Lola didn’t mean to bite Doc Ferriss Oxide.
She’s famished, hasn’t eaten in a week, been pacing around her enclosure – or what passes for pacing when you’re a python – and on top of everything else, her eyesight’s not so good. So when the lid opens and a hand reaches in, how was she supposed to know it wasn’t dropping a befuddled mouse into her lair, but humoring a little girl’s request to watch Doc hold the snake?
There wasn’t much blood; it was just a nip. The instant Lola realized this piece of mammalian flesh was attached to a body bigger than hers, she relented.
And yet, watching Lola in action shortly afterward – hugging a Stuart Little lookalike with the force, Doc Oxide tells us, “of 10 blood pressure cuffs” – you realize that despite what people say, a ball python could most certainly kill a human. If a belt or a scarf can strangle something as vulnerable as a human neck, you think this muscular 5-footer couldn’t do the job?
Luckily, snakes – unlike my own species – rarely kill anything they don’t intend to eat.
I volunteered for this assignment. As a trail runner, it’s counterproductive to haul a snake phobia into the woods. Photographing Stuart Little’s horror is like a front-row seat to the live production of my childhood nightmares. This particular photo, in fact, proved too graphic for the hometown paper, which opted to run this more conventional shot instead.
Once Stuart’s head vanished and only his feet were sticking out, though, I found myself viewing the scene from Lola’s perspective. Without taste buds, does a snake ever get to experience the joy of eating?
I suppose Lola is used to nudging her meal into her mouth without the benefit of hands. But what an inconvenience!
Does she ever worry about some critter getting stuck in her throat?
On this point, at last, I find common ground, recalling the time a burned bit of veggie burger crumble lodged in my windpipe.
Nobody was home but the dog, who watched with curiosity and apparent pity as I tried, unsuccessfully, to dislodge the speck sealing off my oxygen supply.
As the seconds ticked past, I contemplated my options. Dial 911? There was no way an ambulance would arrive in time. Were the neighbors home? Would they answer the door? We weren’t great friends. In their place, I might pretend I simply hadn’t heard.
Time was running out. I sank to the floor next to Buddy, realizing this might be it: I’d never see Bob or the kids again. Such a stupid, pointless way to go. And yet instead of rage I felt increasingly calm. Resigned to my fate.
And then suddenly, inexplicably, the seal was broken. Air!
Apparently I’d relaxed enough for my throat muscles to stop constricting … or something. I guess I’ll never know exactly what happened. For quite a while after that I was a much more careful eater, obsessed with patience and gratitude, though eventually, of course, I returned to my hoggish ways. It’s my nature.
Watching Lola eat, repulsive as it was, ultimately helped me view her as less of a monster. She can’t help being a carnivore. That doesn’t mean I liked being near her: As a mammal, I can’t help feeling nervous around a creature capable of viewing me – even inadvertently – as prey.
Luckily, I’m not likely to encounter the likes of Lola running trails in northeastern Indiana. (Though it could happen – I have a hard time forgetting the time some idiot dumped half a dozen ball pythons about 10 miles south of here a couple of years ago.)
The snakes I do see, much more frequently than I’d care to, are more like Jake, the little garter snake in the enclosure next to Lola’s at the Upper Wabash Conservation and Science Center in Bluffton.
In a way, he’s a much more disgusting eater than Lola is. The day I visited, Jake was gulping down creatures that were still very much alive – though I can’t say I felt as sorry for the doomed worms as I did for the mouse.
Compared with Lola, Jake seemed about as dangerous as a tube-shaped toad. Note to self: Remember that the next time I go for a run in the woods.