For five years I was a professional snake wrangler. My dear friends and I had opened up a reptile shop with the lofty intentions of teaching humans to understand, love, and respect these strange and exotic animals, and as a result, learn to better appreciate the natural world as a whole (not just the cute fuzzy bits). We designed naturalistic habitats for the animals, taught classes in their care and handling, and rescued a great many rare and wonderful creatures from dangerous situations. It was incredibly rewarding and hard work, and while we were not very successful at making money, that hardly mattered.
We had all kinds of amazing animals like Brazillian rainbow boas, panther chameleons, basilisks, carpet pythons, monkey-tailed skinks, leopard geckos, African house snakes, bearded dragons, kingsnakes, water dragons, fire salamanders, red-eyed tree frogs, Argentinian horned toads, Russian tortoises, emperor scorpions, giant millipedes, centipedes, giant hissing cockroaches, tarantulas, and many kinds of worms. We did not have the means to hire much in the way of staff, so I often ran the shop by myself, as I did on this particular day.
It was a hot day. Everyone was restless, and not because of the heat. The snakes were uncharacteristically crawling up the glass sides of their cages trying to get out, and the fish were all swimming at the bottom of their tanks, as though affected by an unusual gravity. A friend’s dog—normally a perfectly loyal companion—had inexplicably run away from his owner that morning. Even the usually unflappable crickets were subdued, hardly singing at all. Growing up in California, I had a name for this sort of thing: Earthquake Weather. But that wasn’t it. There had been some rare solar activity happening in the astronomical world and perhaps that was the reason, but whatever the origin something was different and everybody could feel it: static was in the air.
Many of the animals we sold at the shop were food for larger creatures, and this included the mice and rats. Being animal lovers we treated everyone fairly, giving the feeder animals the same care as if they were to be kept as pets for the rest of their lives (and some of them did indeed become human companions instead of dinner). All were provided with high-quality food, clean accommodations, and friendly handling.
I got my weekly delivery of rats, and that’s where the trouble started. All the large rats I’d received were males except for one. Seventeen boys in a cage vying for one female’s attention made for an ugly situation. After just a few minutes their screeching became unbearable. The shop was completely out of extra cages, so I could not separate the rats from one another. It is common for male rats to fight if there aren’t enough females in the group, but the fighting on this day was unprecedented in my experience. Over the next couple of hours they tore one another’s tails to pieces and put each other’s eyes out. It was, without a doubt, the worst thing I’d ever seen.
The only way I could think of to stop the carnage and pain was to feed the rats to something. The only animals in the shop at the moment large enough to eat the rats were our two Burmese pythons, Gina and Wednesday. They were both about the same size: sixteen feet long and more than a foot in diameter. Pythons aren’t venomous; they catch and eat their food the way the majority of snakes do: by latching on with needle-thin, hook-shaped teeth, wrapping their incredibly strong bodies around and around, and squeezing the animal to death. The snake then has ample time to unhinge her jaw and begin the slow process of swallowing something much bigger than her head.
Gina was a beautiful python, but she was not accustomed to being handled very often. Wednesday, on the other hand, was my darling. Sweet, slow-moving, and gentle, Wednesday was as big around as my waist, and she was tamest snake I knew. If I let her out of her cage and walked away, her ponderously long length would come find me wherever I happened to be, curl loosely about my feet, and then sit there seemingly purring with contentment with her big rounded nose resting on my shoe.
Of course, in certain situations, it might not matter how tame the snake may be. Snakes have such a strong instinctual response that if they sense food—and are excited enough to bite and take hold—they will wrap around their victim and continue to squeeze until the pulse fades away. If the prey fights back, the snake will only squeeze and bite more vigorously.
Anyone who works with large animals has to learn some specific safety requirements. An obvious point is never to feed giant carnivores by oneself, however cute. As the rats screamed and fought, I waited anxiously for someone to visit the store—so I could use them for backup—but it was the slowest part of the day, and no one appeared. My partner in the shop was at her other job teaching classes all day, a 30-minute drive away. Finally, I could stand the rats’ suffering no longer; I clipped my phone to my belt so I could call 911 if it came that, and went and scrubbed down my hands and forearms with soap and water thoroughly to remove the scent of the feeder animals from my skin.
An important thing to know about snakes is that they have an incredible sense of smell. A serpent’s forked tongue picks up minute particles from the air and inserts them into a special slot in the roof of its mouth, called the Jacobsen’s organ. This process allows snakes to sense what kind of animal is nearby, as well as how far away something is. Certain snakes, including pythons, are additionally equipped with heat sensors in the area of their upper lip, and this also assists in locating their mammalian or avian prey. Many snakes don’t rely heavily on their eyes to tell them about their surroundings. Quite a few have very poor eyesight, in fact. They see with their tongues, as it were. Fortunately, humans don’t generally smell like food to snakes—except in the case of captivity, where we their human caregivers often handle the snake’s prey and get tasty snake-snack scents all over ourselves. A human who smells of rabbits, or chickens, or rats is much more likely to have a problem. So we wash our hands religiously.
Most often, a snake bite is the result of mortal fear on the part of the snake. Fear-response bites are quite different from the feeding response. They commonly involve a quick strike-and-release, and tend not to be very serious. The snake’s objective is merely to startle whatever creature it is threatened by, gaining time for escape. (These bites, of course, can be very serious if the snake is venomous, but most are not.) Serious bites tend to occur when a human smells of food. This potential for mistaken identity is not limited to humans, however, it is also important to feed snakes separately—even if they live in the same cage—for all the reasons described above. A snake enjoying a mouse may be bit and even swallowed by its serpent cage-mate because of their reliance on smell instead of sight.
My Burmese pythons shared a large two-room cage. I would have to close the opening between the two areas of the cage, separating Gina and Wednesday, before I could get some rats to feed to the snakes. The last thing I wanted was for the snakes to injure one another.
Conveniently, Gina and Wednesday were in separate rooms of their cage at the time. I wouldn’t have to move one snake into a different room (that was quite a task, because each snake probably weighed about the same as I did, and was stronger, and much, much, longer.) Gina wasn’t as tame and reliable as Wednesday was, so I didn’t open her side of the enclosure. I opened Wednesday’s door and started moving the heavy piece of marble I used to block up the opening. Wednesday started to crawl out onto the floor. I moved part of her body back into the cage, and stepped back a little, noticing her become strangely tense.
Wednesday was poised with her face a few feet from mine, and I could instantly see that she did not recognize me. She was ready to strike. I considered closing the cage door, or simply turning and running away, but I knew that neither would work, because there was no way that I could match her speed. By her body language, I knew that she would strike at the very next thing that moved, and at the same time I had no choice but try to either contain her or get myself away. I decided to try to close the door, not least because I knew she was more likely to bite the arm that was moving rather than my body or head. She struck, latching onto my right wrist.
I suppose there must have been some trace of rodent smell remaining on me somewhere, despite my scrubbing. Or perhaps the solar flares had driven Wednesday to this unprecedented behavior, as seemed to be the case with the rats and other animals.
She began to wrap her large body around my smaller one. If you have ever seen a snake strike and coil, you know it happens lightning fast. Fortunately, I usually have quick reflexes, and I folded up my legs and remaining arm before she could get around my rib cage. Now I could use my strong legs as a brace to keep some room for my lungs to expand. If I hadn’t done that, she would constrict more with my every exhale until I couldn’t take in any more air. I’d watched her do it dozens of times. I’d seen scores of snakes constrict hundreds of small mammals. I let my wrist, with snake-head attached, drop directly onto the floor, knowing that if I resisted her very sharp teeth would tear me to ribbons. Wednesday’s long body coiled around her prey.
I was a ball–almost completely wrapped in python.
Now, actually, I felt I was doing pretty well at that point. Laugh if you like, but I had managed to keep my left hand from being trapped next to my body, I was breathing comfortably, and my phone was miraculously sticking out between layers of serpent. The immediate problem was that—though I REALLY wanted to extract myself from the situation—I also did not want a bunch of people charging in and shooting my snake if I could help it, so I kept the 911 call as a Plan B approach. The next order of business was to ascertain the real level of danger I was in. I could not feel my buried right hand at all (nor see any part of my right arm). That didn’t seem good; a wrist full of snake teeth should hurt. I don’t know very much about humans, but I have heard that there are important arteries or something in the wrist, and I wondered if the numbness meant that her teeth had found such a thing. I figured that if I were in danger of losing so much blood that I might pass out, it would surely be enough blood to make a puddle. I watched the floor near where I knew my hand must be under the snake, waiting for blood to ooze out. Since I had time, I ruminated a bit upon the ridiculous carpet. It had been there when we’d rented the shop space, so I can’t take any credit for its presence. This carpet was made to look like hardwood floor, with lines for planks, wood-grain pattern, even dark spots for nail heads. But it was carpet. Fuzzy. The peculiar thing, though, was that it had been installed ON TOP of real hardwood flooring.
Still no blood. I surmised that I was not in immediate danger of losing consciousness, so I waited for something to happen. I remained on the floor with Wednesday latched to my wrist and securely about my balled-up self for maybe twenty minutes, alone to collect my thoughts in case I died. I thought about calling various people, but I knew that none of them could get to me in time, or would be too nervous to be useful. Over-reaction seemed likely.
I fervently hoped that Wednesday would figure out that I was too big to swallow. She could easily suffocate me, and her body could probably stretch enough to swallow most of me, but I had serious doubts that she’d ever get past my shoulders. She might even choke! Besides, it wouldn’t do anyone any good—people would wonder where I’d gone, and find Wednesday on the loose and looking suspiciously fat. Then they’d surely euthanize her, and my body would totally go to waste. I honestly didn’t mind the idea of dying in this way. I believe in recycling, and I think it’s fair that Wednesday should get to eat whatever’s dumb enough to be caught. But the idea of my beloved pet being needlessly slaughtered was totally unacceptable. Being eaten by a giant snake was a cool way to go, but at what cost?
I had always said that if I could choose my own death, I would like to be eaten by an animal, especially a snake. Yes, like many young people, I was fond of making grand sweeping statements. Getting much closer to my choice of death didn’t make me regret what I’d said, either. I’ve never been very afraid of dying—I suspect it’s going happen someday whether I like it or not—but I am definitely averse to being embalmed and stuck in a sealed casket where I would be inaccessible to the forces of nature. When I was fourteen years old I once passed by a coffin store display window, and noticed that one of the coffins had a 70-year warranty. That really disturbed me—who would want their corpse lying there for that long? People who want to come back as the undead, surely! As far as I’m concerned, rotting in a box is icky, but becoming nourishment is noble. I also figured that cosmic justice would be served if I were eaten by a snake, since I’ve sent so many little animals to their doom in this fashion.
I’d read accounts of tiger attacks and the like—tales of humans finding out that they are not necessarily at the top of the food chain—and descriptions by surviving victims have striking similarities. Once you are caught and you know that you are going to be eaten, a kind of euphoria wells up inside you, and you feel like it’s really okay. There’s a weird release that happens in your mind, at once visceral and spiritual. You are truly a part of the grand scheme of things. You become the animal you are. I thought about the fact that I was now in that position, and my experience was no different. There was a part of me that wanted to let go and allow Wednesday to do her job. I could make my life ultimately worthwhile by becoming a meal for a bigger and stronger animal. It felt quite natural. Oh well, if this had happened in the jungle I suppose things would have been different.
I vaguely hoped that Wednesday would decide that I must be dead by now, unhook her teeth and uncoil her body so she could get into a better position for swallowing. This would give me a chance to extricate myself. I knew it was unlikely, though, because she could feel my heart beating. Stupid automatic life sustaining biological functions. I tried holding my breath for a while to slow it down, but she wasn’t fooled.
I was getting bored, and my hope that I could get out of this predicament without anyone finding out about it were becoming slimmer. (I could make up any story I wanted for the injured wrist…who’d guess?) This would easily become one more stupid story about how evil snakes are.
No, it wasn’t going well. At this rate, someone would eventually find me dead with Wednesday trying to swallow my leg, and that would mean the end for my beloved scaly friend. She wouldn’t even get a trial. Wednesday would say something like, ‘She smelled like a rodent, and gave off heat just like a rodent, and I was kind of hungry. How was I to know?’ No one would believe her story. According to humans, a reptile is guilty, and cannot be proven innocent. Everybody’s got to eat, and most humans eat animals too. Who are we to judge a snake?
After a very long time, someone came into the store. I hoped it would be one of our long-time customers, maybe even someone who would not panic at my unfortunate situation. I heard a child skipping across the floor, then a little girl’s voice, saying something like, “mommy, come on!” It didn’t sound like anyone I knew. Drat.
Wednesday and I were at the very back of the store, and with all of the fascinating animals and neat stuff in the shop to look at, it would be quite a while before they found me. That was good, because the little girl’s mother entered the store before the kid found me. I called out to mom, saying, “Hello! Can you help me? I am having some trouble here. It’s not as bad as it looks.” It sounded lame, but what do you say? They weren’t in much danger, since Wednesday was very unlikely to let go of me, and if she did, her instinctual reaction would have been interrupted, so she would be back to her old gentle self again.
The nice lady said, “sure,” and told me that she was a nurse. Presumably this meant she could handle gruesome stuff. That was good! The woman made her way past the aisles of animal cages, and saw Wednesday and I coiled on the floor. Most of my body was invisible under big loops of snake. The lady was very brave, but I could tell she was unsettled.
I told the woman I knew it looked bad, but all I needed to make the snake let go was some rubbing alcohol. If I poured it onto the snake’s head she would release me, and I could get her back into her cage. For everyone’s reference, this really is the best way to get a snake to let go of anything it is trying to eat. The taste of alcohol is so repellent to reptiles that it will make the best of them spit it out in a hurry (and any strong liquor will do in a pinch). But I completely understand why the nurse-lady was dubious about my authority in this respect. I was the one laying there trapped by a snake. Anyway, the woman said that she would like to get help instead of getting rubbing alcohol for me herself.
As I mentioned, I was not keen on the idea of having the police turn up and shoot my snake, and I thought that this might likely be the result of a 911 emergency call. Fortunately, there was a fire station about three doors away from the shop. I have always had the highest regard for firefighters. I think that they are our society’s true heroes, and they are never given enough credit for the wonderful services they provide. I asked the nurse-woman if she would be willing to walk over to the fire station for help. She said she would.
The lady was gone for a while, then came back alone. I was surprised. The woman said, “they’re coming,” and I said, “did you tell them what’s going on?” She said yes. I said, “did you tell them that I need rubbing alcohol?” She said yes. Now, why would the firefighters not come back with her?! As it turns out, the firemen piled into their fire-truck and pulled out of the station, only to pull into my shop’s parking lot fifty feet away on the same side of the street. I can only hope that some regulation prevented them from walking that distance to help a person in distress.
After what seemed like ages, four or five firemen came into the shop. They seemed ready to do whatever was necessary. One of them was brandishing a fire extinguisher. This seemed odd to me and I said as much, but the firemen said that they wanted to use it on the snake. I asked, “will it hurt the snake?” They said yes, it would kill the snake. I told them that I would really not like to kill my pet, and I asked them if they had brought any rubbing alcohol. They said that they had, but it was in little packets of cotton gauze. Hmm. Not very helpful for this particular application. I asked them to please get me a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and informed them that there was a store that sold it just across the street. The men were unwilling to leave me for such a task. (Couldn’t just one of them go?) The nurse-lady had disappeared. I can’t say I blame her.
A couple of paramedics arrived, apparently anticipating a patient sometime soon. I asked them if they could get me some rubbing alcohol, but they didn’t have any, and were also unwilling to go purchase it on my behalf. Instead, the men radiated around me nervously, and I felt like the calm eye of a storm. One of the firefighters wanted to use all of their strength to pull Wednesday off of me. I explained that it wouldn’t work; the snake would only hang on with her very sharp hooked teeth, injuring me much more seriously than I otherwise would be. I reiterated that the snake would unlatch her teeth from my flesh without tearing if we poured alcohol on her head. The other men seemed undecided, but no one went to get rubbing alcohol. Wednesday held on tight, oblivious to the turmoil around us. She always was a good eater.
For some reason the subject came up in conversation, and the firefighters told me that I was lucky that no one had called 911, because if they had the cops would have definitely shot the snake and asked questions later. I made a mental note of this for the future.
About this time my boyfriend-at-the-time happened by the shop to visit me. I didn’t see or hear him, but he later told me that he had walked in the door and was asked by a fireman to go purchase some rubbing alcohol, which he did straightaway. He had no idea that I was the one who needed it, or why.
Now, I knew that there was rubbing alcohol in my shop somewhere, but things had been rearranged recently, and I didn’t know where it was. The store was large, and there were a number of places it might have been hidden. I had asked the men to look in the various cabinets in search of the elusive liquid, which finally some of them did. Might as well make themselves useful.
The man who had wanted to pull Wednesday off of me took the initiative and started unwrapping her tail from my body. This was met with my blood-curdling scream when Wednesday’s fish-hook shaped teeth were yanked backward through my wrist as she clamped down to keep a hold on her meal. The man let go.
Moments later, one of the men located a bottle of alcohol, and about the same time my boyfriend showed up with two bottles from the store across the street. A fireman opened a bottle and put it in my left hand. I poured the contents onto Wednesday’s head (or rather, where I knew her head must be under her many coils). She slipped her teeth out of my poor flesh almost painlessly, and uncoiled in disgust. I got up and opened her cage, lugged her inside, and latched the door. No one made a move to help me. Wednesday was instantly back to her sweet old self and she politely obeyed my nudging, seeming deeply confused. I turned around to see a bunch of big, strong, uniformed men gaping.
I went to the washtub and rinsed out my wound with a strong spray of water for a long time. It felt awful. I washed it with soap and poured more alcohol on it. My hand felt kind of weird. It wasn’t bleeding too much. There were lots of little holes in my wrist. I could feel the inner workings when I moved my fingers—I thought of Luke Skywalker checking out his new mechanical hand. The firemen told me that I must let the paramedics check me out. They seemed to assume I was going to resist, but I said, “okay”. Then they took their fire extinguisher and left.
As the fire-truck pulled out of the shop’s parking lot, edging past the paramedic’s vehicle, a woman in crisp office clothes walked in the door, her high heels clicking authoritatively. She glanced at the paramedics, and then told me that she wanted to purchase fifty of the three-week-old crickets. She looked like she had no time for dilly-dally. I imagined her boss as this incredibly demanding chameleon lizard sitting in a corner office waiting for his crickets. She was obviously sucking up for a promotion by getting his lunch. I told the office lady that I’d had a bit of trouble, holding up my masticated arm (which was now bleeding freely) as evidence. She still wanted fifty crickets. I went and got them for her. Part of me wanted to bleed on her merchandise, smiting her for her insensitivity, but the proprietress in me was automatic. I was dripping blood on the carpet, though. She gave me some money, and I got her change. Good thing my right hand was still working, I made two dollars and fifty cents. We may live and die, but commerce must go on. When she left I closed the door and locked it.
The paramedics then sat me down and checked me out, and my heart rate and vital signs were normal. This seemed to disturb them more than anything, because I was apparently not in shock. They said that I still had to go to the hospital, and told my boyfriend to make sure I went. Then they left, shaking their heads and glancing back at me as though I might sprout an extra head as soon as they weren’t looking. Despite private misgivings I allowed myself to be driven to the hospital, where I spent about six hours and over four hundred dollars to have my wound wiped off with a soapy sponge. The doctor complimented my wound-cleaning prowess. I had some nerve-damage—I’d lost feeling in my thumb, though it still worked okay. The doctor said it would probably never heal, and there was nothing to be done about it. I went to my Chinese doctor the following day, and with acupuncture and herbs my hand was just fine after a few weeks—all sensation returned to normal. I now have only a barely visible scar, a u-shaped constellation of tiny pinpricks.
(If you’re still wondering what happened with the rats, the fighting mysteriously stopped at about the same time I was bitten.)
The animals’ behavior returned to normal after that day. The snakes no longer thought I was food, and Wednesday was as mellow a serpent as ever. My friend’s dog came home, dirty but otherwise cheerful, and the shop crickets chirped merrily in their enclosures. In the following days people I knew said with total authority that my arm had been swallowed up to the shoulder, and I was viewed with suspicion whenever I tried to refute these claims. Various fantastic versions of the story burgeoned, and one of our employees told customers that my whole head had been swallowed! I ended up writing down all of the events shortly afterward, just so that my own memory wouldn’t be altered by the collective mythology.
Humans can be so weird.