When I was eleven I was an amateur herpetologist, carefully combing the backwoods of suburban Detroit in search of field specimens. Snakes and salamanders offered me a kind of quiet companionship, the kind I couldn’t find with other boys and especially girls. I felt more connected making my solitary way through swampy forests and fields then I ever did around friends or family. On my belly, wriggling after the gold-red ribbon of a Garter Snake or the flash of a Blue Racer’s sapphire sheen, I seemed to find my footing.
Scaly, legless carnivores held a certain charm that I found lacking in furry puppies — and my sister’s shrieks only fueled my zeal. Girls were the creatures frightening to me, bounding around in their flowery skirts with their furious giggles and strange smells. Feeling the heat of their gaze on me made me freeze … or want to flee. At Our Lady of Refuge Sunday school, I learned of the age-old rift between snakes and women. And I while I couldn’t understand the females’ fears, I could certainly sympathize with the snakes.
By adolescence, my snake charming abilities were widely known. Talking to girls was still a tall order, but rolling up quietly and confidently with a red-bellied mud snake laced between my fingers was a cinch. In college, I became the proud owner of an adorable Tegu, a large, aggressive South American lizard and the hit of my freshman hall. Propped atop my dorm room’s mismatched furniture, the crowd roared approval as the mighty Samson reared up on his hind legs like a tiny T-Rex, gulping down live goldfish after goldfish out of his water bowl in my OWN version of fraternal initiation. Sure, I was a bit of a freak to my sister and her friends, but to the chosen few it was courage in the raw, and the attraction wasn’t just limited to guys. My reptilian rapport guided me in finding more than one warm body in a dark room.
Handling cold-blooded vertebrates had become second nature to me, but well into my 20s interacting with warm-blooded females still gave me pause. Bitten hard by one of the latter, I took a risk and moved cross-country to her Southwestern home. Finding true love a bit exasperating, it wasn’t long before I was feeling along the confines of my first real, adult relationship for some hidden escape route. The Sonoran Desert, to my glee, turned out to be a giant, wild reptile sanctuary, where I felt every bit the eleven-year old again, free to explore a huge herpetological playground. Still easily rattled by interactions with my girlfriend, playfully tagging the tail or body of a coiled, venomous pit viper was always enjoyed with a sense of ease and deep appreciation.
My affection for Snakes side-winded me to eventually cross paths with Jeff Almond, the J. of J. & R. Reptile Rescue. Phoenix’s endless urban sprawl and dense rattlesnake population had created a demand for snake removal services and Jeff was the area’s top aficionado at “Pickin up hots,” the local Herpetology Club’s vernacular for handling a poisonous reptile. When my neighbor needed help evicting two six-foot Arizona Bull Snakes from her property, Jeff magically appeared. Roaring up in his gigantic SUV, studying the scene from his elevated perch with an impassive gaze and shiny black-gold eyes, he slid down from the cab, and made his way over, snake tongs in one hand and a bungi-corded garbage can in the other. I imagined his tongue darting from between dry, parched lips, checking the desert air for heat and direction. “For a generous donation,” he joked, “I’ll even go release ‘em into the yard of your favorite neighbor.”
Leaning against his back tailgate trading stories and scars, I acquainted myself with a snake man’s Snake Man. Jeff informed me that unseasonably high temperatures that early Spring had the crits on the move, leaving him and his wife with more business than they could rightly handle. “Might you be interested in lending what seems like a pretty capable hand?” he inquired.
Now there are dream jobs and then there are dream jobs, but this gig struck me as pure poisonous destiny. Here was the opportunity to enjoy the company of my forked-tongued friends on a regular basis and even get paid. But I was to soon to discover the job’s best perk: frantic women calling me all day and often into the night to rescue them from a Western Diamondback or Mojave Green.
Confidence, assurance, aplomb, whatever you want to call it, if I ever lacked emotional security from faith in myself when it came to females, I owned it now. “Is this the snake guy?” a breathy, eager female intoned over the line. Responses ranged from hysterical, weepy women hiding in the house to excited onlookers hot with curiosity and questions. Mrs. Holcomb across the street. Bunny across my gated community complex. A house filled with a half-dozen screeching teenage girls. I suddenly found myself eagerly ushered into the homes of women across the Valley of the Sun. “Ssssnake man, at your sssservice ma’am,” I’d respond, jokingly veering them from pure anxiety over into nervous laughter.
Bunny was a regular. She lived on the edge of an overgrown wash, a dry riverbed lined with dense foliage that doubled as a highway for nocturnal wildlife. After identifying the intruders’ exact whereabouts — “’The last time I looked, IT was headed for the air conditioner” — I’d calmly walk her through next steps – go keep an eye on her, not too much that she’ll sense it and want to move and not too little so that we lose sight of her. I threw around an awful lot of “We’s”, intimating that ‘We” were connected and united in our efforts. And the snake was always a “she” or “her”, for camaraderie reasons.
On the surface, admittedly, it may not appear all that sexy: a man rolls up with a homemade contraption made of wire and plastic piping, lassos an unpleasant smelling pest from an agitated woman’s yard, garbage-cans it, shares a few words of comfort and encouragement, and rides off into the desert sunset. But if you were there, man, I’m telling you, it was pure romance. Bunny would swing wide that door before I was half-way up the walk and welcome me home as if we were newlyweds. “What would I ever do without you, hon?” she’d coo. “And when you’re done, I have a plate warming in the oven for you.” Bunny was widowed, but the homes of married women often included a cowering husband whose terror only highlighted my courage. “You heard what he said, ‘Hold the bush back so he can see what he’s doing'”. I like to think I did a good turn to the local snake population as well as the local female population by putting both parties at peace. And I came to see releasing snakes back into the wild as my way of showing a little appreciation for their company during all my lean, lonely years.
Along the way I had come to identify so strongly with my little beady-eyed buds, maybe it’s no surprise that we eventually shared a home. When a three-foot Diamondback made Bunny’s garage its hibernation den one late November, I pulled him out and brought him home to the heat lamp and aquarium set up in my living room. Trouble was, a loose lid led hours later to a disturbingly empty tank. After a frantic search beneath couches and tables, refrigerators and washing machines, and banging around loudly every time I returned to a darkened house, I simply accepted my fate. Making love with my girlfriend weeks later, I spied some crinkled scales behind a bedpost and realized then how I, too, had crawled out of an old, uncomfortable skin.