Close encounters of the reptilian kind

There's a Crotalus atrox living at my house. Better known as a western diamondback rattlesnake, she's a little over three feet long, with a triangular head, elegant neck, and a fondness for lounging by the pool. She's very even-tempered for a rattlesnake, and although she coiled when the firemen came to remove her, she neither rattled nor struck, even held aloft in the jaws of the aluminum snake-grabber.

I've seen her on and off for a few years, although I never realized she was the same one. As is true for most people, the beans I knew about rattlesnakes are few and far between, but I thought I had the basics down. I know, for example, that it's not nearly as easy to get bitten as most people think it is. Rattlesnakes, like all desert dwellers, are economical by nature, living their entire lives in the extraordinarily thin margin between life and death. As a result, they don't want to bite anything they can't swallow.

To waste valuable venom on a creature they can't eat is a needless expenditure of both energy and time. And should a meal become available in the meantime, their odds of subduing it are seriously compromised.

In other words, rattlesnakes don't want to waste their hard-won energy biting lumbering, nearsighted primates with no nutritional value.

What I didn't know is that they're also territorial, spending their entire lives in relatively small areas and excluding others of their kind. Small areas like foothills properties surrounded by unmanicured acreage. "I'm not surprised you've got a rattlesnake," said the head honcho fireman, coming on authoritarian, jotting some ominous note on his clipboard. "All this brush."

"It's not brush," I said. "It's an ecosystem."

"With a snake in it," said a second.

"So, what are you going to do with it?" All five firemen hemmed and hawed, shifted from foot to foot. "We could just put it over the wall," said one.

"Why not take it somewhere and release it," I said.

"We used to, but no matter where, someone called to complain. They mostly died, anyway." This, as he forked the reptile into a wooden box. Another guy slammed the lid down.

"If you put it over the wall, it will just come back." I was worried about my three dogs, though when I'd returned home and found the snake lounging by the pool, I'd been gone all morning and they'd been together the whole time. None seemed any the worse for it. Hell, the snake looked so relaxed that I thought it was dead. But after getting the dogs into the house, closing the doggie door and calling 911 to summon my rescuers, it became obvious it wasn't.

I watched for a good half hour as our visitor, bored or overheated by lying in the sun, moved deliberately to the edge of the pool, slid into the water, swam across and emerged on the other side with all the grace and ease of a water moccasin. Proceeding to cruise the perimeter of the yard, inspecting every corner, she slithered in and out of the holes in our milk crate/recycling bins, rose up a good 15 inches inspecting the pane of glass behind which I stood stock still, flicking her tongue the whole time just as friendly as you like. She was beautiful close up, serene, curious; and so damn amiable, I wanted to bring her a doggie biscuit, a sandwich, maybe a cold beer and a bag of chips.

Bored with me, she headed back to the pool, swimming across lengthwise this time to lie in the sun again and recover from her exertions.

"If you don't release them, what do you do with them?" I asked.

The guy looked sheepish, toeing the ground a little with his high-topped snake-proof boot. "Put them in a barrel at the station."

"Until what?" I said.

"Until someone comes to get them."

"Who?" I said. "To do what?"

Dead silence. I got a vivid mental picture of hatbands and shoddy Southwestern jewelry, of taxidermied reptiles at the infamous Dead Animal Museum over on the westside. "Shit," I said. "Put her over the wall."

I spent most of yesterday constructing snake exclusion barriers with wire and quarter-inch fencing. I think I got most of the holes. Time will tell. If she shows up again, I don't know what I'll do.

Probably, just bring her a clean towel.

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