can deal with that. No rain and winds out of the usual WSW at 10 mph or so. Of note is an alert for those sensitive to Elm tree pollen, the count has climbed into the High range and you should take precautions.

While checking for Pollen "Hotspots", I did note that Santa Anna, CA is listed as Very High in both tree and WEED pollen. I will let YOU make the appropriate jokes there. As the Santa Anna winds blow, are the people downwind waiting to "inhale"? Oh wait, we aren't talking about THAT kind of weed? Never mind.

The girls are quiet, but Anna has checked on them so all is well, at least for the moment. I am happy that I do not have to chase them down the street, as I observed a neighbor doing with her happy hound. The dog was running with tongue dangling and ears flapping as it galloped, enjoying the freedom of the moment. The owner was also running, but judging from the words coming from her mouth, NOT enjoying it quite so much. Some of the descriptions of what she had planned for that male Labrador made me cringe and cross my legs.

The question du jour, at least for me is, where (or when) to go in the "way back machine" of my mind?

Today we shall go back to sunny South Florida where everything grows and times were good.

Cruising for snakes

During the 1960's, especially the last half, I spent a lot of time with older friends who had cars. We weren't racing around being juvenile delinquents or doing bad things, at least not in the traditional sense of right and wrong. I do recall being told that I "wasn't right in the head" because of what we were doing, but I heard that a lot anyway so it didn't bother me.

So what were we doing you ask? Funny I was asked that a lot and when I told my parents or whomever asked what I was up to, they would say strange things like, "Don't tell me any more!", or "Your mother needs to make an appointment with a doctor for you." Most of the time there was disbelief, or just a shaking of the head at my crazy activities. Sometimes there was excitement or understanding, but that was quickly hidden away in fear of someone else seeing their interest and pointing fingers at them and telling their parents.

We were snake hunting! That nightmarish activity that only devil worshipers and lunatics engaged in per our local Baptist minister. Santeria and Voodoo are practiced in the area and we had the finger of organized religion pointed at us as, at the very least, "suppliers" of dark magic creatures. Ignorance is indeed bliss!

Smoking marijuana was more acceptable in South Florida in 1965 than handling snakes. Parents would rather their daughter dated a boy who drank beer, than one who had a snake wrapped around his neck.

My friends and I were cruising Florida's blacktop highways searching for snakes and other reptiles and amphibians that got up onto the roads for warmth. Cold-blooded animals need help regulating their body temperature to aid in digestion and comfort. This also exposed them to destruction from fast moving trucks and autos, many of which would go out of their way to hit a reptile.

I once witnessed a semi cross to the opposite side of the then two-lane US Highway 27, to hit a four foot alligator. The good news/bad news was that in doing so he lost enough traction that he slid his truck off the pavement and into the canal. He was unhurt, but karma was in full swing that day as we got to give our statements to the FHP and he was cited for multiple violations. The more he yelled at the trooper, the more the officer wrote.

Sadly the young alligator was damaged beyond saving and with approval of the police officer we shot it to end its suffering. Then we slipped it into the water so that no other animals would be drawn to the roadside to eat on it, and themselves be hit by vehicles.

Another strange comment on the times and location; it was considered odd and disturbing that we were touching reptiles voluntarily, but NOT that we teenagers had guns in our possession. Of course kids weren't shooting other kids in those days, Oh wait, they were! They just called that drugs deals and gang wars. I could go on, but I digress from the story. Before anyone gets wound up, I am a gun owner too.

On most days we would head out in the late afternoon hours, wanting to reach the infamous US 27 during daylight hours for the quickest spotting and so that we could survive the high speed kamikaze-like big rigs that rocketed up and down this road. It was less traffic and very few stops, and highway patrol was spread thin out there (one pass each way per day unless called), so the truckers could make some serious time.

We wanted to get to the critters before the trucks hit them, but would also remove them from the pavement if we were too late for the reason mentioned above. Having daylight we could drive faster and see our "targets" farther out in front of us, allowing us to both stop safely, and warn people following us that we were going to stop. When we had a third person (or more) with us we would hold up a "borrowed" school crossing stop sign in the back window, or truck bed, to get the attention of vehicles behind us.

I can't begin to tell you how many close passes by big trucks we had that nearly made us wet our pants. The fingers were up on many of the vehicles passing us, and more than once we saw handguns as well. Sometimes men would stop and offer to shoot the creature we were attempting to rescue. It was a crazy environment. Getting snake bit was not nearly as worrisome as getting truck "bit."

Our main purpose was to rescue snakes from harm, but we were also looking for certain species for either our own collections (more on mine in a moment), to sell to the pet store, trade with exotic suppliers who wanted local varieties to sell elsewhere, or to sell to Bill Haast at the Miami Serpentarium.

The last reason usually raises eyebrows when I tell these stories. Yes, I knew Bill Haast, the legendary snake expert who was bitten 172 times. He saved countless thousands of people with his venom research and by supplying venom to other research facilities, and even by donating his own blood for victims like a child bitten by a Krait.

When we found a rattlesnake over six feet we had gas money for a month! Haast would pay us $25.00 for such a creature. He also got really excited if we came up with a Coral snake and would actually smile and tell his wife to get his wallet while he took his new prize to the lab. He had over 500 snakes at his facility so it had to be something special to get his approval and cash. It was just Bill and his wife and son to handle the care, feeding and milking of all of those deadly creatures. We would all have given anything to be on staff there! But that wasn't going to happen.

After we drove US 27 from Hollywood Blvd to State Rd 84 and back we would turn off on various other roads that we felt had good potential. We worked the roads with the most traffic first, doing our best to save the creatures from being buzzard bait. As night fell we had to go slower and the risk of us being hit increased.

Picture in your mind the dedication, (or stupidity if you asked my mother), it took to be out in the everglades in T-shirts, shorts, and flip flops aka "Zorries" or "thongs" (when thongs when between your toes not your butt cheeks) or "Keds" (if you remember those) with swarms of mosquitoes descending upon you to feast and reptiles only a strike away from your bare legs.

We were so proud of the home-made snake handling tools we crafted from the handles of the many missing brooms and mops that we had "no idea" where they went. BBQ tongs grew handles and garden hose segments had coat hanger wire through it. Trashcan lids became shields against striking Eastern Diamondback rattlers that were longer than I was tall. Water Moccasins ended up in burlap bags inside of metal trashcans became they would bite anything that they felt through the bag.

Many of our finds were not venomous but still wanted to bite out of fear of being eaten or otherwise harmed, they had no idea that we were trying to help them. So we became very adept at dodging strikes and holding creatures in such a way as to prevent harm to us or them.

I could take a young alligator from a snapping monster to a sleeping baby in a couple of minutes. We worried about getting them back to the right place as quickly as possible because everything wanted to prey on them and if they went to the wrong pond or canal, the other alligators would eat them. We did NOT bring them back to town, and never dealt in selling alligators to the pet trade. There were plenty of exotic dealers that would buy them and ship them elsewhere, regardless of laws or restrictions.

As mentioned above, we caught some creatures to add to our own collections. One guy was an absolute amphibian nut and would go in the water after them with a mask and waterproof flashlight. His house had a room off of the garage that used to store paints and gasoline when they had a car repair business, but when that ended it sat idle. He turned this room into "Frog World" and had tanks and terrariums of his own design on shelves along every wall. His parents would not even open the door. If we were in there and it was dinner time they would knock on the closed door and tell us without opening it. They thought he was retarded, and told my mother so. Mother said nothing to them, but did tell me with the comment of, "See what people think!" thrown in, like that would change anything I was doing.

My mother didn't tell them about what I had, mostly because she didn't want to know and I kept up my end of the deal by not telling, or showing her what was hidden around her house.

My older brother knew and was outwardly indifferent to what I did, except when it served his purposes of getting me into trouble in some way. He once told my mother that I had a "Davie (a small town near by) Cobra" in a bag in our closet. In the first place, there is no such animal. There are no cobras native to Florida (I was going to say "in" Florida, but that isn't true now). There was a blue racer in a cloth bag in my closet and they do raise up in a threat display like a cobra, but they are non-venomous rat snakes.

I never kept any venomous snakes at our house over night and never even brought them inside. They were in burlap bags, inside of metal trashcans with the lids wired shut for safe transportation. And mother never saw even that much. I had a beautiful Boa constrictor that lived under my bed for years in a cage built by me specifically to go there and outside in another cage inside our shed during the warm months.

She was killed one night when she got loose and curled up inside a tire in the shed and my brother had to get a tire for his car one night and could not tell what was striking at him in the dark and killed her with a shovel. I didn't hold that against him, it was Florida and in the dark your life is on the line with all of the poisonous snakes in the area. It was my fault for not housing her in a stronger cage.

I had an Iguana that I raised from a 12 inch juvenile to a five foot adult that my parents knew about. It spent much of its time out back in our trees or eating hibiscus flowers from our bushes. My 120 lb German Shepherd stepped on his neck and broke it rough housing with it one day. The Iguana would tail whip the dog and steal its dog food out of the dish and both would play in the sprinkler. It was just a stupid accident.

Most of the snakes that I kept were small (under four feet) and came and went with trading or buying and selling. The hardest part was getting food for them that mimicked what they would catch in the wild. The fish and frog eaters were the hardest to supply. Some would eat goldfish but that got expensive.

This was also before the marvelous method we have now of frozen rats and mice. Everything was live then and keeping rodents was a smelly proposition. I didn't want to keep mice in my house. A guy we knew in the country raised mice and a few rats to get his drug money. He quickly had much more supply than we had snakes and our costs went way down. Until he started selling his rodents to the pet stores and then he went from marijuana to cocaine because could afford it. But he kept our price for mice the same, we were his amigos and never told on him. Of course he would have shot us, but we were cool.

It was largely because of the feeding problem, and partly because of the losses of my boa and iguana that for the most part I only caught and released, or sold what I encountered. I was far happier just rescuing the creatures than having to be responsible for their care. Especially in a hostile environment of non-snake people where everyone was afraid and/or disgusted by creatures that they didn't understand.

The fun was probably more in the time spent together on the road, and the excitement of the chase. Handling dangerous reptiles and trying not to become roadkill ourselves was an adrenalin rush. Having to make our brains work quickly and our safety depending on our alertness, kept the drugs and alcohol completely out of the picture. We never so much as had a beer in the car with us.

So if someone you know says that they are going Cruising for Snakes don't look at them like they are crazy, they are doing something active and fun. Go with them and watch. You may catch the adrenalin buzz too!

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