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Monday, August 3, 2015

On Raising Snakes

by Ed McCourt

Corn Snake Mike is pointing out a wooden bird house on the edge of his property and is beginning to tell the story of how he came to build it when a broad-chested blue jay darts down to rest on its roof.
“Almost as big as a kingfisher,” I say.
Instead, Mike tells the story of an abandoned hatchling blue jay a neighbor found squeaking on his porch. That neighbor knew to bring it to Mike. He took it in, hand fed it, raised it up indoors: “It learned to imitate the sounds of the house.” He tells me about the first time the blue jay barked like a dog, then when it learned to whistle, and finally when it started imitating the ringing of his kitchen phone.
“My father would come in and answer the phone and yell about pranksters because no one would be on the line!” He follows this punchline with his habitual, guttural laugh and a push of his glasses. He is wearing a black T-shirt and on it is an eagle carrying a banner that reads “100% American” and practical sneakers. I know that, before becoming a Corn Snake guy, Mike was raised here in the south and retired from the automobile manufacturing industry. He tells me more about blue jays, how they love anything shiny, how he trained his to take pennies from his hand and drop them into his shirt pocket only to land on him later to ensure the coin was safe.
I’m not sure how I first found Mike, but I do remember that at the time an internet search of “Corn Snakes” and “Florida” turned up his home-made website as a top result. I asked him once how his website got so much traffic; it turns out he had taken a continuing education course search engine optimization, and the next month, he was in the top ten results in Google for “Corn Snakes.” We are friends now, but at first, I was just a guy curious about snakes and he was a popular google search.
Why snakes? Slithering, yes.  But isn’t there something elegant about it? And their skin! Cooler, smoother, and much softer than anyone who has not held one might imagine. That curious flicker of tongue, those severe (concerned?) eyes. For such a simple animal, it can be polarizing; as an order the serpent elicits a response matched by few, save the arachnid. My curiosity includes serpents, but also extends to other reptiles, or more accurately ‘herps,’—a commonly truncated nominalization of the word ‘herpetology,’ the scientific study of reptiles and amphibians.
When I talk with Corn Snake Mike, we stand between the side by side sheds: the snake house on the right, fully insulated and temperature controlled, and the smaller, less sophisticated hut on the left that he calls the “Mouse Farm.” It houses hundreds of adult mice alongside their thousands of offspring, many of the females puffed out awkwardly at both sides like those pickup trucks with obtrusive double wheels on the back axle. All generations live together in plastic tubs: pinkies (the babies, named because they are furless), fuzzies (for their short fur), hoppers (they are jumpy), and other adults. Screens top each tub, pinned down by old peanut butter jars filled with water, a small hole drilled in the bottom so the mice can lean up and suck a droplet through the mesh.  
There is also the side of the ‘farm’ I choose not to see—the table where Mike does the killing. “I just grab them by their tails and wham!” He gesticulates a fast turn of his wrist, a quick, mechanical snap—a motion he repeats hundreds of times each week. “They never feel a thing ... it is like falling off a twenty story building for them.” The silent victims of the pet trade, millions raised like miniature cattle, slaughtered to sustain pets, mice and rats are used in lab experiments because they share DNA strains with humans. Ultimately, we sacrifice these millions of mammals, our close genetic kin, to facilitate the hobby of keeping cold blooded species.
This is a world I have found myself in, but not without reservations. Animal husbandry has always operated on a basic tenet of symbiosis: grain for eggs, pasture for milk. The arrangement with traditional pets is a bit less concrete, but clear; well-timed treats for loyalty, affection, or a coy purr.
This is more difficult to explain in terms of herps.
Yet they are bred nonetheless, in impressive numbers. According to a study presented to the 112th Congress, some five million homes in this country house nearly fifteen million reptiles, and as a nation we exported an additional eleven million. Most of these are produced by hobbyist breeders in small spaces like Mike’s, and a huge cottage industry has risen alongside it.
Mike has huge varieties of corn snakes in his collection. I would drive up his long dirt driveway and park along the chicken wire he uses to coral his hens and tortoises, and he would appreciate my interest and explain to me the tenets of good snake husbandry. But there was one piece of the corn snake puzzle Mike never really addressed: the science.
So I read. I found online forums and bought corn snake books written by the respected breeders in the field. I got a juvenile ‘normal’ (the ‘wild’ coloration and pattern) from Mike and kept him as a pet, mostly because I wanted one, but partially for the purpose of familiarizing my wife with the notion of having a reptile in the house. This wasn’t an easy sell at first. “I don’t think we are snake people,” she would say, invoking the stigma of the snake.
In my research I learned that, like the modern dog, reptile breeders work to isolate aberrant genetic traits. For corns, these genes have been mostly recessive, and include amelanistic genes, anerythristic, hypomelanistic, diffused, dilute, stripe, motley, lavender, sun-kissed, lava, charcoal, caramel, and cinder. What is further is that these genes are on separate alleles and hence can be combined to make literally millions of potential varieties, called ‘morphs.’ There are candy cane corn snakes and pewter ones, avalanche and coral, plasma, gold dust, and citrine. There is snow, opal, and both—snopal. And each year people are breeding to further diversify the offerings in what is the largest segment of the pet trade running, though being outpaced in terms of growth by more exotic snakes like pythons and boas (for the corn snake is a species of colubrid native to the US). Eventually, I found a pair for myself that were heterozygous for multiple traits and could hence produce variegated offspring.
And like that, I was a snake breeder. I have learned that it doesn’t matter how many pairs one has, even if it is a single pair of domestic and otherwise non ‘exotic’ colubrid, if they produce eggs, then one is irrevocably a snake breeder. My wife can say goodbye to her weekly book club if that gets out.
As a father of snakes, I have become much more attuned to the stigma surrounding them, particularly in a state like Florida where venomous species are indigenous. There is a kind of ubiquitous serpent mythology here; local newspapers document rattlesnakes simply for having the nerve to be seen in public. In my neighborhood, I have seen dozens of ‘rattlesnakes’ killed and laid out with the trash, only to identify them has harmless, overgrown Florida garters, racers, or banded water snakes. A friend of mine actually will not use the word ‘snake’, and instead calls them esses (for the letter S, and the sound they make), because in his experience, uttering the very word conjures them.
It would be misleading to say it is a local phenomenon. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the first man and woman were duped by a devil in serpentine form. Similar mythology has sprung up around the Ebola virus. The story goes that the virus originated from a woman carrying a basket containing a snake. When opened, the snake gave Ebola to the first man it encountered. It is said that the serpent is still alive, roaming the country side, only now it can, like the equally terrifying snake-headed medusa, stricken a man with Ebola just by fixing its gaze on him.
The fear of snakes is logical as metaphor. The snake—as an extension of nature, of death, of disease—can live in plain sight undetected, and then when it is not at all expected, rise and strike with unmatched accuracy. For that reason, it is not quite the danger that scares us, but the quiet cunning of the thing.
Of course, this is not the experience with a clutch of eggs. Like an expectant mother, I fretted over the oblong eggs and watched them swell. I checked temperatures, humidity levels, and practically prayed over each nose ‘pipping’ out of its egg. I was, after all, growing living beings from a shoebox of peat and perlite in the stifling heat of my office closet. I did end up with some genetically unique animals, though when I compared them to the morphs Mike had in his collection, they weren’t really anything new, other than how vivid the ‘cube’ pattern was that graced the dorsal line of a handful.

Breeding aside, my favorite snakes of Mike’s aren’t the unique, strange, genetically aberrant in his collection. My favorites, by far, are a pair of ‘wild’ sub-adult yellow rat snakes that have found their way into the Mouse Farm and have taken up residence, pressed into the narrow slot between two tubs of mice.
In the shed, Mike opens a mouse rack: an offering. The rat snakes come over and peek in, look back at us for a moment, and snatch one of the scurrying bunch.
I love these yellow rat snakes, not because they are more beautiful than the selectively bred specimens next door, but because of their condition. Their presence, in as much as we can anthropomorphize the behavior of cold blooded reptiles, is an act of volition. They are free to leave, but because of Mike, because of his mice, they remain—without enclosures.
When I happen upon a wild snake, I try to give them that same choice. Choose not to bite me, and you might come to my home. Choose to eat my food, and you can stay. It is a simple system that creates some sense of contract between two living beings.
So why not stop there, with a wild snake that has ‘chosen’ to stay? If husbandry is ultimately a refined form of biological symbiosis, and we do not receive the obvious benefits from reptiles that we do from other animals, what is it that we gain from the keeping of herps? Perhaps I raised snakes for the same reason I write—to accomplish the most challenging thing in the world: creating something unique, beautiful, and complete.
Perhaps the entire “exotic” pet trade is, in some way, an effort to compartmentalize the wild element of nature into something manageable and urban. We restrict animals to square boxes the way the sun is contained behind the right angles of the neighbor’s house, the high-rised skyline. The mouse farm, the snake racks, our own homes and neighborhoods—all of us in boxes.
But there are other explanations that I worry about. Does this make the animal into spectacle? The same kind of misguided apotheosis as the circus elephant, crowned, bejeweled, glorified, but depressed and severely malnourished when back in its cage? Perhaps it is a symptom of the dissonance between man and nature: the best we can do is scrape together this facsimile of wildness, a tamed pseudo-beast that would rather allow itself to be manhandled than to strike out in its own defense, to provide ourselves a surrogate for nature. Does it in some way relieve the burden of our manufactured cartons, the various cloistered spaces of our lives? Perhaps we find it more tolerable knowing that something ‘wild’ is similarly confined and still surviving. Or worse, is it vindictive: I am in a box, and so it will be for you. Misery loves company, scales and all.

It wasn’t long after writing on this subject that I went back to see Mike, and of course, to pick up an order of mice. It was spring and as we spoke I noticed the boughs of his white grapefruit trees were full and bent to the point of breaking. He offered me whatever I could reach, and told me about his two varieties of fig trees. Through the branches, I noticed one of his bird houses that line the southern corner of his property. It is always difficult, I thought, to imagine the bird—with all its darting and soaring—contained in a wooden box.
“There are actually two nests in that—one in the house, and another below it in the top of the log where something bored out an opening. You can lift up the house and see a second nest beneath.”
We walked over. Mike told me he had seen a tufted titmouse going in and out, and hoped that the nests would be full of eggs, or better, hatchlings. “Unless a rat snake has made a meal of them,” I joked. Macabre, but this was the same place where we let patient rat snakes feed on live mice practically from our hands.
His face was solemn, “I sure hope not.”
We didn’t see anything at first, but I whistled a bird call, and by the end, we counted five down coated heads, popping up, mouths agape, waiting to be fed.
It was these hatchlings that reminded me why we kept these corns snakes: the natural world is magnificent but ever fleeting. The whole industry is but an attempt to keep in boxes some connection to nature that is otherwise uncontrollable and transient. We whistle and call it up to us, and after a glimpse, its downy head is back, low and hidden in some thicket. This practice is a meager attempt to sustain that singular instance in which nature is summoned to us, all beaks and scales, down and fur, and graces us with a moment of mutual recognition.

Ed McCourt is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Jacksonville University. His essays and poetry have appeared in the Little Patuxent Review, the Portland Review, Gravel Magazine, the Bacopa Literary Review, and elsewhere.

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