after Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Image Credit: Opheodrys aestivus,rough green snake. Photo by Jim Peters.
Hickory, Catalpa, Cypress, Pine, Chastetree, Cedar, Dogwood, Elm, Sparkleberry, Pawpaw, Maple, Blackhaw, Bay, Hornbeam, Maidenhair, Pecan, Redbud, Birch, Sugarberry, Sweetgum, Sycamore, Hawthorn, Blueberry, Loquat, Guava, Silverbell, Witchhazel, Juniper, Magnolia, Tupelo, Devilwood, Sweet Olive, Hophornbeam, Sourwood, Plum, Cherry, Laurel, Peach, Cumquat, Nectarine, Holly, Willow, Camelia, Buttonbush, Persimmon, Buckeye, Palm, Fringetree
My life as a young naturalist, junior herpetologist, wannabe zoologist began when I got prescription eyeglasses at eight years old. I suddenly saw the magnificent details of a startlingly defined world. My mother recalls her horror at not knowing how poor my vision was until we drove home from the opticians. With my wire frames too thin for their Coke bottle lenses, I announced with glee every noticed new thing I could see on our familiar ride through our neighborhood. “Look at the leaves!” I shouted, like an autumn leafer, startled at how individual each creation. My watercolor imagery transformed with dimension and accuracy into a landscape. “That tree is different from that one! And that one! Look at all the different shapes of leaves!” The leaves, like what one heard about snowflakes, no two exactly alike. Astonishing to me, although I’d never seen snow growing up in northwest Florida.
Live oak, White oak, Water oak, Myrtle oak, Chinkapin oak, Bluff oak, Swamp oak, Chestnut oak, Shumard oak, Willow oak, Blackjack oak, Bluejack oak, Turkey oak, Post oak, Red oak, Unthought-of-oak, Overcup oak, Sand post oak, Sand live oak
Oak leaves can be rounded or pointed, oval or lobed or star-shaped, serrated or smooth, with or without bristles. Oak trees are hermaphrodites, producing both male flowers and female flowers, the male ones, worm-like catkins, would litter our windshield and driveway. Its fruit or nuts, called acorns, grow in cup-like structures known as cupules, and turned upside down, look like little round faces wearing tiny ski caps. More than 450 oak species are recorded worldwide, with at least 19 commonly found in Florida.
Four oak varieties and a catalpa tree grew in my mom and stepdad’s front yard, and my sister and I needled their acorns onto fishing line we strung around our necks like strands of beads, varying the patterns of the tiny scrub oak acorns with the green live oak berries and the redder nuts from the laurel oak. The towering pecan trees on my grandparents’ land were strung with seasonal bagworms, and for the first time I saw they came from actual baggy nests, which before glasses I thought came out of high Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, like the shaggy gray beards that hung from so many live oak and cypress trees along the river. The webworms, larvae of the white bagmoth, Malacosoma Americanum, threatened our harvest, pecans we gathered and sold to Renfroe’s Nut Company for Christmas money. Thick blooming camelias and sprawling white cedar lined the narrow lane between my pawpaw’s and my great-grandparents’ house, where sweet-sour scuppernongs stretched from the grape arbor to the gate. I chewed the bitter ends of Bahia grass and drew sweet nectar from the honeysuckle flowers.
Twenty-twenty vision on the river was what it must have been like when The People emerged from the fog, an old Creek story of how the clans were formed. As the sun would burn the morning mist off of the water, I saw my kinsman clearly in the swampy sloughs: crawfish and water spiders, cranes and herons, bald cypress knees, and palmetto fans. Everything my pawpaw or dad drew my attention to, I now saw, and they could see all along what I eagerly pointed out. I could even see my bobber move as the bluegill bumped the bait, no longer had to wait for the distant orange blur to disappear beneath the murky water. I could actually see where I cast my rod or pole, the shadows where my dad told me the big fish were hiding. I could see layers of distance and dimension through the thick vines and leafy fauna stretching back from the inlet banks, could see the kinds of places my pawpaw pointed out where his grandparents hid to avoid the march to Oklahoma.
My improved eyesight also affected my reading, and I devoured anything related to nature and animals. World Book Encyclopedias, my father’s Field & Stream, every animal book in the school library and county library’s branch near the supermarket. My bedroom wallpaper was an ABCs of animals, from aardvark to zebra, and I started a life-list of wild pets and sightings, imagining my life as a future veterinarian or zookeeper.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Squamata, Serpentes, Colubridae, Opheodrys, Vernalis
Smooth Green Snake
My first “pet” snake was purchased in a pet shop, a smooth green grass snake docile to hold and an easy feeder, crickets plentiful to catch or buy cheap at any local bait store I could ride my bike to. I was eight, a determined young herpetologist, already familiar with the local species of every reptile in my Florida wildlife field guides. While I loved to observe the animals in their natural settings, now that I could see them, already felt a tinge of guilt in their caging, I fell prey to my personal desires to observe them more closely, to touch them.
I knew the smooth green snake I named Oliver was far from her original habitat, ranging from Toronto and Quebec down through Illinois and Virginia, yet I kept her in a ten-gallon aquarium in my small bedroom. I studied Oliver, was able to gender her by the shape and number of scales around her cloaca, measured her, 18 inches, average length for a mature adult, slender, relaxed, graceful, and barely a handful. I’d carefully prepared a terrarium with gravel and dirt, a wide length of bark and rocks and leafy branches, did my best to mimic the wild. A water bowl she sometimes coiled into. I carried her to the yard and let her bask in the sun, explore the grass, placed her into the lowest branches of the catawba tree, once watched her capture and eat a catawba worm, larva of the Catalpa sphinx moth, Ceratomia catalpae, that I’d usually pluck into paper bags to fish with.
Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Rodentia, Castoridae, Castor, Canadensis
North American Beaver
The North American Beaver is the second largest rodent in the world. With a habitat throughout the United States and Canada, a large head and massive, tree-falling teeth, the beaver is a prime example of evolutionary adaption for a life around and under water. A beaver can hold its breath up to fifteen minutes. Its back feet are webbed, ducklike, for swimming, while its front paws resemble the dexterous hands of a squirrel or raccoon; it can carry logs while walking upright on land. A membrane over its eyes, and valves in its ears and nostrils seal closed for waterproofing. The beaver’s long flat tail is scaly, reptilian, but shaped like the bill of an Australian platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, and used both as paddle and rudder, as well as a tool for its social warning. Beavers will defend their territories and family members, and will alert others of encroaching danger with a loud, echoing smack of their flat tails against the water’s surface.
My dad and stepmom brought home two baby beavers from Defuniak Springs. They’d heard a hunter brag at the boat launch that he’d shot a big lactating female, and my dad had planned to fish near the dam where the jerk said he killed her. There was only one active beaver lodge on the east side of Juniper Lake, and there, from the bass boat, my stepmom heard the cry of hungry babies. My dad removed a few logs to find two orphaned newborns. They wrapped the kits in a towel, returned to the boat ramp, and bought a doll-sized plastic bottle to alternate feeding them a homemade mix of mammal formula. My stepmom prepared a cardboard box for them with towels and water and strips of bark and newspaper, but the kits soon grew teeth and chewed through the box. The babies swam back and forth in our bathtub. Within six weeks, however, my sister’s and my favorite, the runt we named Squeaky because of its constant chirring, succumbed to a breathing infection. Its hardier sibling my dad donated to the Swamparium in Cantonment, where the beaver grew up in a fenced-in pool enclosure with various slider turtles, a pair of wood ducks, and an injured ring-billed seagull.
Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Carnivora, Procyonidae, Procyon, Lotor
My stepmom also had a trained racoon that she walked on a leash around their trailer park. The racoon, I think, saw me as sibling, new stepsibling, and clearly the trailer was his territory.
“Coon hunting” in my family existed only in spotting the masked ringtails, thankfully not in shooting them. We’d take the boat out after a fish and squirrel fry, shine flashlights into the trees until we found their glowing eyes. I can close my eyes now, 35 years since I’ve been there, and still recall with distinctive clarity the particular smell of the Apalachicola River around midnight.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Squamata, Serpentes, Colubridae, Heterodon, Platirhinos
Eastern Hognose Snake
Eight months after I’d purchased the green snake, I traded-up, at least in terms of retail price at the pet store, and traded her in for a local species supposedly plentiful but one I hadn’t seen alive in the wild, an eastern hognose snake. I’d wanted a hognose to watch it display the curious traits I read about. When frightened, the hognose will flatten its head like a cobra, hiss, and strike, usually without even biting, in a head-butting way I imagined comical. But its flipside and far more common form of defense, I found, was to play dead, turning over on its back, and shitting a sticky smelly goo that even a swamp boy didn’t like getting on him or cleaning. Piggy wasn’t a “fun” snake, his reticulated scales not as “soft” to “pet” as Oliver was, when he let me without going limp. He was practically unholdable, though interesting to watch in his terrarium, the way he’d strike and swallow the oak toads and eastern cricket frogs that I caught on my front porch and around the yard. But usually as soon as I opened the top of the cage, if I wasn’t quiet when I fed him, Piggy’d play dead, poop his rocks or gravel; his tank began to stink no matter how often I cleaned it.
A few years later, I’d finally find an eastern hognose in the wild, and when I lifted the rock it hid under, it spread its snouty head flat and hissed like a cobra. I tried to lift it with my snake-catching golf putter, and it flipped over “dead,” that familiar stink reminding me it was a reptile best left alone in its natural habitat.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Squamata, Serpentes, Colubridae, Coluber, Constrictor, Priapus
Southern Black Racer, Blacksnake
My dad knew I how much I wanted a wild snake, a vine snake, the skinny rough green snake, Opheodrys aestivus, that grew to be much longer than my smooth green snake ever would have, and Dad said he frequently saw them in the cypress limbs overhanging the river. I’d never seen one, except in pictures, not even a tame one in the pet store, but Dad promised to catch me a local rough green snake. One afternoon he showed up at my mom’s with an angry pillowcase tied in a knot and turbulent. “I caught you some beauties,” he said. “Two of them so you can start your own ark.” I was so excited.
Forty-five years later my mom confirmed the memory. “First time in my life I ever saw a snake do that – though I’d heard they could and would if they got mad enough – and not one but two at the same time,” she told me on the phone. My dad opened the pillowcase and dumped out two big blacksnakes, so pissed off they stood straight up on their tails and hissed at us. They stood up, like malevolent vipers in cartoons, then fell to the grass and raced off in different directions. One escaped into the woods behind the house, the other I caught behind the head, in the flower bed, with the help of my dad and with my stepdad’s golf club. After several stinging bites that were bearable but drew blood, I placed the snake back in the pillowcase. Later I put the black racer in the tank with the hognose, with no immediate trouble, but the first time I tried to feed them, they both chose the same toad and struck, latched on, and I thought, until Piggy finally let go, the racer was sure to swallow him. I let the blacksnake go in our backyard.
My pawpaw never messed with snakes, nor really any wild animal other than to appreciate them in their natural settings. Black racers, he said, I could let loose any time in his vegetable gardens to keep them clear of rodents. Rattlesnakes, water moccasins, copperheads, obviously were best chased from the yards where we played, but a reptile as a pet in a cage, he let me know without so many words that he didn’t approve. The other racer common in his fields was the whip snake, also known as the brown racer, red racer, coachwhip, or hoop snake.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Squamata, Serpentes, Colubridae, Masticophis, Flagellum
As far as I know, my pawpaw never lied to me, but all the snake books lead me to believe that what he told me can’t be true. Pawpaw said when he was a teenager, a coachwhip chased him like a loosed bicycle wheel across a field, swore the snake grabbed its tail, made a hoop, and rolled after him down the lane where he ran from the chicken coop.
The second longest native North American snake, coachwhips are thin, large-eyed, and vary in color depending on their habitats. The mottled variety in northwest Florida were fast, I never caught one, and I never saw one grab its tail, though they often raised their heads above the rows of squash and beans, similar to those angry black racers my dad had caught for me.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Squamata, Serpentes, Colubridae, Pantherophis, Guttatus
Corn Snake, Red Rat Snake
The hognose I traded in, for a fascinating young red rat snake I named Charlotte. Charlotte was the beginning of a lifetime affection for rat snakes, the large sub-family Colubrinae that includes king snakes, milk snakes, chicken snakes, vine snakes, and indigo snakes. Charlotte was a constrictor, a hugger, a climber, an escape artist. I’d buy her live white feeder mice, Mus musculus, one at a time, which she’d stalk in her twenty-gallon horizontal terrarium, flicking her tongue as she followed it and finally struck, teeth gaining hold and then a quick twist as her whole body wrapped around it, around herself, as prey and snake formed a scaly coral and copper ball striped with the black and white checkerboard of her belly. When the mouse was dead, Charlotte would uncoil, expand her mouth to swallow it, then stretch out as I watched the lump squeeze through her jaws and move through her neck and body while slowly also being digested.
Mr. Nowak had a big gray rat snake, Pantherophis spiloides, at the Swamparium. He had a black and white ringed kingsnake, Lampropeltis getula, a diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus, and two pigmy rattlesnakes, Sistrurus miliarius. He also had a six-foot eastern indigo, Drymarchon couperi, which he took out and held once in a while to lecture on the longest snake in North America, also an endangered species. His indigo snake was blind, likely poisoned with gasoline poured into a gopher hole to bring out the rattlesnakes, and had been brought to the Swamparium after some rancher found it dehydrated and dying on the highway.
If we weren’t out on Perdido River, or the Conecuh (Escambia) River, in its bay, or down at Juniper Lake in Defuniak Springs, camping out along the Apalachicola, or up at the hunting camp in Burnt Corn, Mr. Nowak’s Swamparium in Cantonment was my favorite place to go on weekends with my dad. Mr. Nowak’s backyard zoo had no admission charge. He had the snakes I mentioned, several big alligators, otters, our former pet beaver, red and gray foxes, a bobcat, and the world’s largest recorded alligator snapping turtle he’d name Big Jim.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Testudines, Cryptodira, Chelydridae, Macrochelys, Temminckii
Alligator Snapping Turtle, Loggerhead Snapper
Mr. Nowak’s Big Jim was estimated to be more than 300 years old. He weighed 307 pounds in 1971, when officially measured for the Pensacola News Journal at over 4 feet long, and 12 inches wide across the head. He was the scariest-looking animal I ever saw alive in a pen, or dead on a roadway, and the alligator snappers that occasionally hooked onto my father’s catfish trotlines, the most frightening things I’ve ever seen in fresh water. Mr. Nowak caught Big Jim in 1961, before I was born, on the end of a trotline set in Perdido River, but Big Jim lived the rest of his life in captivity at the Swamparium created to showcase him.
I remember Big Jim’s monstrous open mouth, the dangling red attachment at the back of his throat that looked like the wiggler worms we fished with; it was the bait the turtle hunted with, once, from the bottom of the muddy river. Sometimes Big Jim’s mouth would hang open in his pen, and Mr. Nowak would go in with a trimmed stick and demonstrate that, when anything touched or triggered that tongue appendage known as a vermiform, the pointed snout would snap shut like a sprung mousetrap, or like a guillotine, easily removing fingers or breaking a broomstick. Big Jim’s dragon-like spikes had eroded over the centuries, but his carapace was still ridged like a dinosaur’s, and green-gray algae grew across his shell. One of Big Jim’s thirteen shell plates had been pierced with a spearhead, and its bony carapace had grown around the broken flint used by scientists to estimate the turtle’s age.
I didn’t linger at Big Jim’s cage. Everything about him reminded me of my dad’s scary fishing buddy, Mr. Reeves, whose hawkish and almost toothless mouth hacked a ragged cough I thought he’d surely drop dead of. The three teeth Mr. Reeves did have were implants he removed with a lick of his tongue, and he flicked at them endlessly, reminding me of that twitching appendage in the alligator snapping turtle’s throat. I ate my first snapping turtle soup at Mr. Reeves’ house, cooked up by his wife and served with hot biscuits and honey. To me it tasted like river water, but when fried, snapping turtle tasted like alligator, like rattlesnake, like squirrel, and I guess, if we just consider just the crunch of thick batter, a bit like chicken.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Crocodilia, Alligatoridae, Alligator, Mississippiensis
Once I could see at a distance, I could distinguish an alligator from a log in the water or along the shore of the rivers and lakes of our common hunting grounds, and I could now identify different snakes in the wild, usually water moccasins, Agkistrodon piscivorus, and banded water snakes, Nerodia fasciata. The American alligator is designated the state reptile of Florida (as well as Louisiana and Mississippi) and, like coyotes, Canis latrans, they can be found almost anywhere in Florida. Male alligators often grow to 15 feet and up to 1000 pounds.
The only time I saw my father truly frightened, and probably the fastest I’ve ever seen him move before or since, was when I once threw an empty beer bottle, picked up from the shore of Juniper Lake where we were camping, and aimed it at a large basking alligator. Perhaps thanks to those eyeglasses, or stupid bad luck, the bottle connected with the gator’s hard snout with surprising accuracy. The glass burst and the reptile rose on its strong, short legs, sprinting along the shore, before careening with an angry splash back to the lake. My dad had scooped me up in one arm and run in the opposite direction. He ran until he stopped, some thirty yards toward the road, and then he beat me breathless, and deservedly, for putting us both in such danger. My pawpaw might have spanked me for disrespecting that formidable predator. I felt terrible for what I’d done that day, probably hurt the alligator, but I hadn’t been exactly scared. Mr. Nowak climbed in and out of his alligators’ pens like they were giant pets, though forever after that day beside the lake, whenever Mr. Nowak entered his fenced-in ponds at the Swamparium, I held my breath for him.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Squamata, Serpentes, Colubridae, Thamnophis, Saurita, Saurita
Eastern Ribbon Snake
All the Florida reptile books mentioned how abundant and common were garter snakes, Sirtalis sirtalis, the most common snake species in North America, but despite my daily outdoor adventures, I’d never come across a wild one. Among those almost daily searches in the woods, I always imagined I might see a Florida panther, Puma concolor couguar, no matter how rare and unlikely. I trained my eyes for any glimpse of new species, and was able to add various animals to my notebooks via my afterschool excursions hunting garter snakes.
The closest species I’d found to the wild garter snakes were two ribbon snakes for sale at the pet shop. My corn snake was getting too big, almost three feet long including her tail, and her diet grew more difficult to maintain. She ate twice a week, mice I had to buy in two separate visits to the pet store, and my mom wouldn’t let me bring the mouse into the house. Mice are my mother’s phobia and where she drew the line; even in the car on the ride home, the mouse had to be double-bagged and locked in a box inside the trunk. I had to take Charlotte’s terrarium outside just to feed her. And after her trip to my elementary school for fifth-grade show and tell, I traded in the corn snake for two slender ribbon snakes.
For the ribbon snakes I gave the terrarium a makeover, attempting to improve my semblance to their outdoor world, my outdoor world indoors. My stepdad helped me convert a corner of the tank into a swimming area, where I’d release minnows and small bream netted from nearby Sugar Creek for them to catch and eat, as well as small frogs and big tadpoles. The ribbon snakes were pretty, skinny cousins to a garter, had black and yellow stripes with pale beige bellies. They never bit me, seemed not to mind being handled, often fell asleep or into long trancelike pauses stretched on my forearm from fingers to elbow.
Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Carnivora, Musteloidea, Mephitidae
There are two species of skunk found in Florida, the common striped version and the rarer eastern spotted. Three striped skunk babies my dad saved from the roadside, their mother and siblings flattened by autos, were caged in the backyard at his and my stepmom’s new house, the raccoon walking had resulted in them getting asked to leave the trailer park. The young skunks’ glands were beginning to mature, and my dad took them to a veterinarian to be descented. They still smelled pretty musky, but I didn’t mind, had always liked the pungent smell of the fox pens at the Swamparium. But while funny to watch walk around with their wattle, the baby skunks got mean as adolescents, or perhaps for the intrusive surgeries that rendered them naturally defenseless, and those three southern polecats were eventually delivered and donated to Mr. Nowak’s Swamparium.
The skunks got mean, the little beaver died, the raccoon eventually escaped. I was gaining a little perspective on the idea of raising wild animals as so-called pets. My sister got a kitten. My dad and stepmom began to breed Labrador retrievers. I still had my ribbon snakes in a glass cage in my bedroom where I lived with my mom and stepdad. We’d also moved, into a new neighborhood in a supposedly better school district. The subdivision attempted to tame the wild it encroached upon, but there were there still rampant creeks and woods all around us. There was even a beaver colony in an estuary half a mile behind our house, and in my Christmas gift of a little used johnboat, I could paddle up close to the wild beavers while I fished after school with my cane pole.
Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Rodentia, Sciuridae, Sciurus, Carolinensis
Eastern Gray Squirrel
Gray squirrels are also commonplace in Florida, the eastern species ranging west to Texas and north to Quebec and Manitopa. My stepmom had sworn off bottle-feeding wild babies, but the gray squirrel fallen from its nest in the pine tree in their new yard seemed to be orphaned, was just growing fur, eyes stuck closed, and it struck a chord in her maternity. The new pet that grew up faster than my baby half-sister, that learned to leap from shoulder to shoulder, from dad’s lounge chair to the sofa. The squirrel would climb up the curtains and run across the top of the curtain rods, began to venture to the porch and then into the yard. He’d adventure and return to sleep inside, until instinct took over. Then he slept outside, chirping to us from the pine tree, scampering back from time to time, and up our jeans, to take the apple slices and pumpkin seeds we offered.
My real mom preached leave wild babies alone, haunted from her teenage experience of trying to save a fallen blue jay. She’d climbed the tree to replace it in its nest, only to be speed-bombed by its angry and protective parents.
Animalia, Chordata, Aves, Passeriformes, Coridae, Cyanocitta, Cristata
The blue jay is a migratory songbird, noted for its frosty blue wings and crest, white face and breast, a striking black mask and collar and wing tips. A talkative bird that is bold and aggressive, it is known to attack fearlessly both humans and other species who near its nests.
Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Carnivora, Canidae, Vulpes, Vulpes
The backyard of my mom’s new house bordered a forest area quickly becoming deforested. The subdivision being developed was called Fox Run, and one of the red foxes began to appear in the back of our yard every morning. For almost a year I would go out and watch it run back and forth as it watched me from the border of the trees. The last time I saw the fox, it had ventured into the front yard. It followed me into the street and half the way to the bus stop.
The new school had specialized studies programs, and I selected a science class in Herpetology. There was a kingsnake in the classroom. There were garter snakes, a rough green snake, salamanders and blue-tailed skinks and anole lizards, a box turtle. We first studied the poisonous species found in Florida, a prerequisite precaution for fieldtrips.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Squamata, Serpentes, Viperidae, Agkistrodon, Piscivorus
Cottonmouth, Water Moccasin, Swamp Moccasin, Viper
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Squamata, Serpentes, Colubridae, Nerodia, Sipedon
Common Water Snake, Banded Water Snake, Streaked Snake, Water Pilot, Water Snake
Water moccasins are often confused with the nonvenomous relative, the common water snake, or banded water snake,
Water moccasins are often confused with the nonvenomous relative, the common water snake, or banded water snake, water adder, water pilot, or streaked snake, and the woods and creeks where I played and fished were filled with both species. The cottonmouth is thick or fat bodied, squat in comparison to the slenderer water snake. The moccasin, a pit viper, has a blunt triangle head and pits behind its nostrils; its eyes have split pupils. The water snake has a narrow, oval head and is round-pupiled. Vertical stripes run down the harmless species’ jaw; whereas the cottonmouth has horizontal lines that stretch from its eyes to the back of its head.
Babies of both species are close in coloration, dimension and overall characteristics, and I once misidentified a capture I brought to a public speaking class as a visual aid. Amid a dramatic pause where I was about to open the glass gallon jar and pour the small snake out onto the lectern, I held it up in the classroom’s fluorescent lights. It had vertical eyes. It had a horizontal stripe beneath its mouth. I averted a disaster, but it resulted in the banning of live animals being part of any future student presentation.
The mistaken identity was a good wake-up call: I was no expert. An amateur aficionado, I released the baby cottonmouth in the creek where I captured it. Catch and delayed release had been my initial plan, to only hold local species long enough to observe them a few weeks. But I was young, impatient, loved the adventure of the search as much as anything, and no matter how well I tried to take care of my creatures, I became a small-time accomplice in this wildlife trade.
Although I continued to keep snakes as “pets” all through college, drove to reptile “shows” throughout Florida and Alabama, I became more and more aware of the problem of this pet trade, as well as more critical of any kind of so-called zoos, including the Swamparium. Like my vision had sharpened when I put on corrective lenses, my joy at first seeing the wild creature live was changed, quickly replaced with a sorrow if not repulsion at seeing more clearly the animals’ limited living condition. Caged, or leashed, aquariumed, I couldn’t witness it any longer, couldn’t contribute to the disruption of their removal.
I reframed my obsessions to touch or get close to wildlife to appreciation, observation, and tried to control that sense of possession that lingered to pick up and hold any nonvenomous snake I might come across.
In my thirties, I had the opportunity to caretake a rural property in Vermont in the summers, and the Calais mountain forest farmstead was a paradise of garden fauna. Garter snakes were everywhere, on the steps to the front and back porch, on the gravel drive, in the grass, often even climbing the screen doors, not to mention among the water lily and in the iris beds. There were two ponds on the property, various springs and crossing streams: turtles and beavers and a muskrat, eagles and owls. A blue heron. Redwing blackbirds in the cattails. Chipmunks. Deer. Once a moose. Once a black bear.
After the first few years, I made a deal with the snakes. I’d only pick up one a season (though moving a snake from inside the house or outbuilding didn’t count as a “capture”). And five minutes was the longest I would let myself hold one. The rationale was they didn’t enjoy my fascinated intrusion. It scared them. And it wasn’t necessary. Initially I’d often pick one of the first garters of the summer, feeling the excitement of the coming abundance and just to get the anticipation over with. Eventually I learned to wait, and in what became my ninth and last August, that patience was rewarded with a foot-long ringneck snake, something I’d never seen in the wild, never touched or held.
Animalia, Chordata, Reptilia, Squamata, Serpentes, Colubridae, Diadophis, Punctatus
Although ringneck snakes are believed to be abundant in their range, from southeastern Canada to central Mexico, their secretive and nocturnal nature leaves the science on the species unclear. They are slightly venomous, but rear-fanged and docile, causing no threat to humans. The last snake I held, I picked up in the morning dew, crossing the grass near a maple tree. It was brown, shiny wet and smooth, its collar and belly orangish-red. It curled in my palm as I carried it into the outbuilding to photograph it. Such a tiny constriction as it wrapped through my fingers. I rubbed my thumb under its chin and then released it in the nearby flowerbed.
Chip Livingston‘s nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Carve, Ploughshares, The Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. He’s the author four books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Chip teaches in the low-rez MFA program at Institute of American Indian Arts. He lives in Montevideo, Uruguay.