94: Snake Lady

94: Snake Lady

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Snake Lady

In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.

~Baba Dioum

Every eye in the room was fixed on the beautiful four-foot-long snake slithering slowly through my hands. Adults shook their heads in amazement. One excited youngster exclaimed, “This is so cool!” Another added, “I want to do what you do when I grow up!”

Most people envy my volunteer position as an educator for a local wildlife rehabilitation group. They enjoy meeting our live education animals, and I love introducing the non-releasable feathered or furry representatives of our state’s indigenous species.

Although I work with songbirds, birds of prey and mammals as well as reptiles, I am best known as the “Snake Lady.” The title seems ironic given my past feelings about the cold-blooded creatures. My first close-up encounter with one did not go well.

In the spring of 1991, when I was seven months pregnant with our daughter, I was bitten by a large, hungry snake in our suburban garden. Thankfully, the snake was not venomous; an animal control officer quickly relocated him to a new home. The baby was unharmed and I was pronounced physically fine, but I developed a terrible fear of snakes. Everyone, including me, assumed that I would dread them for the rest of my days.

But Providence had other plans. Fifteen years and a move to the country later, I was to be educated by an injured snake named Schmiddy. My second serpentine encounter would transform me into a lifelong snake advocate, passionate about all snakes and proud to be called “Snake Lady.”

On a freezing afternoon late in October of 2006, my husband discovered a snake sticking out from underneath the woodpile on our recently purchased farm. Dan could not understand why the young animal, barely eighteen inches from nose to tail, lay exposed to the elements. Its skin was so cold that the snake barely moved when Dan touched it. He scooped it up and headed toward the house to show his find to our ten-year-old son.

I was cooking dinner when Dan brought the black and yellow speckled stranger into the kitchen. My stomach turned over at the sight of the dark length lying across my husband’s gloved hand. My hands grew clammy and I backed away. But the snake was very docile and both of our children were captivated by it so, despite my plaintive protests, Dan released the little reptile onto the throw rug.

We realized right away that something was very wrong. The upper third of the snake curved slightly to the right to form the distinctive S pattern of travel common to the species, but the remaining two-thirds of the skinny little body dragged behind straight as an arrow. Try as it might, the snake made little headway. Dan pointed out a sharp swollen knot along the top of its spinal cord.

The snake was obviously hurt. I guessed that its back must be broken. I was an experienced wildlife rehabber and educator; surely I could steel myself long enough to do something. The crippled creature made no attempt to strike at us or bite. It seemed to know we might be able to help.

And so we did. We took the snake to one of our volunteer veterinarians and he confirmed my diagnosis. The gentle reptile with the broken back became the first snake ever to be rehabilitated by a member of our wildlife group. Our son named it Schmiddy after a famous World War II machine gunner who was wounded at Guadalcanal and subsequently awarded several medals for extraordinary courage. The name stuck before we discovered that Schmiddy was a she.

We rehabbed Schmiddy for weeks. We fed her frozen mice that we thawed in a dedicated “mouse microwave,” and we gave her shots of antibiotics. We swam her daily in a large plastic tub. We helped peel off her dead skin when she shed. We identified her as a speckled king snake and spent hours researching her specific subspecies and the broader suborder of Serpentes.

And all the time we were caring for Schmiddy, she was teaching us. I became so enamored of her plucky nature and the amazing things I learned about the benefits of snakes that I asked permission to include her in my education programs when she was healthy enough. I will never forget our first public appearance.

The two owls I brought to the library that day were well received as usual, and the frisky red fox squirrel was a hit. I saved Schmiddy for last, and no one had any idea that the covered container behind me contained a snake. Her appearance riveted and polarized the audience.

A collective gasp erupted from the crowd when I lifted Schmiddy out of her carrier. Many, like I had been, were deathly frightened of her. A few rose from their chairs and made a beeline for the back of the room. But as I held Schmiddy and told her story and how she had transformed my opinion of her kind, the faces before me softened. Education triumphed.

Snakes became a permanent part of my presentations, which included talks about safety around snakes, the identification of dangerous species, characteristics of snakes and the value of snakes. Schmiddy was a wonderful wildlife advocate. We traveled all over the state, opening minds and overcoming fears at schools and libraries, wildlife conferences, outdoor fairs, civic group meetings and private parties. Schmiddy even enjoyed an appearance on television.

I had hoped to work with her for many years to come, but it was not to be. Less than eighteen months after her teaching debut, Schmiddy developed spondylosis, a serious disease also found in people with spinal injuries, and we retired her. But I couldn’t stop sharing what she had taught me. My reputation as the Snake Lady hung in the balance. Schmiddy had become the highlight of my programs.

I acquired a tri-colored captive-raised milk snake from a rehabber in another state. For my fiftieth birthday, my children bought me a hognose snake from a reputable breeder. My current presentations feature five snakes, including a beautiful speckled king snake that went through rehab after surviving multiple dog bites.

Schmiddy is still with me as well. She lives a quiet, comfortable life, secure in a big aquarium inside our home. Nearly a decade after I met her, the teaching continues. Thanks to the brave little snake with a broken back and a wildlife volunteer with a transformed heart, hundreds of people every year are introduced to snakes and taught to value them. Schmiddy taught this Snake Lady to understand, accept and appreciate her species. She taught me to love.

~Andi Lehman

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