by Whit Gibbons

May 26, 2003

As usual during spring, I get a lot of questions from people about snakes and other animals. For example, someone recently asked, "Do water snakes kill ducks in a pond?"

My answer was that a colleague (Mike Dorcas of Davidson College) and I recently wrote a book on watersnakes and reviewed all the scientific literature we could find on what they eat. We found no mention of a watersnake eating a duck, or even a duckling or a duck egg. I have received many other straightforward kinds of questions over the years, but with summer vacation upon us, the time seems right to lighten up and use parts of a column from several years ago about some other kinds of snake questions.

One type of "reptile call" is from the person who has just had a close encounter with a snake and is seeking assurance that the snake in the yard, on the deck, or in the carport is not venomous. Trying to identify a snake over the phone or by email (unless a photo is attached) is problematic. Verbal descriptions often leave us guessing, with no idea what the person actually saw. Tony Mills of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory took a classic call of this kind. A lady explained that she had returned from a trip and found a large snake in her driveway. According to her, the snake was "chartreuse all over with the center of each scale air-brushed a brilliant pink," a description that defies identification. We could only wonder what kind of trip she was returning from.

Sometimes the encounters are closer than seem advisable--like the call from the woman whose husband had caught a snake about four feet long in the woods behind their house. "We want to know whether it's poisonous. And whether we should keep it as a pet," she said.

I asked her to describe the snake. As with many such descriptions, some question lingered about what species it might be. So I asked, "Can you safely get close enough to look at its eye and see its pupils?" Any U.S. snake that large and with vertical pupils would be venomous.

"Oh, yes," she replied enthusiastically. "It's right here by the phone. My husband has it draped over his neck. And it has round pupils." I was happy for them, but I did wonder why they had bothered to call.

My all-time favorite phone call was one I received many years ago. When I answered the telephone, a sultry female voice said, "Hello. My name is Eve. And I have a problem with my snake."

Yes, indeed, I thought. Eve and the snake problem . . .

"My snake," Eve continued, "bit me. He's never done that before."

"Where did he bite you?"

"Right in the middle of my act," said Eve. I felt I was rapidly losing my already tenuous grasp of the situation.

You see," she explained, "I'm an exotic dancer and the snake is my costume."

A strangled "Oh?" was all I could manage.

"I need another snake for tonight's show. One that doesn't bite."

I briefly considered offering her one of my wife's dresses instead, but said, "What did you have in mind?"

"Well, the boa constrictor I use is six feet long. I hear you have a seven-foot-long indigo snake."

"That's true," I admitted. "We have one we use for educational purposes. But indigo snakes are a federally protected species. We have to have a permit to keep it, and I can't lend it to you." I did not add that although her snake act was undoubtedly highly educational to some in her audience, our permit probably did not cover the situation.

She began to plead, so I proposed another solution. As boas are mixed shades of brown, I suggested she get a brown adhesive strip and tape the snake's mouth shut during her act. She agreed that this might work, thanked me politely, and hung up.

The next day she called back to say it had worked. I of course was pleased she had had something nice to wear that night at the club.

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