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Natural World: I got him, Dad, and he bites too! 

click to enlarge "Hi Grandpa Jim, this is Sam. Wait 'til you see the broad-headed skink I caught!"
  • "Hi Grandpa Jim, this is Sam. Wait 'til you see the broad-headed skink I caught!"

Around 40 years ago my first son, Dean, was born to parents deeply involved in the nature of the world. His sweet mom was a high school biology teacher who kept a pet opossum, "Dartmouth," to whom she fed canned dog food from a fork, and a father who slept in eagle nests and played with snakes and spiders. The poor kid never had a chance.

At the time, I was working for The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, taking school kids on nature trips, running science camps, fostering science programs and taking my partner, "Owl," a handicapped Great Horned Owl, around to schools. From the time Dean was a little guy and through his years as a father of five rambunctious kids (three of whom are now in college), he's always asked, "why" about everything. His younger siblings are all that way.

Dean, however, was always one jump ahead of everyone else. He was, after all, the first-born. His curiosity knew no bounds, and his ability to immediately assess a situation has served him well—including during his time as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

As a small boy, he was fearless. If a snake was in his sights, he had to catch it and tow it back for inspection and approval by his parents. He was the best "Bring 'em back alive, Frank Buck," you could find, and he was barely out of diapers.

"What happens if he goes after a rattlesnake?" was a question asked by his mother as Dean fearlessly dragged home everything that crawled and slithered. The answer came on a trip to OMSI's Camp Hancock, (now the Hancock Field Station) near Fossil, Ore. In those days, we didn't have all the child restraints we do today, so I built Dean a seat (with a safety belt in it) right up front in our Ford Econovan camper, bolting it to the engine housing between Mom and Dad. That way, he could see everything going on out in front of him, and one of us could grab him in case things went south in a hurry.

Just as we were going around a curve on the road between the town of Antelope and the crossing of the John Day River at Clarno, we all spotted a magnificent Great Basin Gopher Snake, also known as a "bull snake," on the shoulder of the road. This was the moment I was waiting for. Dean had already spotted the snake and was ready to go, so I slowed down, pulled over on the shoulder and said, "Whadda' think, Dean... do you want that snake?"

Before he could answer, his mother said, "Oh, no, Jim... You wouldn't!"

click to enlarge screen_shot_2017-12-20_at_1.57.18_pm.png

Dean didn't even hear her; he was so focused on the fast-escaping snake. I opened my door, looked both ways for traffic, and there being none, dumped him out. Away he went, right for the snake. His first grab was near the tail, and true to form, that bent-on-escaping snake turned around and sunk its teeth into Dean's wrist.

Dean just used his other hand and grabbed the snake by the back of its head. Standoff. Without releasing either hand on the snake's body, he turned around and headed back for the old Ford, tears streaming down his face, balanced, however, by a big grin, as he shouted, "I got him, Dad, and he bites, too!"

From that experience, even at his tender age, it was easy to have a discussion regarding injuries to the human body when one is careless about picking up snakes—especially rattlesnakes. You'd think that would have been that, and for the most part, it was. From that day on, Dean was cautious about picking up any snake—except for one time.

When he was about 16, we were living on the Nature Conservancy's Ramsey Canyon Preserve in Arizona, where I was preserve manager. Ramsey Canyon Preserve, in those days, was known as "The Hummingbird Capital of the World." The Huachuca Mountains above the preserve were also home to several of southeast Arizona's classy reptiles.

Dean was (and still is) a great naturalist and tour guide (although at this moment he's on active duty in Afghanistan). I often turned him loose on nature walks into the upper parts of the preserve with visitor and guests. One day a very overweight man came running down the trail with a wild look in his eye, and trying to shout, he gasped to me, "Your son (puff, puff) was just bitten by a rattlesnake!"

He was panting so hard, and sweating so profusely, I was afraid for his heart, so I asked him to sit in the shade and I went for a cool drink of water for him. After he caught his breath and cooled down somewhat, I asked him for more details, fearing the worst.

The incident took place about a half mile up the trail from the preserve when Dean picked up a small rattlesnake to show to his group. He was a little careless and the snake turned himself around and got Dean.

"What was Dean doing the last time you saw him?" I asked the breathless informant.

"He was sitting on a rock with his hand in Ramsey Creek," was part of the answer. The other part was, "and as I was leaving to report the snake bite, he said, 'Oh, boy, wait till my dad hears about this."

When I arrived at the reported place, Dean was still sitting there with his hand in the creek, a sheepish grin on his face. His first words were, "I'm sorry, Dad." He was still grinning. I couldn't help but feel good about what had happened, in spite of not knowing how badly he had been bitten. Turned out, the snake nailed him on the very end of his middle finger. Couldn't ask for anything better.

click to enlarge rattle_rattle.jpg

We walked slowly back down to the preserve, Dean with his arm lowered to his side, heading for the hospital in Sierra Vista. And here comes the best part. The doctor who was on call was at dinner with his wife and friends and wasn't too happy about the "dumb kid" that got bitten by a rattlesnake. "Where's the snake?" he asked as he inspected the tiny puncture wounds in the end of Dean's finger.

"I let it go." Dean replied.

The doctor looked up in shock and almost shouted, "What!? You let it go!? You should have killed it and brought it in to me. How will I know how to treat your wound if I don't know what kind of snake it was?"

"It was a rock rattlesnake, (Crotalus lepidus)," Dean said, quietly.

"How do I know it was a rock rattlesnake?" the doctor asked with some degree of unhappiness and doubt. I tried to calm the whole situation down by telling the doctor of Dean's naturalist abilities. The doctor was happy, Dean recovered, the snake went on to live out his life after being so discourteously handled by a not-too-cautious, but very inquisitive kid.

Something similar happened again when Dean and his family were living in South Carolina. As I answered a Skype call from Dean's family one day, the first voice I heard was that of my grandson, Sam. "Hi Grandpa Jim, this is Sam. Wait 'til you see the broad-headed skink I caught!"

My daughter-in-law, Carol-Anne, came into view, adding, "Yes, the boys are so excited about Sam catching the skink they had to call you." I then saw the boys get up. As they did, Carol-Anne shouted, "Take the container and the skink outside, don't you open that cage in here!" Soon, the skink was on the screen, firmly gripped in Sam's hand. As I gazed in wonder at the skink, I also noticed some very new injuries to Sam's hand, and asked about them.

Oh," Sam replied, "that happened when I caught the skink, Grandpa—and it bites too," he added, as it jumped out of his hand and ran off under the couch.

Carol-Anne, with the hint of a smile, said to her husband, while glancing at me, "The apple didn't fall far from the tree, did it?"


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