by Lesley Scott
It's frightening, not being able to breathe and no one to help.
That person is never getting a handshake with me! Ever!
I have sure heard that every time I whip out a snake. This story is about one of many mistreated snakes.
Gusty winds blew leaves down the road in1971, and it seemed to give the birds permission to sing their sweet songs. Sometimes, the singing was so loud I could not think. At the time, I was working, cleaning and feeding in the bear habitat, being vigilant. Bears are frightening beasts. I worked at the Charles Towne Landing Animal Forest helping develop a zoo without bars. The concept, a production of "Wild Kingdom's" Jim Fowler, was being constructed for tourists to enjoy.
The settlers encountered a myriad of flora and fauna when they landed in the wooden ship, "The Adventurerer." over three hundred years later, the native animals of South Carolina live in large fenced habitats of two or more acres. The tourists were informed about the type of animals the settlers saw while hunting in the dense forest. I enjoyed talking to our visitors and sharing my knowledge of the native animals.
The woods, full of old live oak trees and bayberry bushes, remained as pristine as the settlers found the area. The oak trees had dark, black ridged trunk and small green leaves. Some of the trees actually dated back to over three hundred years old. The bayberry smelled like magnolia blossoms since the now rare bush version grew wild.
Commonly, our visitors at the entrance of the Animal Forest exclaimed, "It smells like a skunk!" We had no skunks. I explained many times that the sharp smell came from the foxes and raccoons. Billy the buffalo, also had his personal scent. He rolled in his urine so he could feel like he smelled pretty. I loved the animals and the smell of the dense woods. I felt like I was back in time before we became overpopulated and ruined many of nature's wonders.
The foxes, Baby, Mittens, Boots, Big Guy and Sam, always responded to my call, rolling all over each other, acting like playful pups. The foxes, so agile and graceful, floated across the roots of a tree that ran over the stream in the viewing area. Their capers delighted me to no end. Foxes also mate for life and the male fox will actually bring food to his mate when she is nursing.
The tourists seemed delighted whenever I climbed over the fence into the fox/coon habitat, and we put on our own little show. Each fox came and sat down in front of me when I called their name. Very intelligent and quick to learn, Mittens loved to fetch. The others would chase the ball, but play with it instead of bringing it back. Boots could jump up and catch the ball in his mouth. There are few animals I love and admire as much as foxes.
Soon, it was time to close the gates so no tourists could enter the Forest. We kept a number of dangerous animals in habitats that someone could climb into. The wolves were especially dangerous. I passed the wolf habitat and called them, “Hey, Wolfies!” They ran out of their hiding places with wiggly waggly tails. When the three Timber wolves finished the chicken backs I threw into their habitat, they all lifted their heads, made an “O” with their mouths and howled. I cannot describe it; the song was shrill and long. I almost told them to, “Shut up!” Actually, I did yell at them sometimes.
After some other dawdling, I found myself at “the Barn,” renovated for the office and the stalls were for cages. We kept a young, dangerous bear, a lovely Jaguar, two mountain lions (puma) all of who demanded to be petted. It was noisy and crowded.
On the other side of the barn lived a flock of young pelicans, egrets and herons, smelling like fish and making raucous noises. I paid them no mind as I waltzed into the office. There were several other employees waiting on the clock. I did not have to punch a card. I was considered Fowler's Assistant.
I noticed a large, damp gallon jar with a good sized King Snake curled inside. I could tell by the pattern referred to by herpers as a concatenate pattern, or as the locals called it a “Chain King” The soft beige color is like chains around the black beautiful iridescent snake. Angrily, I bellowed, “Who the Hell left that poor snake in that damp jar?” Nobody fessed up.
He was full of little red mites and had a bad case of mouth rot. The snake smelled like stale urine from the infection. This poor animal was in seriously bad shape. Could I save him? I thought so. I took him home and soaked him twice a day in Tincture of Green diluted soap and rubbed his mites with a small amount of baby oil. Within a week, he became shiny, sleek and his body flowed gracefully. A few days later, I noticed his skin was dull and his one eye looked opaque. Having kept snakes, I knew he was shedding. The milky film over the eyes is one of the first things to notice. That was a good sign of his health.
Uno needed a place to feel safe so he could rub up against a log, or a sharp rock in order to crawl out of his skin. We fixed Uno a nice place in one of my aquariums (which was not large enough). I found the perfect substrate of short tree limbs that had hard bark and a couple of large rocks. He finished shedding in a day or two and spent another few days hiding until his skin hardened.
Uno’s name means “one,” in Spanish. Since this fellow must have been quite a scrapper, he only had one eye. King Snakes kill and eat all other snakes, even each other. Therefore, the coupling has to be short and sweet. People breed them in captivity and it is a true science. A King Snake is a great pet and becomes very docile, as mentioned before.
Uno, all five feet of him, had his pick of snakes to choose from. We found five species of Rat Snakes in the area, and I to kept him well fed. He also liked the rats and mice we kept traps for in the barn. He seemed to be hungry almost all of the time, luckily, we did have a good food supply.
The clearing of the habitat areas drove many critters out of their habitats. Raccoons, squirrels, possums, snakes and a variety of turtles, especially big, nasty Snapping Turtles wandered lose around the Animal forest paths They had no place to go as we were located in the City of Charleston, South Carolina. So we used some of the stray animals for habitats, others were used to feed other animals and some just hung around being part of the scenery.
Since Uno boasted of such a length, he easily wrapped around my belt loops with snake to spare. Sometimes tourists asked me why my belt was moving. Uno was a part of me. Nestled down in a pillowcase, he traveled with me when he was not on me. I kept a few pillowcases just in case I got lucky and found him a meal.
I highly recommend anyone carrying a snake around his or her neck while driving --- don’t do it. I learned the hard way the situation can be dangerous or possibly deadly. Driving my little black and white Fiat home with Uno draped around my neck in a loose coil, I felt smug and secure. In the back seat, Rosie the raccoon and Stinky, my possum took up the room. Rosie, normally busy, was climbing all over the back seat of the little Fiat.
I felt Uno tense up. I ignored a sign I should have known. Uno’s coils of muscle tightened up fast. Now, it was my turn to be tense. I could be choked to death. I whipped into a service station for help. Back then, we didn’t have self-serve pumps. The employees even cleaned windshields. Hard to believe now. I fell out of my car by the air hose.
Good for me, or so I thought, four oily and dirty men were lolling around the gas pumps having a smoke break. Even at that time, I didn’t think it was a good idea. But I was more concerned for my personal safety. My face was red and I was squeezed hard enough to feel my pulse racing. I honestly felt faint. I was gasping for air, struggling like hell to untangle a possible disaster, trying to call for help.
The men at the gas pump were as useless as teats on a boar hog. They all bunched up and watched from a safe distance. Oh Hell, am I going to die here on this gas soaked concrete and I’m barely sixteen years old? I kept moving away from the car, clutching and clawing at my neck. Uno then seemed to relax a bit. Of course. He was nervous because of that lively little ‘coon I loved so dearly.
That is how I lived to tell the tale. Uno relaxed more and the men still watched with opened mouths. Finally, I pried Uno loose and slipped him back in his pillowcase. My heart was still racing and I was still seeing stars. What an experience!
I called those stupid men chicken and muttered a few other obscenities under my breath. I guess too many people are afraid of snakes. When I watch a snake move, I am in awe and wonder. Their long smooth and iridescent bodies flow like molten glass ---- very fluid. Yet their belly scoots are gripping the ground, so they are not really flowing as much as grasping the surface.
After a couple of months I noticed gusty leaves blowing down the road, it was time to let Uno loose to take care of himself and hibernate. I did not cry over my loss. I knew Uno was better off where he belongs, as do all wild things. All of God’s creatures deserve a natural life.