October 7, 2006

Come to sunny Florida, see the wonderful snakes

There’s lots of snakes in Florida. Growing up, we were told to leave them alone, on the theory that either the snake was not poisonous, in which case it eats pests, or else is poisonous, in which case it can hurt you (and it also eats pests).

We had a “snake gun” — a double-barreled 20-gauge — that could do a lot of damage to a snake from a prudent distance. I only saw it used twice on snakes. Once, there was a biggish rattler coiled up in our front garden; my mom got us all behind her, squatted down and took careful aim, and pulled both triggers at once. It knocked her right over, but it cut the rattler into many pieces. Another time, what looked like a moccasin was poking its head out of the water near the shore, and Dad shot the head.

We preserved a couple of snakes in formaldehyde, at least till it evaporated. I happened across a small rattler resting on the back step, called Mom, and she killed it with a hoe. Another time, my brothers (something like 8 and 6 years old) found a 40-inch coral snake in the grove. I think it was winter, and cold enough that it wasn’t very active. One brother ran home to get mom, they all carried it home on a stick and dropped it onto the concrete porch, then (she) poured ammonia and bleach in a puddle around it to gas it.

The south half of the property (originally, a second lot) was, I was told, covered in palmettos before my parents moved there. My great-grandfather gave them the property on the condition that they bulldoze all the palmettos off of it, because it was apparently well known that palmettos were filled with snakes that would bite his freshly born great-grandson. They were duly piled, burnt, and buried, but the lot was soon covered by wild grape vines that were equally good at harboring snakes. My cousin sat on one (not poisonous) once playing hide and seek (blew his cover) and years later when it was time to clear it, again, for pasture, I stepped right over a moccasin while chopping vines with a machete. I was quite rattled, but a machete chops snakes, too.

More years later, the grove was gone, and an adult retirement community had replaced it, and our neighbors spread piles of birdseed. Birdseed is also rat food, and rats are snake food. I think I was home for Christmas, and we got a phone call telling us to “come quick, we’ve got snakes in our yard”. Must be poisonous snakes, so I grab the gun and a pocket full of shells, thinking “how the heck am I going to do this without getting into trouble?” Get there, and find that it’s just a pair of rat snakes, one so tame that I could grab it by the tail, and it coiled up on my hand. Stuck it in a paper sack and dumped it on our woodpile. Snake #2 was a little more aggressive, but we hoisted him into a sack with a broom.

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