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True Reptile Man stories.

BIRDS IN THE BILLBOARD



I met a man, Marco, while living in Hacienda Heights. Im not sure why, but I had always referred to him as Mike which he did not seem to mind. He became a mentor to me and was so for many years to come. One particular interest he passed on to me was pigeons. They came in so many colors, shapes, and sizes! Some had tail feathers that spread like a peacock, while others had the ability to find their way home from hundreds of miles away. My favorite pigeon was the Roller. I was introduced to them at the San Diego Wild Animal Park while watching the Birds of Prey program. The pigeons were released at the beginning of the show, and they rose high into the air. All at once, the birds pulled their heads back in flight and began spinning backwards as they fell towards the ground. Ten, fifteen, twenty feet they would drop before flying back up together to do it all over again. We had recently moved to a place called Walnut where there was plenty of countryside at the time to explore. Knowing exactly where to find some pigeons, I built the cage and waited until dark to make my move. I crossed a fast paced four-lane highway, and traveled south to my destination. A towering, sixty-foot, double-sided billboard stood before me as the traffic sped past without notice. I had driven by this location previously, and had seen pigeons entering the mid section of the sign on many occasions. The ladder was a good ten feet from the ground! Knowing this, I brought along a rope to help me accomplish my mission. I tossed it through the first step, hoisted myself up, and squeezed between the billboards. You could hear the pigeons rustling in the darkness as I fumbled around for better place to hold on. One wrong move on the slippery metal frame meant a forty-foot free fall to the ground below. I could feel the entire sign swaying gently in the wind as I tucked my T-shirt in so that it was secure and tight. Each pigeon I caught was safely placed down the front of my shirt. This allowed me to use both of my hands while maneuvering between the signs. Twelve pigeons stretched my shirt to its limit as we made our way back to the ground without incident. Within two weeks of settling into their new home, I could see two pearly white eggs under one of the hens I caught. It had been well worth the climb!

TREE HOUSE TERROR

At six years old, I felt as if the hundreds of trees that surrounded me served one purpose only, and that was for me to climb, hang, and swing from every branch possible! Each tree had its own wonders to behold. Large, sticky, smelly, or small, I climbed them all. My favorite was an apple tree with branches that grew wide and long. The previous owners of my mom and dads 20-acre farm had placed a small platform in the center of the tree. I spent many hours with my cherished teddy bear made for me by my grandmother, so Bubba and I happily traveled together on numerous animal adventures. After breakfast, we headed for the tree house for a bit of freedom and fresh air. We had no idea that a hideous creature was lurking below the grounds surface awaiting our arrival. I did not notice anything wrong or out of place that morning until I had settled down to view the surroundings. The tree house was a good eight feet in the air, and what I beheld not less than ten feet out from the tree brought chills to my spine. A huge pile of earth had sprung up overnight under my peaceful retreat in the tree. The dirt was flying from the hole as I looked around for a weapon of some sort as a deep feeling of dread crept over me in the knowledge that my Mother was to far away to hear my screams for help. I knew that I was alone with Bubba who at that time gave me no guidance in that terror filled moment. It was summer, which luckily meant there were plenty of apples to use as ammunition to defend myself from this terrible beast below. Each apple thrown seemed to keep this unknown danger quiet for only a few moments before the dirt started flying over and over again. My last hope was Bubba who bravely stepped up and flew bravely through the air to distract this monster while I made my getaway. I turned and walked out onto a branch in the opposite direction of the intruder and heard the worst sound a tree climber ever wants to hear! Crack! And the branch began its descent to the ground. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Not because of the branch breaking, but over what was waiting for me as I met the ground and lay helplessly before my attacker. To my surprise, the events happening before my eyes began to decelerate until everything was moving in slow motion. I remember thinking as I fell that there was plenty of time for decisions on the way down as well as a soft cushy landing at the bottom. Slowly, I tumbled head first towards the ground and rolled gently onto my back into an upright position and started running for the house. I made my escape and was home free! As I excitedly told my mother what had happened, a smile came over her face as she enlightened me as to what the terror that hid before me really was. Just a harmless gopher that had more interest in the apples I had been throwing than it had in me.

HOTFOOT
As a youngster, I loved summer. The warmth of the sun was very welcome, for it brought forth creatures from the ground, often, I found, ones not embraced by many people. Eight months is a long time for a seven-year-old boy who cannot wait for these beautiful animals to show themselves. Some had yellow stripes while others were orange or red. I caught them from four inches to four feet long! Garter snakes were plentiful in the spring because they gathered in large numbers under the plywood near our barn. This gave them protection from the cool nights, and as the sun would rise, their protective cover would heat up rapidly and keep them warm throughout the day. By 10am, the snakes were ready. I would dash in madly as my mom would lift the boards as the snakes slithered about frantically, scattering in every direction possible. This day was different. It was mid summer and much too hot for snakes to gather under boards or tin. Today, I would be taking a trip down to the cool stream about a half-mile down from the farm. We lived on a back road in Albany, Oregon in 1970. It was rare to have a car pass by during the day. So, off to the river I ambled. I enjoyed the cold water on my feet as the day heated up to 95 degrees plus. I caught a few snakes and investigated some tiny red worms wiggling at the waters edge. I finally lost interest and decided to head home for lunch, which was served at 12pm and not a second later. I wasn't far down the road before I realized I had made a mistake by not wearing any shoes that day. You could fry an egg on the newly tarred blacktop. I could run all of 20 paces before my feet felt like they were on fire! I would quickly sit on the road until they cooled. It was not long before my back end had the same problem, and I would jump up again for another 20 paces or so repeatedly for the next half-mile home. The blacktop was so hot it left steaming hot tar all over my shorts and feet. I remember reaching the lawn in our front yard. The relief was overwhelming! My tar stained shorts were a smart reminder for the next couple years to put my shoes on before leaving the house!

PEACE IN THE DARKNESS


Our assignment was written before us, and everyone could read it, except for me. Third grade was a turning point in my life, and it started with my inability to see what the teacher had written on the chalkboard. I found myself leaving my desk periodically to walk past the front of the classroom to confirm what I needed to accomplish for the day. It was not long before notice was taken, and a call was made to my mom at home. It seems I was in need of a pair of spectacles, more commonly known as glasses. The next week I was off to see the eye doctor. As I situated the glasses atop the bridge of my nose, I could not believe what I had been missing. A whole new world opened up to me, both good and bad! The name calling and teasing were relentless to say the least. I found myself trying to avoid all the kids in the school to no avail. At the far end of Shady Bend School was a cement waterway that emptied into a cavernous, round drain at one corner of the school. The grate over the opening was hinged and could easily be opened to the beckoning darkness of the tunnel. A steady trickle of water was running into the entrance that kept the air chilly and humid inside. I found the coolness to be refreshing while the temperature outside surpassed 100 or more. I not only escaped from my tormentors in school, I had found a place where other kids dared not follow. Peace was at hand, and adventure was never far behind. Flashlights, candles, and matches were smuggled into school for my daytime travels beneath the city of Hacienda Heights. Thousands of people walked and drove above me without a single one aware of who or what lurked below. Occasionally, I would crawl up a side tube that opened to a drain at the edge of the road and watch the cars drive by. This was better than any tree house that could ever be built since the tunnels shot in every direction for miles and miles. After six months of continuous exploration, I had finally found a route that took me to a drainage ditch with twelve-foot high walls behind my house. Knowing that I would eventually find my home, I had tied a rope to the guard fence post and let it dangle down the wall for a quick exit into the back yard. It was a twenty-minute walk to school and a two and a half hour adventure home. No, there were no alligators down there, but the rats were huge! Nothing I couldn't handle with my trusty slingshot.

YELLOW JACKETS & ELEPHANTS


Our visitors had arrived. It was a 900-mile journey from their home in Southern California. We were happy to see them! David and Robby had never been to Oregon, or the back country for that matter, and it was time to have some fun on the farm. Our first stop was an old storage building to hunt for a rat or two with my newly acquired lever action BB gun. On the way to the hayloft in the barn, we also visited the chickens and pigs before climbing the hay bales to within a few feet of the ceiling. We rested and caught up on the past. It was not long before Robby had lodged his right leg between the hay bales and let out a scream that sent the pigs out to the back 20 for cover. As he pulled his leg from the hay, we figured out quickly what had happened. Robby had stepped directly into a nest of yellow jackets that were intent on revenge for the destruction of their abode. I was very familiar with yellow jackets, so I was the first to leap to the ground and head for the house knowing these ornery wasps would not give up easily on the attack. I did not take any time to look back until I had reached the safety of our home. Both David and Robby were a good 50 yards behind me with a dark cloud of stinging insects hovering above them. These bees surely had a grudge and were taking it out on my friends. While they were being treated for their wounds, Uncle Bobby took me aside to let me know that yellow jackets had memories like those of elephants, and would surely recognize me the next time I left the house. For the next three days, we all spent our time sneaking around the house and yard before we realized my uncle had pulled the wool over our eyes. To this day, Uncle Bob regrets ever teasing us about those nasty insects. Because we got even! We took an empty box of Ritz crackers and placed about five or six garter snakes inside. We found my uncle in the garage working on his car and ever so politely asked him if he would like some crackers. To this day, he shivers at the mere thought of snakes, and has never eaten a Ritz cracker since.

THE SERPENT

Second grade. I couldn't wait for recess. My favorite place to explore was out of limits, and all the kids agreed not to venture into this rugged terrain, except me. What the school officials used as a warning to keep the kids away from the creek only made my curiosity that much stronger. The dangers of traveling behind the school took the form of a hideous, eight-foot snake that had been known to chase little kids back to their classrooms! The joy upon hearing this was overwhelming! I carefully tiptoed from one bush to the next to assure no one noticed as I made my way towards the creek-side. I felt the warnings our teachers gave had more to do with us playing near the water's edge rather than some creature lurking about to chase unsuspecting kids back to class. I was alert as a bird eyeing an unsuspecting worm for lunch and waiting for an attack when through the bushes emerged an eight-foot snake crawling slowly to within three feet of where I stood. The snake rose into the air over three feet and stopped to stare me down for what seemed like forever. My heart was pounding with fear for I had never encountered a snake as huge as this. I knew immediately this snake was not to be caught. After all, I had no idea what kind of snake would slither up without apparent fear to look me in the eyes. As I circled around, his head turned slowly around and followed me. He could only turn his head about halfway before it snapped back in the opposite direction to watch my every move. I was so absorbed in the study of this beautiful serpent, I had not noticed some kids who walked up behind me. Upon seeing the snake, they all let out ear piercing screams and headed for cover. I turned back and was saddened to find my newfound friend had also retreated to the safety of the forest and creek. Looking back, I believe what I had encountered was a Green Racer, and through the eyes of an excited eight-year-old, it was truly eight feet in length! The legend had come true for everyone that day.

TURKEY SHOOT

An exciting day awaited me. My family and I were heading to Lucerne Valley for the annual Turkey Shoot. Whether it was for food, or reptiles, hunting was a passion I pursued on a daily basis. I was slightly disappointed when we arrived. It was fairly cold out, and I knew the snakes and lizards would be deeply embedded underground well beyond my reach. No matter, the first shoot was coming up. I had to get ready. All was quiet as I looked down the sights of my .22 rifle. I felt good this day, and if it were not for the wind blowing the end of my rifle as I shot, I would have had my turkey! The next shooting competition made me a bit nervous. I would be competing with five adults. I was using my grandpa's lever action 30/06 that kicks like a mule, and would leave a sizable, dark bruise on my right shoulder. It was a 200-yard shot. I raised the rifle and relaxed as I squeezed out five consecutive shots. One man's rifle kicked so hard, the scope hit him in the forehead each time he fired! We marched the 200 yards to determine who got the turkey and passed a large cement underground building I would be compelled to investigate later that day. Somehow I knew my prize lay within its depths. We reached our destination. I had never seen grown men so mad in my life! I had won! The turkey was mine. I could tell my grandpa was proud of me as they pulled the turkey out of the freezer and presented it to me for the best score at the target range. I gave the prize to my grandma and made a beeline towards the cement building I had seen earlier. It was full of trash and could be dangerous digging through it with my bare hands. Using a stick, I dug down until I found my true prize coiled quietly beneath the cardboard. A Mojave Sidewinder, a species of rattler that I still keep to this day.

CAGE NUMBER 22


I received a call from a curator of a public museum in Southern California that kept twenty-two venomous snakes on display. He explained to me that this museum had been built on a fault line in the early 1900s, and if a considerable earthquake were to hit the area, the building would fall and release the venomous snakes upon the town. His interest in sharing this information with me stemmed from the fact I had developed a surgical procedure in 1988 that renders venomous snakes harmless. The curator had heard about this and asked if I could fly down for two weeks to teach their local veterinarian the surgery. It sounded like a great adventure to me, and I gladly accepted. The facility turned out to be a science museum full of wildlife, history, and plenty of desert to explore in the evenings after work. The veterinarian was used to working on larger mammals such as dogs and cats. I didnt think he was prepared for the microscopic surgery that involved delicately cutting through connective tissue as thin as the hair on your arm. We worked our way through the snakes until we reached the last cage, number 22. The curator handed me the key, and before I could say thank you, I heard the two men behind me running to the door. Slam! I was alone, and for good reason. The last snake to be captured and placed upon the operating table was a six-foot Black Mamba with an attitude! Known as the fastest, and one of the deadliest snakes in the world, I had come prepared with a long pair of snake grabbers to defend myself with if the situation got out of hand. As I opened the door, the Mamba wasted no time attacking viciously, biting everything within reach as it chased me halfway through the museum. His head was raised above the floor about two feet as his body whipped violently left and right while in pursuit. The quick undulating movements made the Mamba appear as a blur as I ran backwards facing the snake. I could see the inside of his solid black mouth as he lunged repeatedly at my legs and body. After multiple attempts, I finally grasped the Mamba behind the head with the snake grabber and moved in quickly to secure him by hand before he hurt himself. The danger was over, and on occasion, I think about picking up a large Black Mamba for myself to present during my reptile programs. Then again, maybe not.

REPTILEMAN

I received a phone call from a middle school teacher named Scott who was interested in buying a pair of snakes for his classroom. Since he lived in the High Desert, I didnt mind delivering the snakes personally. After I dropped them off, I headed towards Highway 247, an excellent road on which to catch rattlesnakes in the evening. Scotts eyes opened wide with excitement as I handed him his Boas with brilliant red patterns on the lower third of their bodies. He was full of questions, and I was more than happy to answer them. Scott asked if he could ride along on the hunt, and I gladly accepted since there were few people I knew who would have anything to do with a truck filled with deadly rattlesnakes. We didnt have much luck in the High Desert, so we headed south to Palm Springs. The road I had in mind was called White Water Canyon, and is well known in the reptile community worldwide. Driving back down the canyon we saw the headlights of a car stopped in the middle of the road. Two men were examining something on the ground. We walked over to see what they had discovered. It was a Mojave Rattlesnake, a species not found in this area. I had a feeling they were trying to pull a fast one on us when all of a sudden one of the men stooped over the rattler and picked it up with his bare hand! I thought this guy was either crazy or a greenhorn who was about to die. After we talked a bit, we were told they had removed the venom ducts from the snake, and it was harmless. From the looks of the head of the snake, I would have to say they did more damage to the rattler than good. With a little finesse, Scott and I were able to talk the man out of his snake, and I took it home. Within a month, the rattlesnake died, and my newfound collecting friend and I performed a necropsy on the rattler to find out exactly what had been done to it. The dead snakes head was full of silk sutures that had been haphazardly placed between the venom sacs and the fang. We knew the principle of the surgery was sound, but the execution was sloppy at best. The Mojave Rattler was set aside for later study, and I began to tell Scott about a fellow from my workplace who had spoken of performing a reptile presentation over the weekend. I had kept reptiles as pets for many years and thought this may be something I would like to try myself. One night while speaking with Scott at the dinner table, we came up with a plan to move north and start our new reptile presentation business. After a year, we found there would not be enough work for both of us in Oregon, so Scott moved to Washington to continue his efforts. Since 1991, we have helped change the perceptions of hundreds of thousands of people to a more favorable view concerning the reptiles of our world.

RATS!

The problem came from the home next door. One day while taking a nap, I heard people yelling and pounding frantically upon the front door. As I opened it, a man pulled me out quickly and led me to the safety of the street. The heat that emanated from the house fire next door was tremendous! I had to shield my face from the effects of the fire. Fortunately, there were no people in the house at the time, and the firefighters arrived just in time to save our own house from becoming a pile of ash. There were at least four families living on the property with small shacks built in the back yard for each of them. It seems the blaze had not only chased out the residents of the house, the rats left as well! Right onto our property and under the house. It wasnt long before the rodents had gained access and began eating holes in the walls throughout the house. Although I didnt know it, help was on the way via a box of twelve, large Black Rat Snakes I had purchased from a friend. Anticipating their arrival, I had temporary housing for them once they were delivered. The next day, I set them up in a holding pen and headed off to work. Upon arriving home, I discovered that seven of the twelve snakes had escaped during the day! The snakes had entered the holes in the walls and disappeared. Over the next month, if I entered the house at night while the lights were off, I would catch one or more of the rat snakes slithering across the floor, so I caught them and returned them back to their cage. The snakes were fat and healthy from feasting on the unwanted vermin population. From that day on, I never heard that familiar pitter-pat of small feet in the walls or the ceiling again. The scaly exterminators worked so well, I decided to release a Tokay Gecko to take care of any bugs that found their way into the house. It worked better than any critter spray I had ever used and was much healthier as well.

THE RIVERBED BEAST

Each day after work I would make my daily visit to Wally, the seven-foot alligator that lived in my backyard. He had a fenced area with a large three-foot deep pond to keep cool during the summer heat. He had never been handled much during his life, so he wasnt a friendly gator. He would allow me to enter his domain for feeding and upkeep, but that was about it. He would hiss, slap his tail, and disappear into the water if I ventured too close. One day, I arrived home to have my dog Sioux jump over the six-foot gate and land directly on the hood of my truck. I didnt recognize him since he was covered from head to toe with mud. I was afraid to look at Sioux for fear of any damage that Wally may have inflicted upon him, but search as I may, I could not find a single scratch on his body. Relieved at finding no injuries, I turned my focus towards Wally to make sure he was okay. Although he seemed fine from a distance, upon closer inspection, I found Wally had lost the fight with my dog, and he had taken his last breath towards gator heaven. I took Wally down to the riverbed to bury him. I set him near the waters edge while I dug a hole for him in the bamboo thicket. It wasnt long before I could hear people chattering excitedly about a hundred yards off towards the highway. I peeked through the bamboo to see a small group who had gathered to see the alligator laying on the riverbank. I ran out, grabbed Wally by the tail, and pulled him into the thicket. Before anyone could arrive for a closer inspection of what had just happened, Wally was buried, and I had disappeared into swamp with shovel in hand. The next day there was a picture of Wally basking peacefully at the waters edge in our local newspaper. They were warning people to stay out of the river until the riverbed beast was found. Rest in peace, Wally.

WATCHER OF THE WOODS

Fall was in the air, and I readied myself for deer hunting season. I headed for the nearest cedar tree to pick the small, sweet smelling berries that grew at the ends of the leaves. Home again, I placed them in a blender full of water. Once pureed, I filtered the contents and placed the elixir in a small spray bottle for later use as a cover scent while hunting in the mountains behind my home. I set out in the evening about two hours before dark to find a nice strategic place to sit in the forest and enjoy the peace that surrounded me. Although I have had opportunities to shoot a deer, I did not take them. I suppose the real reason for going was to just simply enjoy the tranquility that nature had to offer. After arriving at the ideal location, I sprayed myself from head to toe and started for a spot about twenty yards from the forests edge. The spray I concocted had such a strong odor, it not only covered my scent, but it drew in deer from half a mile to discover what smelled so good. The does seemed to know they were safe as they walked within ten yards of where I sat. Now that I think of it, I should have brought a camera instead of a bow to capture the experience for memorys sake. The sun had set, and I readied myself to leave when I heard tree branches breaking about one hundred yards downwind from where I was hiding. I turned and waited excitedly for the arrival of what I thought would be a large buck in rut. Whatever was coming down the mountainside seemed to be very unhappy indeed. The noise of tromping through the forest seemed intentional, as if to scare me away. If I had known what I was about to look upon, I definitely would have left in a hurry! There was just enough light left to see a large silhouette emerge from the forests border. It stood a good seven feet tall with shoulders twice as wide as my own. Thick hair covered its entire body, and though I strained to see its face, it was getting too dark to discern any details. The animal was standing in an upright position, and its arms hung just shy of its knees. It was a mere twenty yards away staring directly at me as I sat nervously watching its every move. The creature swayed ever so slightly for a few minutes before being satisfied, and turned around slowly to head back up the mountain from whence it came. Whatever the animal was, it had a keen sense of smell, for it knew exactly where I had taken refuge. I have heard many stories such as this since that encounter. I no longer crack a smile when hearing them.

REAR ENDED REGGIE

Friday night! While most people I know love to go fishing or camping on the weekends, I had other plans, and my first objective was to find a teammate. My first call was to my brother in law Reggie, because he had the eyes of a hawk and the energy to drive all night if we had to. The extreme temperatures of the Mojave Desert cooled down first before the low desert around Palm Springs, so that was our first destination, and once we hit Lucerne Valley we turned north onto Highway 247 to Barstow. It was a solid two hours before we even reached our destination, but being a weekly foray for a couple years, and being excited about what we may find crossing the roads late at night, it kept us wide awake and ready to act on a seconds notice. 100 yards! We both spotted it simultaneously and Reggie stomped on the gas! We had to act fast because there were multiple vehicles coming up behind us a couple miles back, and there is nothing worse then seeing such beauty being extinguished before our eyes under the cruel and ruthless tires of a uncaring driver upon such perfection of nature. With hazard lights glaring we jumped from the truck with appropriate tools and ran to our first prize, a South Western Speckled Rattlesnake! She had been ran over by a vehicle, but only the very tip of her tail, so the decision was quickly made that this snake was coming home for some much needed medical attention and rehabilitation, and rehabilitate she did. I kept her for many years into the mid 1990s, and she even produced young on occasion. Our next stop, Verbainia Ave in Palm Springs, just one exit west of Whitewater Canyon, which is a well-known road by Herpetological enthusiast around the globe. Verbainia was a number of dead end roads built in the 80s for a potential housing complex that has still not been built upon to this very date. Approximately five miles of dark spooky cul-de-sacs of abandoned curbs, sage bush and tumble weeds, with dried vegetation growing in every crack in the road. Add to this a constant 20 mph wind in the pitch black of night, and you find yourself thinking of every horror movie you've ever seen about to become a reality at any moment. All such doom faded quickly when we spotted a three foot black and white California King Snake inching his way up the curb towards a twelve-foot embankment full of holes. We had lost such quarry in situations like this before, so Reggie sped up and actually jumped out the door of his truck while we were still rolling down the road while I decided to watch such a spectacle unfold from the safety of the cab, and glad I did because it's a sight I will probably never forget. He had no trouble passing the rolling truck to hop the curb and triumphantly grab his prize.... butt, pun intended, while bent over with snake in hand, the truck tapped him in the rear at ten mph and sent him flying upside down and back first right into the dirt embankment where he slid down into a heap of deflated clothing and flesh, but still holding that prized king Snake high in the air protecting it with all his might! What a night!