Letter From The Desert: Snake(s) in the house

I am reasonably certain we had two different red racer snakes in the house last week.

TFW you walk into your bathroom and someone’s already in there
July 15, 2019

I do not intend to boast. I am well aware, in this time of deepening inequality, that there are some households in this country with only one snake, and that even more unimaginably, there is a small but significant proportion of unfortunate households with no snakes at all.

So I say this only in the name of strict factual accuracy. The reason I have come to the conclusion that we had two snakes in the house is that the snake that we first found in the hallway cornering our dog seemed very large, six feet or so at first glance so let’s say four, and then the one mi esposa subsequently photographed in the bathroom does not, in the photo, appear to be that large. Our bathroom floor tiles are 12 inches on a side, so let’s be generous and say the snake in the photo is maybe 30, 34 inches long. And then the other day, when I removed the larger snake from the house, it seemed as thick as an old-style hemp rope, while the one above looks to be about half an inch thick at most.

So, two snakes in the house, unless there was just one and I have exaggerated its size in my mind compared to the photo above, and how likely is that?

Five months into our marriage and I already have an entry in the Worst Husband Ever sweepstakes, to wit: she called me a few minutes after I’d dropped her off at the house to inform me of the second snake sighting. I was about a four-minute drive from home, heading to a lunch meeting, and I did not immediately turn around and go remove it for her. Then again, she is a trained field biologist, and her snake removal technique consisted of asking the snake to please step into a large plastic container, which the snake did obligingly. She then carted the snake to the far end of the back yard and freed it, all of it done well before I got my large Caesar with seared ahi.

My turn to remove a different, much larger individual of the same snake species came about a week later, and was not nearly as collegial. Or graceful.

I should take a step back here and talk a little bit about the precise nature of our household snake population. The red racer or coachwhip, Coluber flagellum piceus, is one of the most commonly seen snakes in the Mojave Desert. It is a swift (7 mph top speed) and able predator of many small animals, including rodents, lizards, bats, birds both nestling and adult, and invertebrates. Large adults will occasionally take on young rattlesnakes. Adult red racers range in length from just under three feet to around five foot six, making them the second-longest snake in California after the gophersnake.

Red racer snake in Joshua Tree National Park. Sarinah Simons photo, public domain

Red racers are non-venomous, which is reassuring to someone faced with the prospect of removing one, or several, from a house. But venom is only one of many defensive techniques a snake might employ, Here, quoted from a 1968 dissertation that got herpetologist Larry David Wilson a PhD from Louisiana State, is a pretty good summation of most of what I have read about red racers in the last two weeks:

The coachwhip relies mainly on its speed to effect escape from a predator. When cornered (the following statements pertain to predation by man) the snake is found to be irascible, coiling into a loose coil and striking at the pursuer. When the snake bites it does not simply bite and release, but rapidly jerks the head and neck backward, causing lacerations rather than simple puncture wounds. When grabbed near the head the snake will attempt to disengage itself from the grip of the predator by rapidly undulating the body from side to side. When grabbed by the middle of the body the snake makes a rolling motion to free itself.

So.

A few days after la mujer que amo had removed the much smaller snake and then left for Seattle for a week, I walked into the house to find the dog very much pleased at my return, more so than usual. There was the red racer snake, flicking its tongue at us from the hallway. I went to get a broom, thinking I would coax it out the nearby front door. I extended the broom past the snake, hoping to move it out of the hallway and toward freedom, but the snake wasn’t fooled. As the broom bristles just reached its far side it launched itself with all deliberate alacrity and a startling hiss, directly at my face. I flinched. The snake took advantage of my momentary retreat and high-tailed it for our front closet. There it took shelter beneath a collection of vacuum cleaner attachments and hiking equipment.

This New Mexico racer is way pinker than the Joshua Tree population, but this is what the snake looked like in my closet. Creative Commons photo by SantaFeLady

I went into the bedroom, got a wire clothes hanger, and unfurled it into the least effective snake hook I had ever seen, then returned to the front room. Out, gingerly, came the vacuum and a couple of day packs. The snake lay coiled and wary in the back of the closet. With a gloved hand, I attempted to very gently work the hook end of my former coat hanger beneath the snake, then pull it out of the closet. I had no strategy other than a naive hope that the snake would then choose to head out the still-open door.

Five minutes and about fifteen face-lunges later, with the snake wedged firmly beneath the rest of the assorted belongings in the closet, I put the hanger down.

Subsequent phone call.

Me: “Snake is back.”
Her: “Did you get it outside?”
Me: “No.”
Her: “What are you going to do?”

Truth be told, though I was unnerved by those defensive strikes, I realized having the snake in the house bothered me far less that I am bothered when I see a mouse in the kitchen. If this thing was going to help us by eating mice, I definitely could deal with angry hissing and occasional biting.

Me: “I’m going to name it ‘Kitty.’”

That was Tuesday. On Thursday, after yet another meeting, I came home in mid-afternoon. The dog met me at the door. She led me back into the office, walked into the room and then recoiled to the far wall. Kitty, under my desk, had struck after what seemed to me to be only the slightest of provocation. The dog’s startled and aggrieved look told me she concurred with my assessment.

The snake headed across the hall to the bedroom. How many hiding places were in there in which it would be next to impossible to find, let alone extract, a snake? Behind the immovable king mattress, or curled up in a boot I might decide to put a sleepy foot in in a week? What happens if, sleeping, I flail my arm in a direction Kitty decides is threatening? What if it hides in the laundry pile, and I unknowingly wash red racer with my white shirts? “Oh, hell no,” I said aloud, to no avail. Kitty found a secure-seeming spot in the corner, between my dresser and a vintage if contraband Berkeley Farms milk crate doing service as a plant stand.

It was a reasonably accessible spot, from above. I made plans. I would drop an inside-out pillowcase atop the snake, then go put on a heavy jacket and tuck the sleeve inside a glove. I would then grab the snake through the fabric, pull it into the pillowcase, and ferry it outside.

This plan fell apart at Step 1: the snake hissed, struck at my as yet-ungloved hand, and then coiled defensively atop the dropped pillowcase. The dog watched impassively from the bed.

I walked away. I sat at the computer. I looked up “snake tongs” to see if there was an online store offering 15-minute delivery.

And then, frowning in odd confusion at an idea that flitted through my head, I stood up, went into the kitchen with another pillowcase, filled it with four trays’ worth of ice cubes, took it into the bedroom and dropped the icebag gently if unceremoniously atop the snake.

Fifteen minutes later, encased in heavy shirt and gloves, I lifted the bag of ice. No snake: just the other pillowcase. I picked that up. Beneath it, having retreated there for a bit of insulation, was Kitty. Breathing, but otherwise unmoving.

I stuck my gloved hand into the pillowcase and grabbed through the thick flannel at what I hoped was the snake’s neck, then lifted it and headed for the door. I got about three steps before the snake woke up. It twisted and writhed, attempting to work its way out of my hand and the pillowcase. Despite my holding at least two coils at the top of the pillowcase, a good 18 inches of snake tail hung out the bottom, whipping around furiously.

We made it outside into an unexpected and poorly timed monsoon downpour before the snake finally worked free of my grasp. It landed furious on the mud of the driveway, hissed at me, and then raced for the still-open front door.

Have you ever leapt in front of a charging snake? I did, without thinking. Another hiss, another strike. I snapped the pillowcase toward it, hoping to turn it away from reentering the house. That just made it angrier. We feinted and parried for a moment. I had picked this particular pillowcase because it was thick flannel, but it was also bright red, and that made me feel a bit ludicrous. Standing there, jacket and gloves and shorts, playing toreador with an irritated snake in a torrential rainstorm. I was suddenly grateful that people hardly ever drive down our street.

And then the snake gave up and raced away silently. I went back inside. Neither of us was the worse for wear. I counted it a mutual victory.

And that, once I decided we had had two distinct snakes, was that. Because here’s the real reason I decided there were two racer snakes in our house: if it was just one snake, and if both mi esposa and myself each put it outside, then it knows how to get back in. So definitely two snakes.