Although they have been renting for months, the only exchange we'd had thus far was a friendly wave. I'm not the sort of person to introduce myself to newcomers -- chalk it up to a combination of shyness and anti-social tendencies -- unless I have a solid reason for doing so. And they have usually been quite busy getting their small children in and out of the car. But yesterday was different.
The husband made eye contact with me, then called across the street to me, surprisingly: "There's a snake by our front door. I called the fire department to have it removed." Remembering how much anxiety my first encounter with a gopher snake had caused me -- they have similar markings, from a distance, to the Western Diamondback rattlesnake -- I offered to take a look.
When I reached their front door, I was amused to find that this snake wasn't just near it, but had actually draped itself across the top of the door frame. "That's a king snake," I told him, before emphasizing that he shouldn't have it removed very far from its present location, since it's a great snake to have around in Southern Arizona, both because it kills lots of pack rats and, more importantly, because it drives off the rattlesnakes that are otherwise drawn to those pack rats.
The husband agreed. While we waited for the snake remover to show up, I talked with him and his wife about snakes and other desert fauna. "I thought it might be a king snake," he told me, "but we've only lived in the area for two years." Had I just moved to Tucson, I might have been confused by this statement. But I now know that king snakes, though common throughout North America, can look quite different depending on your location.
Ours here are sleek and black, almost cobra-like, with think yellow-green rings:That's Sid, who has grown from the wiry, fierce young thing that slithered under our screen door and into our laundry room into a creature that would be hard pressed to fit through that space again. Upwards of four feet now, he thrives in our backyard. We don't see much of him -- king snakes usually hunt after the sun has gone down -- but do find the periodic snake skin shed amid the bougainvillea.
I told the neighbors about Sid to impress upon them that he's nice to have around. In retrospect, I should have left out the part about his trip to the laundry room, because that freaked the wife out. Still, when the snake remover arrived, her husband did insist that it be released into the catchment basin next to our house, rather than having it transported to a more remote location. I'm not sure she was entirely in agreement with this decision, but she swallowed her objections.
After the snake had been relocated, I continued to talk with them about the other wildlife encounters I've had since moving to our subdivision in October, 2000: javelinas, various hawks and owls, plenty of scorpions and black widows, and, best of all the bobcat kittens that materialized on our patio one morning two years ago:This also alarmed the wife a bit, though I could tell she thought it was neat, nodding in agreement when I said that you don't want to come between a mother and her offspring.
This set me up for the coup de grace, which I'd been building towards with my tales of desert creatures. "I don't think you need to worry too much about rattlesnakes, though. I've been here for almost thirteen years and have never seen one in the neighborhood. They seem to avoid concrete. But you do see them crossing the road sometimes. Or dead on the road, more likely, since they often get killed this time of year. I just saw one the other day. Luckily, I convinced it to turn around instead of risking death."
I could tell that the wife had serious doubts about the wisdom of my rescue mission. But I could also tell that her son and husband wanted to know more. And I suspect part of her did as well. Luckily, I'd managed to take a photograph, with the help of my car's headlights and the weak flash on my phone:Since I had to zoom in to get this shot, the pixel loss was even worse than it would normally be for a night shot. Still, I think the photo does a good job of conveying the thrill of my run-in with this four-foot beauty.
After my neighbors went back inside, I laughed to myself. You see, I realized that I'd become one of those people who made such a big impression on me when I first moved to Tucson, the sort that regale their audiences with seemingly tall tales about life in the desert. Even growing up in a rural part of Pennsylvania, the most exotic animals I ever saw were flying squirrels and the flash of a red fox slipping into the woods. If you had told me then, overly cautious as I was, that I'd one day see a rattlesnake without running away as fast as I could, I wouldn't have believe you. But my years here have changed me.
I remember the first time we spotted a scorpion in the house here. I was shaking so hard that I didn't come close to corralling it. Over time, though, I saw enough of them that the procedure for handling them has become second nature. Get a glass jar. Put it over the scorpion. Slide a piece of cardboard underneath the jar. Then carefully turn the jar over, making sure to keep the cardboard flush against the lip of the jar. And then take the scorpion outside, because there's no point in killing any creature unnecessarily.
Now, I recognize that there's a danger in becoming too complacent. Just because you are accustomed to seeing scorpions or black widows or, especially, rattlesnakes doesn't mean that you can let your guard down around them (or any of the other wildlife we have in abundance here). But I like to think that I've managed to strike a balance between fear and inattention. I've grown accustomed to this place, yes, yet without taking its wonders for granted.