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...well, ONE snake, actually.  

...and MY car.

...and I was happy to see her.

And thereby hangs a tale (or possibly tail.)

When I was growing up, "Snake Mom" was never on my list of "things to do with my life."  It wasn't OFF the list (like, say, "bungee jumping") but it wasn't on it, either.  

Cue a half century and more.  I'm now a volunteer for Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center and I stroll in one bright morning to find a green cloth shopping bag in the middle of a table in the office and everyone walking around it like there's a bomb inside.

"So what's the story?"  I pointed at the bag.

"Someone brought us a baby rat snake that their cat caught.  They said we could have it for an education animal."

I look in the bag.  Inside is a clear plastic box which contains a snake about the size of a knitting needle.  As I open the top of the bag, the snake becomes hysterical, hissing and striking at EVERYTHING.  

Two things were immediately obvious:

* this terrified snake is not going to be a very good education animal, unless by "education" you mean "people running and screaming."
* terrified snakes are snakes at risk of dying because people are afraid to handle them and care for them and feed them.

I pick her up.  She bites me several times, but her mouth is just wide enough to get the end of my pinky finger and her teeth are the size of sandpaper grit.  Her jaws aren't terribly strong.  I do my best (or worst) Steve Irwin impersonation.  Luckily, snakes don't hear that well and aren't television critics -- otherwise I'd have gotten nipped every time I opened my mouth.

We spent a quarter hour together.  She slid through my hands, trying to escape and trying to figure out what was going on.  I passed her from hand to hand, curling my fingers gently around her and she eventually settled down and lay curled in my hands.  I offer to take her home and civilize her, and they agree since they're really not set up for a snake and no one there knows anything about snakes, either.  

And so I went home with a snake and a cage and packages of frozen dead baby mice (that's what rat snakes eat -- honest.)  To his credit, hubby did not volunteer to have me and the snake move out of the house.  Although our vows didn't cover the "love and honor with snakes and cats and gerbils" clause, he seems to be coping with the extended zoo.

So there we were -- new baby snake and new snake owner.  She was difficult to feed, but with regular handling, she became rather social and was a weekly visitor at both Audubon centers where I volunteer.  Even our snake phobic staff members grew to like her and could tolerate having her near them when she was in her plastic cage.  She'd go for "sleepovers" at the Audubon centers when they wanted a snake for a day or a week (this was a "win-win" for them -- a native Texas animal that they didn't have to care for but was available for them and easy for the staff to handle.)

As an ambassador animal, she slithered on the hands of a lot of children, showing them that snakes aren't slimy or scary.  Adults who'd have backed away from a large snake held their hands steady as I set Hissy Bits on their palms and let them feel the soft, feathery touch of her tongue.  

I found I liked having a snake.  They're quiet and not a lot of trouble.  When she died in April (one of the risks of an animal from the wild is that they have parasites), it was both a personal loss and a loss for the centers.  I decided that I would get another snake -- this time from a pet store so there was minimal danger from intestinal parasites and early death.

But finding a "snake colored" rat snake ("corn snake", they're called in the pet trade) wasn't easy.  I could find them in beautiful colors that are NEVER found in the wild, but finding one that looked like it'd just crawled off one of the woodland trails and into my aquarium was harder.  I eventually found a suitable animal, but was a little puzzled that my new snake, Freckles, didn't look like Hissy Bits.  Freckles had a wedge-shaped head on a thin neck, while Hissy Bits had a neck the same size as her head.  The eyes and even the markings looked oddly different, but I attributed it my own lack of knowledge about snakes.  So Freckles took over the job of Visiting Snake and is making it her mission in life to educate people by slithering on them.

Three weeks ago one of the educators at the other Audubon center asked me if I wanted a free snake.  They had been given a group of ten Black Racer hatchlings by a zoo employee who wanted the babies to be given good homes.  I can't pass up a free snake, so went to have a look -- and discovered that the reason Hissy Bits and Freckles looked so different was that Hissy Bits wasn't actually a Rat Snake.  She'd been a Black Racer hatchling and looked just like these cute little wiggly darlings.  

I fell in love with all of them.

One little hatchling hadn't shed properly -- a danger sign.  Partial shedding is lethal for a little snake, so I took that one home (and a second one because I expected the first one to die) and soaked her in water and gently peeled the rest of her old skin off over the next two days.  Little Jellybean recovered from the bad shed and started eating, and Jujubee, her sister, seemed to have no problems.  And now I had three snakes.

I took them to Audubon this past Saturday in a cage with a badly fitting lid, but  between the time I left Audubon and the time I got ready to get them out of the traveling cage at home, Jellybean escaped.  I felt devastated.  My biggest fear was that she was lost somewhere in the house and the cat would catch and eat this amusing bit of wiggling "string" or would hide in under something and die of dehydration.

I was still thinking about her as I drove the car to Cedar Ridge today on an errand of mercy -- putting sealant on a tree at Audubon where some idiot had stripped the bark and carved initials in the wood.  We're in a drought here and the trees are having trouble and this particular one already had problems.  The bark-stripping was just another systemic insult to the poor plant and although tree sealant isn't a cure, it covers the graffiti.  

As I was driving and pondering how to fill the damage, I felt something gently touch my hand.  I looked down and saw Jellybean lying on the steering wheel column with her little spotty head reaching up to the steering wheel bar to touch my knuckles with her tongue.  She peered at me as if to say, "Hey lady -- got a drink of water for a thirsty lil' snake?"  I have no idea how she could have gotten to the steering column of the car (other than teleporting) but there she was, alive and thirsty.

I felt as if a rock had been lifted from my soul.  

I picked her up and poured her a capfull of water from my water bottle and held her as she drank (this was probably more excitement than the other drivers would have wanted me to have.)  I drank the rest of the water and let her slide into the now-empty bottle and we went off to tend to the tree and then drove home.  With a great sense of relief, I opened the bottle and eased her into her cage.  She slid over the towels and curled up with her sister near the heat lamp.  I fed them both and watched as they coiled up in the warmth, content.

And I'm feeling pretty content, myself.

Here they are -- that's Jellybean the Fugitive on top (and yes, I really can tell them apart) and Jujubee on the bottom -- click for better photo on my Flickr.
Black Racer snakelings

Originally posted to Cyberwizard on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 07:51 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science and Community Spotlight.

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