By Susie Harper & Kim Bromley

Baby rattle snake – stock footage

Off the top of my head I can think of no one in Marin Humane’s Behavior and Training group who is conversant in snakes. Most of the volunteers in the department are dog, cat or small companion fans (small companions in this case being rats, rabbits, guinea pigs and the occasional ferret or chinchilla). But it turns out Susie Harper, one of our regular blog contributors, had a pretty intense snake education curve during her stint as an ACT (see her blog My Life as an ACT). Susie’s story will inform my brief but hopefully amusing anecdote about a snake encounter I once had with another of our stalwart blog contributors and Director of Behavior and Training, Dawn Kovell.


“Snake Bust” by Susie Harper

It was New Year’s Eve day, 1995 and I was really looking forward to a big night of celebration. You know, that raucous holiday with which we love to end the year. Duh. So imagine my dismay when I went to clock out I was told I had to stay and work. Overtime. Arrrghhhhh! On New Year’s Eve!! Little did I know the night would turn out to be one of the most memorable in my life. New Year’s Eves come and go – who can remember which party, which midnight kiss or which brand of champagne -but a New Year’s Eve involving snakes you never forget.

A call came in to Customer Care reporting “a bad smell” and flies, no less, coming from a reptile store in San Rafael. It turned out that the store owner had left town for a few days, leaving no provision for the care of the animals in the store. And those animals were in bad shape. A veterinarian called to the scene described the odor of decaying flesh as “horrific”.  Apparently, this dreadful odor was coming from two large snakes that had been dead for at least 36 hours. Over 40 snakes and almost 100 rodents were brought to Marin Humane for care. So, much for champagne and streamers. There went my New Year’s eve party!

As an Animal Care Technician, my job, along with my co-workers, was to set up housing for these snakes and rodents. But first, we had to time each snake drinking water. I wasn’t even sure how to start. I had never seen a snake drink before, but darn if they weren’t all thirsty! One tiny little white snake bit me while I was holding it up to the water dish. My one and only famous snake bite!

There were a couple of HUGE snakes, as well. Somewhere there is a photo of the vet, Scott Simms, holding one of them. I wish we could locate that photo because in my memory the snake was as big around as a tree and taller than the vet. I’m sure the photo would prove otherwise, so you’ll just have to trust me that snake was GInormous.

The rodents were obviously snake food. Sadly, they were housed in plastic containers with lids, and were so overcrowded that many of them had been chewed on by the other rodents. It was beyond awful to see; many of them had to be euthanized. It was another terrible lesson on what can go horribly wrong in the world of retail pets.

Drey; photo credit Neil Lurssen

Over the following months, one of the morning ACT shifts was responsible for the weekly feeding of the snakes. We were able to procure and feed the snakes humanely raised and killed rodents that were frozen. So in the morning of the feeding, we chose from the freezer the right size rodent for each snake depending on the snake’s size and took the rodent out to thaw. The method for feeding the snakes involved holding the rodent with tongs and jiggling it a bit to make it look alive. This apparently made the rodent more appetizing to the snake. So there I was jiggle, jiggle, jiggling the rodent for what seemed like forever. Then, just about the time I was bored to death the snake would rise up and grab the frozen rat! I just about jumped out of my skin. So yeah, the beginning of 1996 is forever etched in my memory. In the Chinese Zodiac it was, coincidentally, the Year of the Rat, but in the Susie Harper Zodiac it was definitely the year of the Snake.


“It’s a Reptile” by Kim Bromley

Several years ago Dawn Kovell and I were making our way through the stray kennels at MH looking for a particular dog we were scheduled to evaluate. Along the way we ran into Mara Strauss. Mara is currently the Clinic Coordinator at MH, but at the time Dawn and I encountered her she was working in animal care. Mara’s resume includes the Oakland Zoo, so she’s no stranger to many species we will never see at Marin Humane. She is certainly conversant in snakes, which we DO see at MH from time to time, and on this occasion Mara had a doozy of a snake wrapped around her. It was, I believe, a constrictor of sorts, perhaps a Python? What do I know? The snake was large and beautiful and Mara was completely at ease with him. Her? Who knows?

Dawn and I, on the other hand, are snake newbies. I really love looking at them and touching them, but I know zero about them, other than that people say snakes are more afraid of us than we are of them. That said, I cannot bite someone and thereby poison them, nor am I able to squeeze the life out of anyone, as much as I’ve contemplated such an act on extremely rare occasions. So who should be afraid of whom? Hmmmmm? As near as I could tell in that moment Dawn had (has?) Less of an interest in snakes than I do. There is precious little Dawn does not know about dogs, their behavior patterns, health issues and general well being. Ditto cats. She has, I’m sure, handled her fair share of smaller creatures, but snakes did not seem to be anything on Dawn’s radar when we ran across Mara and her charge.

Drey; photo credit Neil Lurssen

I, of course, child that I am, wanted to touch the snake. Mara was gracious as always and said sure. I love the way their skin is so unexpected; not slimy or cringe inducing, but smooth and cool to the touch. The patterns on their bodies is beautiful and mesmerizing. So as I placed my hand ever so lightly on the snake and glided it down the curves of his body as it wrapped around the serene Mara, Dawn looked skeptically at the snake and said, in true behaviorist mode, “But how do you know if it’s happy?”

Mara has a very sly sense of humor. She understood perfectly what Dawn was asking her. But take it from me, a good comeback is hard to resist. Mara shrugged lightly, the snake sliding a bit sideways, and said, “It’s a reptile. If his skin looks good and he’s eating, he’s fine.”

Dawn jutted her lower lip and said, “Hmm.” That answer seemed to satisfy her behavior curiosity.  I came away with a sort of Zen look at life in general. What more do we really need? Some water, a tasty snack – daily would be nice – and a facial from time to time. I really need to learn to live with less. And someday I’d like to learn to walk around with a snake draped around me. That’s just plain cool.