Snake-Wrangling With the Beast Hunter


Not long ago, I interviewed a biologist named Pat Spain, the host of the show “Beast Hunter” on the National Geographic channel. An avid naturalist, he mentioned that he also does a web-based program called “Nature Calls,” which includes cataloguing every snake in the state of Massachusetts.

I was doing the interview by phone from Martha’s Vineyard and said, “I know where you can find a black racer.” It’s a species that’s relatively common in the wetlands Up-island where I rent a summer house: a large but harmless black snake that can grow to five or six feet.

“Really?” he said. “That’s one I’ve been worried about finding.”

At this point, if you’re one of those people who are creeped out by snakes, you’re probably saying, “Why in Christ’s name would anyone go looking for one?” and you’ll probably stop reading right about here. For the other three of you, you may enjoy this.

I invited Spain down to hunt for black racers, and he arrived with video and still photographers named, respectively, Dom and Mexico. All three fit the science geek stereotype, meaning that I found them interesting. And on a sunny Monday morning, we set out with snake catching equipment (long poles with crooks at the end) to capture a black racer and document its characteristics, habitat, etc. We stomped through poison-ivy choked sand dunes, where one beachfront homeowner mistook our equipment for metal detectors and told us to get lost. We trespassed in the wetlands of Lobsterville, where decrepit houses sit abandoned and sinking into fetid, dark brown ponds. We even went to the Town Library, because my friend said her 4-year-old was constantly chasing snakes around on the grass outside.

Like most scientific field work, the fun was in the anticipation of what we might find, and because nature doesn’t come on cue, it wasn’t what we expected. Black racers are all over this part of the island. I saw a huge one cross my beach path two summers ago, and another (or maybe the same one) traumatized some squeamish friends in my driveway last year. I even saw a small one ground into the pavement near Jackie Onassis’ place in the beginning of this summer. So of course, when we went looking for one, there were none to be found.

I should point out that when my friend Linda was “attacked” in my driveway, she insisted that the snake “the size of an anaconda” reared up “like a cobra” and hissed at her, which I dismissed as hogwash. Spain, however, explained to me that racers are visual hunters (a rarity in snakes, most of which hunt by smell) and that they do, in fact, raise themselves up to see over tall grass, etc. So I apologize, Linda. I will never question that aspect of your highly fanciful story again.

In any case, we did find a Dekays brown snake, hiding underneath rotting cardboard behind Town Hall, and Spain was thrilled. It was one of the species he needed to find. Practically indistinguishable from a common garter snake, the Dekay’s doesn’t give off the same strong musk, which is how Spain eventually identified it.

For my part, I got to tell him about my old pets, a boa constrictor named Fluffy, and a ball python called Ozymandias. I also got to tell him about the time I almost sat on a nest of rattlesnakes in Idaho, the time Sam and I went elephant trekking in Thailand and our guide disappointedly told us it was cobra mating season, and the time I almost walked into a bamboo pit viper on a residential street in Hong Kong. A beautiful, acid green snake with a yellow belly, about 4-feet long, it was crossing the road when two men came running out of a house nearby, screaming in Cantonese. One threw a two-by-four to break its back and the other chopped off its head with garden shears and then told me I was an idiot for getting so close. Apparently, if I’d been bitten, I would have had six minutes to live. The amazing part of the story, though, is that your chance of stumbling on such a poisonous animal in one of the world’s most densely populated cities is roughly the same as running into a Grizzly Bear in Central Park.

Of course, Spain had way more, and way more interesting, stories, and the snake we were looking for isn’t venomous (though like most snakes, it will strike when threatened). After searching for four hours, we eventually gave up and went to the beach for a swim.

But this morning, while riding my bike on the South side of the island, I almost ran over a small brown snake crossing the road. I stopped to check it out, and got close enough to give it a good sniff. No musk. A Dekay’s brown snake. So thank you, Pat Spain, for a highly entertaining and edifying afternoon. And you’re welcome back anytime to hunt for black racers.


  1. Posted September 14, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I sent this to some friends of mine who have spent several Labor Day weekends avoiding snakes on an island in Point au Baril Ontario. Never mind there was a giant bear swimming between islands that could have eaten us, we were most afraid of these tiny harmless brown striped snakes whose name I do not know. (It was a girls’ weekend and we needed a little drama.) So I sent them a link to your blog saying that this story reminded me of them. My friend Tracey responded:

    And why did you think of us when you read this? Even though I am terrified of snakes, I did read this fascinating story. But, by funny chance, right before I read this yesterday, I was sitting with my dog’s on my back steps. And right in front of my feet, between me and my ferocious, man-protecting labs, crossed a big snake with yellow stripes. As I screamed, and both lab’s stared at me (and yes, they were close enough to bite the snake or vis-versa) I took pictures to prove it was poisonous, from inside my house. I called several people to come save me, but nobody was home, and Todd did not come home to save me either, he was waiting for his lunch at Dilly Deli and did not want to lose his table. The snake then proceeded to go under my slate staircase through a little hole. I have locked my back door permanently and will not be exiting that way for a long time. I imagine baby viper’s being born and then entering my home when my sons carelessly leave the back door open. I did not sleep well last night. Henry and Luke [her boys not her dogs] are very excited.

    • Jonathan Soroff
      Posted September 16, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      LOVE this! And please reassure your friend that unless she lives in the tropics, the snake is in all likelihood harmless.

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.