Pantherophis alleghaniensis, the Yellow rat snake, photographed in Lake county, Florida (13 July 2014).
THE PROLOGUE: This should be a fun post to write, and I hope it’ll be a fun one to read — despite its length. I’m happy to finally be getting to it. I’ve taken this past week off from writing for a number of reasons. The short version, and somewhat to the point, is this: I’ve been sick and tired. Not sick and tired of the blog, mind you. I’ve just been sick and really, really tired. I haven’t had much energy or inclination to dance my fingers about on the keyboard during this past week, but I believe I’m starting to pull out of my funk. I think. We’ll wax on about health and human biology later, but right now I’ve got to tell you this story. It’s the story of a 40 year old man getting his ass handed to him during his five year old daughter’s early birthday party in Mount Dora, Florida. The story involves a rather tough snake, a fairly robust frog, and, of course, a 40 year old dude. You might think it was the snake who kicked the 40 year old dude’s ass, but it wasn’t. It was the frog. A frog kicked the 40 year old’s ass. My ass. Mine. Kicked solidly by a frog.
THE PLAYERS in our story include a decently sized Yellow rat snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) and a Cuban treefrog (Osteopilus septentrionalis). The Yellow rat snake featured on this post is the actual yellow rat snake featured in the story. The Cuban treefrog, however, was not photographed (for reasons that will become clear as you continue to read). Just so you have an idea of what we’re talking about, here’s a Cuban treefrog photographed in central Florida a few years back:
THE SETTING: We packed up and headed inland to Mount Dora, Florida (in Lake county) to celebrate my daughter’s fifth birthday a bit early with her grandparents, my parents. The plan was to roll into town, grill out some burgers, open gifts, eat lots of cake, and play. Lots and lots of play — with pool time to boot! My parents’ backyard is decked out with a lovely pool and more tropical and semi-tropical foliage than most can possibly fathom. My mother has a thing for the tropics, you see, and this yard has been a project-in-the-making for years and years. A Key West away from Key West, if you will. Anyhow, due to the abundance of water and foliage, it’s also a bit of a magnet for local wildlife, indigenous and non-native alike. Rarely is there a visit to my folks’ place in Mount Dora that doesn’t feature some sort of reptile or amphibian encounter. From Southern black racers to Cuban brown anoles, from Brahminy blind snakes to Eastern narrowmouth toads, their yard is a veritable festival of herpetological fauna. Cuban treefrogs and Yellow rat snakes are certainly quite common around their property.
ACT I: THE FLORIDA BROWN SNAKE! Shortly after we arrived and family greeted each other, I ducked out back to quickly scour the backyard for critters — as I usually do.
As we saw last week on Dust Tracks, it didn’t take long to find a gravid Florida brown snake, Storeria victa, bunkered down beneath a small concrete plate in the side yard. After quickly snagging the pregnant snake, I brought her inside to show Kid A. My daughter’s interest in wildlife has continued to grow (thank heavens), and I figured this was a cool, little snake she would enjoy checking out. She was quite careful not to squeeze the snake — was all the more important because of the snake’s pregnancy. After we talked about and watched the snake for a bit, I returned the lil’ Florida brown to her concrete slab and let her go. The snake quickly disappeared back under her hiding spot. As for myself, it was grill time.
ACT II: THE FROG IN NEED! Running a bit behind schedule, I loaded up the grill with charcoal and got it going. Because I had a little bit of time before the coals would be ready for the burgers, I decided to trek around some more of the yard to see what was around. My first stop was the backside of my father’s “rock house” — a small, external workshop building he has on the edge of the backyard. Nearing the back corner, I heard the alarm-cries of a Cuban treefrog. It’s a distinctive, high-pitched, intermittent, and rather loud cry. Pretty hard to miss. The strange thing, I noted, is that Cuban treefrogs are nocturnal. Why in the world would a Cuban treefrog be calling this time of day, in the heat of the day? With the sun just about to hit this side of the wall?
AN ASIDE: I wish I’d brought my camera with me for this next moment. As it was, I’d left my camera on the table by the grill. If I’d been smarter, I would’ve brought it with me from the start. If I’d been a little less stupid, I would’ve grabbed it as soon as I heard the frog calling… But hey… so it goes. It simply didn’t occur to me to grab the camera, and this is rare. So, I’ll try to describe the following as best I can. Let thy imagination paint the scene!
Rounding the corner, I quickly found the source of the cry: A lone (and rather large) Cuban treefrog that appeared stuck on the edge of the rock house’s mounted AC unit — a small air conditioning unit halfway up the wall of the rock house. There are narrow cracks along the edge of the AC unit, and it looked like the Cuban treefrog had gotten a leg wedged either in the crevice or perhaps in one of the AC unit’s side ventilation slots. I figured the frog was as good as dead if I left it, so I decided to help loosen the frog from its trapped position.
The Cuban treefrog was extremely slimy. Slimier than they usually are. The species is capable of coating itself with a somewhat toxic mucus. This frog, probably because it was distressed, was in full-tilt slimy-mucus mode. It cried even louder as I began to work its body, trying to find a way to free its leg. At first, I thought the leg was trapped in an AC unit slot, but then it appeared to actually be wedged into the crevice between the AC unit and the rock house wall. Working to hang on to the slimy, slippery frog, I eased it back and forth, pulling and tugging ever so gently, trying to free it from the AC unit. Finally, the frog’s body slid out from the crevice. Success! Ah, but so too did the head of a Yellow rat snake — a snake head with with the frog’s rear leg firmly in its mouth. Yup. The Cuban treefrog was crying because it had been caught by a Yellow rat snake hiding in the crevice. Looks like I’d interrupted the snake’s lunch plans…
When the snake saw me, it quickly released the frog and immediately darted back into the crevice. As for the Cuban treefrog, it immediately launched from my confused and startled hands, jumping no less than five feet away with thanks to its elevated launching position. At this moment, I simply stopped thinking about the Cuban treefrog. I was in Official Snake Mode.
ACT III: CATCHING THE YELLOW RAT SNAKE! With the Cuban treefrog completely off my radar, I began to try to figure out how to catch this Yellow rat snake. It was a decent sized adult and was firmly wedged in the narrow crevice. There was no way I was going to pull it out with my hands. I couldn’t get my hands back far enough to get a grip, and even if I could there’d be no way I could safely pull the snake out without hurting it. I needed another plan. Rubbing my increasingly-sweaty head in the growing heat of the afternoon, I hatched a plan.
I left the Yellow rat snake and hopped over to the front of the rock house. I eased my way inside and made my way to the back of the one-room building where the AC unit was positioned. I found that the crevice was effectively sealed from the inside. This meant I couldn’t catch the snake from inside, but it also meant the snake couldn’t escape by ducking into the building. The only way out for the snake was the outer wall. This was good, to my thinking, and workable.
Feeling the sweat really starting to drench my shirt (the AC unit on the rock house wasn’t running), I grabbed a small fishing pole and headed back outside. Again, I hopped around the rock house, resuming my position in front of the crevice. A bit of sweat dripped down into my eyes, so I wiped my face, preparing for the Great Fishing Catch of July 2014.
I gently eased the fishing rod’s tip into the crevice, above and eventually behind the snake, and began to massage it lightly. My plan was to make the snake uncomfortable enough with the rubbing rod that it would leave the crevice of its own freewill. As for myself, I wanted to be as motionless as possible so the snake would see fleeing as less a threat than staying. As I worked the rod, the snake began to adjust itself toward the opening. At this point, more sweat dripped to my eyes. Despite the light stinging, I kept going with my little fishing exercise.
Soon enough, perhaps three or four minutes since I began, the snake’s head emerged from the crack. I brought the rod forward, still behind the snake, and continued the irritating massage strategy. And then, just as another line of sweat tagged one of my eyes, bringing another little sting, the snake moved out of the crevice.
I immediately dropped the pole and grabbed the snake. It took another minute or so to get the rest of the snake out of the crevice. As soon as I’d dropped the pole and made my move, the snake –of course– tried to retreat again. Fortunately, I had enough of the snake to keep a firm hold. Once the snake was freed and in my hands, I felt utterly triumphant. Rah! It didn’t even do much in the way of biting. Sometimes rat snakes put up a fight. Other times they just sort of roll with it once they’ve been caught. This one rolled with it. Moving back toward the camera, I held the snake with one hand and rubbed my eyes, clearing the stinging sweat that had dripped down.
And then all hell broke loose.
ACT IV: OH GOD, THIS REALLY HURTS! I’m anthropomorphizing a bit and this is quite ridiculous, of course, but I like to think that the liberated Cuban treefrog watched what was unfolding from a perch on the fence, as if to admire his or her handiwork…
As I began to snap the photographs featured on this post, my eyes really began to burn. At first, it was the stinging sensation you might expect when you get tagged with sweat in the eyes, but it didn’t take long for this sensation to go waaaaay beyond that mild level of discomfort. Still focusing on the snake, I realized my eyes were starting to water. The pain was starting to get really, really intense. I wiped and rubbed my eyes, and it got even worse. I actually muttered to the snake, Oh god, this really hurts! And that’s when Captain Hominid Genius realized his mistake…
When I’d tried to free the Cuban treefrog, my hands were coated in its toxic mucus. This has happened plenty of times before, but this event was different. Almost always, my encounters with Cuban treefrogs are in the late night hours — when the sun is scorching the other side of the planet. This time, however, I was in the full-blown Florida sunshine. I’d wiped my bald head with my hands, brushing off sweat. In doing this, I’d rubbed Cuban treefrog mucus on my head. This then dripped down with the sweat and pinged my eyes during the catch. Once I had the snake, I then rubbed my eyes directly with my hands, having completely forgotten about the Cuban treefrog. In doing this, I effectively rubbed the toxin directly onto my eyes.
The sensation was horrible. At its worst, it almost felt like my eyes were on fire. I did manage to take the snake inside to show Kid A, but unlike with the Florida brown snake, we didn’t spend as much time with it. For one, the Yellow rat snake was much larger than the Florida brown. I didn’t want to risk it taking a swipe at Kid A and freaking her out. Second, I needed to get back to the grill. Third, and perhaps most urgently, I needed to take care of my eyes. My dad held the snake with Kid A while I ran to the bathroom and rinsed my eyes out, adding a bit of visine to both for good measure.
Finally, with eyes on fire, I took the Yellow rat snake back to the rock house and let it go right next to its original hiding spot. I also like to think that this is the moment the Cuban treefrog was finally satisfied of its handiwork and decided to hop on to the next yard. Heh.
ACT V: ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (ENOUGH)! With the Yellow rat snake released and the Cuban treefrog long gone, I turned my attention back to the grill — but only after fully washing my head, face, and hands a second time. For about twenty minutes, my eyes radiated pain, and the pain came and went in waves. Just when I thought it was getting better, another little cycle of burning sensations washed over my eyes. I’m pretty sure the heat and the smoke from the grill didn’t do much to help the situation. Heh.
Eventually the burgers were cooked, the gifts were opened, the cake was eaten, and the burning sensation eased off. Kid A had a terrific party with her grandparents, and a good time was had by all — despite the little mishap with the Cuban treefrog.
When I was a kid, my dad had a favorite saying: “Always keep your brain in gear.” Actually, that’s still his favorite saying. He says it all the time. It’s sort of a family joke, but “keep your brain in gear” truly is sage advice. For the most part, when I’m dealing with wildlife of any sort, I try to do exactly that: Keep my brain in gear. Always be mindful of what’s going on, of what’s around you, and of what could happen. I have a very good track record with wildlife, though I do willfully suffer the occasional non-venomous snake bite in the name of macro photography. Still, on this one particular afternoon, I completely and totally botched it. I’d shifted my focus so entirely on that Yellow rat snake, I’d simply forgotten about the Cuban treefrog. I should have known better. I should’ve remembered in that moment about their toxic mucus. I simply didn’t think about it for a number of reasons. Regardless of the reasons, however, there’s nobody to blame but myself. For a moment, I did not keep my brain in gear, and the Cuban treefrog got the better of me for it!
EPILOGUE: It’s a nice reminder, I think, that when you’re dealing with wildlife, sometimes the biggest problems can manifest from the smallest of creatures. In this case, on this sunny, hot Florida afternoon, it wasn’t the big, tough Yellow rat snake that kicked my ass. It was the small Cuban treefrog and its slimy mucus. Above all, however, I was my own worst enemy on that afternoon. I just didn’t think it all through. So, I’ll share some advice to myself, and to you, if it pleases you: Always keep your brain in gear!
Next on Dust Tracks: We’ll be downshifting to our standard rotation of shorter posts on a daily basis in a few days. This is a massive post, and I want to let it sit on the front/top burner for a few days. We’ve got plenty of goodness coming up, that’s for sure!