by Lesley Scott
Big Mama, a huge Burmese Python, was nowhere to be seen.
|Giant Snake Holds Community Hostage
In the early 90s, my career was as a writer/reporter/photographer for The Nashville Graphic. Located in Nash County, North Carolina, we had a few quiet days. A typical Monday for me involved sitting at my desk, wondering what to do with the ungodly mess of letters and messages. The phone rang, and I jumped at the startling sound. I recognized the voice right away. Joe, on the other end of the phone, sounded hysterical.
My friend, Joe, a pet dealer that mostly sold snakes, cried miserably on the other end of the phone. All I could make out was, “Big Mama.” She was his pride and joy, a Burmese Python weighing 289 pounds and 16 feet long. When he bred her to his male Burmese, Big Mama always produced albino babies. The largest and most ornery snake I’ve seen described Big Mama. I wondered what could have happened to this monster snake. I had a strong feeling that this story would be a true thriller!
After a few minutes, Joe, still crying, said, “Someone has stolen Big Mama!” Big Mama, well-known for her nasty disposition, needed five or six grown men to safely hold the gigantic snake. Joe, the only person Big Mama seemed to tolerate, loved her. Pulling off this heist took planning and several experienced individuals.
I rushed to Joe’s trailer where he kept a multitude of reptiles and mammals, mostly snakes. Joe, large and hefty, weighing in at around three hundred pounds, sported a thick beard and needed his cane to walk. “Whoever took her,” he told me, “had to know where I keep my spare keys." I could see the window shattered, and the thief let the others into the trailer. All of the evidence pointed to someone Joe knew and trusted.
"Big Mama," Joe said, "was probably tranquilized. She can be dangerous." There was no way in Hell anyone, a group or not, would have just stuck a hand in her tank to pull her out. Also, the lock on her cage had been opened, apparently with the spare keys. “They want her babies because they knew she was gravid,“ Joe agonized, "since they tranquilized her, the eggs will be dead." He cried some more.
Joe handed me a recent photo of himself and five young men holding the giant python, which is one of the largest breeds of snakes in the world. Other than those captive bred, Burmese Pythons are now living in the wild and are starting to take over Florida's Everglades. Joe convinced me that his snake was in someone's custody, not loose. Joe told me in graphic detail what he would do when we caught the snake nappers.
I wrote up the whole story for the upper fold of the front page with the picture of the huge missing python. The caption was: “Have you seen this snake?” The very day the paper came out, I received many anxious phone calls from the Castallia community where Joe and his animals lived. I heard a lot of fear and paranoia in Nash County and couldn't convince a soul that the snake had not escaped at all. She was stolen.
One woman told me that she was afraid to go outside to hang up her clothes on the clothesline. Several other callers were keeping their kids from playing outdoors or going to school. I tried to explain that the large snake had been stolen and not at large anywhere in Nash County. I had started a panic. This was really happening. I felt like I'd started "War of the Worlds."
The police department refused to investigate. The common belief among law enforcement was that Joe was lying and wanted to collect insurance money. Convinced the cops all hated snakes, I decided the next snake I found on the long country roads would find his way into a certain cop's locker. That didn’t sit well with me, and I tried to explain the situation. Joe didn’t even have insurance on his snake. Obviously, a so-called friend of his knew where the keys were kept and the rest is history. Joe still felt inconsolable. He loved that vile tempered snake.
About a week later, I received another frantic call from Joe. His next door neighbor saw an SUV stop in front of Joe’s house and several men seemed to be carrying what appeared to be a large snake. Had the snake nappers felt guilty and returned Big Mama when they realized the eggs were useless? Or the thieves were able to take her eggs. That action, more than anything, convinced us that the thief and accomplices knew Joe personally and brought her back because she was useless to them now. Joe came to the same conclusion and felt grateful that she had been returned. But we hadn't captured that large, feisty snake just yet.
Now, to find Big Mama. Released late on a Friday night, where a large, boggy swamp made its way across the street, she may be impossible to find. Joe was still very upset because Big Mama might be deep in the swamp, and she may never be found. Joe called me at home, because I am always in the mood for adventure. Lucky for us, Big Mama didn’t stray very far.
Hanging around a drainpipe, half submerged, Big Mama appeared to be relaxing in the water. Duck weed floated on the surface making it hard to see anything under the water. Willow trees also made it difficult, but not impossible, to slide down the bank near the big snake. Joe and his most trusted helpers stepped into the waist deep water near Big Mama. I was excited and taking pictures of the whole adventure, "This is going to be great," I told myself out loud.
It took about ten minutes of grabbing and wrestling, but the men finally were able to lift the snake out of the stagnant water. She hissed and struggled, and came close to biting Anthony’s hand. She had long, sharp, and needle like teeth aimed toward the back of her mouth for holding prey; she could have given Anthony a painful bite that would need stitches and would most likely become infected. It was a close call.
In the meantime, Big Mama broke free, trying to swim deeper into the swamp. The brave group of men followed her through the murky waters, home to many Water Moccasins. They were lucky, again, to hold their own against a nasty snake, Big Mama. Being out of film, I slid off the tailgate and splashed into the duckweed covered swamp, determined to help and have more excitement. The slime under my feet felt slick, but I found it lots of fun and memories. I'm no stranger to the swamp.
I watched in awe as Big Mama lifted three hundred plus pounds of Joe clean out of the water. What a photograph that would have made! I realized I had run out of film. This ordeal went on for over an hour. Finally, it appeared the worst could be over. Big Mama, worn out, made token gestures of resistance. The men, also worn out from the adventure, wiped swamp mud from our faces.
They somehow managed to pull Big Mama out of the swamp and on the road. Joe’s utility trailer seemed miles away when carrying a giant snake. “Oh I have just the thing,” I called out. I pointed to my large dog carrier I always kept on hand in the back of my heavy duty Ford diesel duel wheeled truck. It wasn’t easy, but finally Big Mama was safe and sound, curled up in the dog crate, still hissing and buzzing her tail. One of the boys brought an electric cart from Joe’s yard. It took all of us to lift and put the carrier on the back of the cart.
Now Big Mama was all safe and sound, back in her locked tank, and the community of Castallia would soon be sighing with relief. The residents of Nash County could finally feel safe enough to hang out clothes and let their children outside to play outside after reading my lead story. With all of the phone calls and fan letters, I felt like a celebrity. I admitted to myself that probably no one else but me would literally throw myself into this particular story.
I found it interesting that if Big Mama attacked anyone alone, she would surely crush them to death with her strong constrictive coils. Joe even told me that Big Mama could eat me, all ninety seven pounds. Being small and scrappy, I am not stupid enough to be scrappy with a large dangerous snake.
Big Mama soon went back to doing her job, hatching out albino babies worth $200.00 apiece as hatchlings. The price went up as the babies grew larger. No telling how big this Python called Big Mama would live and grow. I have to admit, I always love endings like this. Joe was so happy, big tears rolled down his face. Convinced I was instrumental in finding his snake, he hugged me tight.
I knelt down in front of her tank and really saw Big Mama for the first time. I noticed a beautiful snake. She had lovely smooth dark blue patterns with creamy brown rings wrapped around her shiny dark skin. When she moved, it looked like liquid glass flowing. I felt it easy to appreciate her primeval beauty.
If Big Mama had actually escaped, the community would have reason to fear. A Burmese Python, her size with such powerful muscles could easily kill a healthy grown man. She would also be a danger for pets and livestock. I've heard about the incident several times and watched the video of a Burmese Python smaller than Big Mama eat a large alligator.
Everyone was relieved and paid extra attention to the newspaper for quite a while. I'm sure the residents of Castallia and the surrounding area will be talking of this incident for many years to come. Parents can let their children outdoors and people can hang up their laundry with no fear. I told my editor, "This time, 'you can believe what you read'." Most of our readers wanted to read a thriller in spite of their fears. My editor gave me a hug and said, "You sure know how to sell newspapers!"