LA-DE-DA AND THE UNAWARE WRITER
The roller blader was blithely unaware of the diamondback rattlesnake in her path. One bladed foot pushed off, then the other, while the distance between human and serpent closed.
I thought to shout a warning. “Look out! There’s a rattlesnake ahead!” But I did not. I was afraid I might startle her, she might panic and fall, perhaps right on top of the snake.
How, I wondered, could anyone not see the lurking danger? It was a large snake, thick as my arm. Its diamond pattern was obvious under bright illuminating sun. It was not a particularly long rattlesnake at four foot, but it was definitely robust. A strike might not kill the roller-blader, but it would sure make her life miserable.
Still the young woman came toward the snake, which was stretched half on and half off the path, and she never saw it.
La-de-da, the skater rolled demurely, while barely breaking a sweat. Perhaps the music that came into her ears through the wires connected to her Ipod distracted her. She was also a young woman, probably so young she had never seen an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake except in a zoo.
I held my breath while she glided right by the snake, which made nary a rattle. Instead, it jerked violently out of her way, and it never struck. Lucky young woman, I thought, but I was somewhat contemptuous of her. She had passed danger without even knowing it was there. Such a thing would never happen to me, an experienced outdoorsman.
My father used to repeat the adage that pride precedes a fall; thus, I can never be proud of anything without worrying what is going to go wrong.
Turns out, my father was right. My pride fell on July 29, 2008.
I have made a lot of excuses for myself. It was a scorcher, and I had ridden my mountain bike 28 miles already. Wanting to look cool before the women exercising in the park, I put my bifocals in my shorts’ pocket.
To add a few more miles, I turned sharply on a well-field road departing from the asphalt track. And passed unknowingly by a diamondback fully as large and healthy as the one the roller-blading young woman had narrowly missed.
Stunned when I realized what had happened, I reached to my right leg just above the ankle. I came away with a handful of blood.
My family moved from nearly serpent-less New Jersey to Pinellas County, Florida, in 1951. It seemed in those days that venomous snakes were everywhere within the county. We helped to slay them. Thus, via karma, I was deserving of bad luck with venomous snakes, marvelous creatures that present little harm to humans if properly respected. In fact, rattlesnakes are very beneficial, holding down rodent populations that could carry various diseases. Rattlers are, of course, a greatly diminished component of our natural world and should only be killed when they present clear dangers.
We didn’t realize that back in the 1950s.
My father was a builder. He cleared lots to build on. Some of you in Pinellas County who read this probably live in or near houses that he built. In the process of land clearing, rattlesnakes that were longer than my father’s six-foot height were commonly killed. Those astonishing creatures died so that multitudes may live in Pinellas County.
It was also not uncommon for my mother, while doing wash, to let out a blood-curdling scream. I knew what this scream meant. She had come upon a rattlesnake in the garage by the washing machine. I foolishly dealt with those snakes with the reckless bravery of youth. I would grab a yard tool (usually the pointed spade) and either behead the rattlesnake or bash its brains out. I never hesitated or missed, a show of confidence that I would not have now.
Our cat Jerry was also expert at bringing me “ground rattlers,” that is dusky pygmy rattlesnakes.
As a bane on the rattlesnake population of Pinellas County, I had it coming. I had also pushed my luck around venomous snakes.
While working with photographer Pete Carmichael on THE WORLD’S MOST SPECTACULAR REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS, I assisted him in taking shots of the world’s most incredible reptiles at various herpetological stores that sold to the general public and to those with special permits.
Here’s how I helped the master photographer with venomous snakes from about the world.
Pete would get a potentially deadly snake from a cage using a forked instrument that probably has a technical name. Suffice it here to call it a “snake-catching stick.” Pete would deposit the twisting, hissing snake on a table in a bright room and entice the creature to coil. Once it was coiled, I dropped a ceramic pot - one like you use for planting something large - over the critter.
The theory was that the snake, accustomed to the dark under the pot, would be blinded by light when I quickly lifted the pot up. Pete would click click click with his Nikon, and then I would drop the pot again over the snake before it had time to adjust to the light.
This worked fine for Sahara horned vipers and rhinoceros vipers. It worked pretty cool for West African Gabon vipers and eyelash palm pit vipers. This technique was successful on just about everything, until I lifted the pot off a green McGregor’s pit viper, which caromed around the tiny room we were working in as if it had discovered coffee and consumed a good deal of it.
With the snake-catching stick, Pete chased the snake to no avail. I stood still and watched my legs. A man missing three fingers on one hand came to our rescue. He simply grabbed the snake with his good hand and walked away with it.
How had this man lost the three fingers? I inquired. The answer: to a cobra bite.
After completing my ride, I returned to my car and flushed the back of my leg with water. There were no puncture marks revealed. Instead, there were two scratches about an inch apart and roughly two-inches long. I decided I must have scratched the back of my leg on some saw palmetto I had bicycled through while on Panther, a difficult off-road trail. On the other hand, I wondered. Was it possible that the rattlesnake had struck at me but come up short? More questions: unable to drive its fangs into my leg, had it just missed and grazed me? And if so, had venom entered my body?
Maybe I had just scratched the numerous yellow-fly and mosquito bites I had earned in 2008 during several hundred hours in the woods while wearing shorts. I couldn’t be snake bit. I just couldn’t.
I thought I should call Bill Lamar. William Lamar is perhaps one of the world’s foremost herpetologists. He wrote THE WORLD’S MOST SPECTACULAR REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS, a book I produced.
Only one problem: Bill was sailing down the Amazon.
I would call Pete.
Then I remembered Pete was in Costa Rica.
I stumbled shaken into the park ranger’s office and tried to phrase the question to the head ranger. “One would know, wouldn’t one, if one was bitten by a diamondback or not?”
Do you know how long you can stare at the back of your leg? The answer to that is one hour and a half. During the entire time I was watching my leg, I was anticipating it becoming an enormous sausage-like appendix and the swelling of my foot so that it would not fit into my Asics Gel any longer. I imagined my skin blackening on a swollen leg.
I knew I wouldn’t die. With medical attention, most healthy adults don’t die from a venomous bite. It is usually the very young that succumb, like my father’s bricklayer’s infant son, who was struck in the chest while crawling in the grass in the 1950s - or the very old and infirm.
Venomous strikes are rare. Generally I was in more danger of being run over by a UPS van or being backed over by a Budweiser delivery truck. Nonetheless, the effects of a rattlesnake bite can include a lot of pain, dead flesh, nerve damage, and even skin grafts and cosmetic surgery.
After an hour and a half, I decided I would live. I wrote the scratches off to bug welts my fingernails could not stay away from or the wrath of the saw palmetto. But I emailed Bill Lamar in South America anyway.
Bill wrote, “A bite such as you describe is entirely possible.” And: “A bite is an incredibly complex and athletic event, and not only does the snake control the venom, but also it can fail by accident.”
I am still baffled as to whether it was a strike or not. There was no infection, but on the other hand, I had recently consumed enough Levaquinn for a medical procedure that it could have cured anthrax.
Only eight days later, I saw another diamondback crossing the asphalt. Bicycles zoomed to the left and right of it. I stopped fascinated and watched it make its way across the path. A spectacular creature and nearly extirpated from most of Florida, the diamondback deserves our respect, our protection, and certainly our distance.
I won’t tell you that a rattlesnake struck short while striking at me. I will tell you that if you think you have been bitten, forget all the old wife’s tales and call 911 and get some anti-venom.
One other point: the rattlesnake is a wiser creature than we are. One did not attempt to slay the young beauty on roller blades. If one struck at the oblivious old author is not clear. If one did, it failed to inject venom. The snake had good cause; I did not have any good reason to ride so close to it or over it.
In my lifetime, I have seen diamondbacks infrequently. It is a wonderful thing - not a danger - to see them, as long as you keep a reasonable and wise distance. And, unfortunately, it is also a very rare sight any longer, the fault of humans destroying their habitats and fire ants destroying the snake’s young and their prey. Curious, isn’t it, that we humans should be paired with the fire ant?