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TAKE THREE | AL MARTINEZ

Just Barbie and Me

August 08, 1997|AL MARTINEZ

I saw my first rattlesnake of the season the other day. It was about a Barbie and a half long.

The system of measurement was developed by a friend whose daughter collects Barbie dolls. Each doll measures about 12 inches in length.

One day the friend spotted a rattler in her yard and frantically called the Fire Department. When they asked how big a snake it was, the woman, unnerved by its presence, fell back on instinct. It was two Barbies long, she said.

My snake was under our apple tree. They're everywhere this year. A clerk at our post office told me a mail carrier found one at the foot of a mailbox on his route.

The clerk didn't know whether he delivered the mail or not, but I suspect he probably left and came back when the snake was gone. The mail carrier's credo doesn't say anything about dodging poisonous reptiles in the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Sleet yes, snakes no.

A neighbor said he saw a coyote fighting with a diamondback one day. He hates both coyotes and snakes and didn't know who to cheer for.

"I was hoping they'd do in each other," he said, "but then it occurred to me there might be some kind of omen in the confrontation, so I went home and prayed."

How to deal with rattlers? A park ranger told me once I should simply explain to them I intended no harm. "Never raise your voice," she said. "Keep your mantra calm."

*

I am trying to develop a new attitude toward the serpents, but it isn't easy. My mantra is electric and difficult to control.

Naturalist Gerry Haigh has been trying for years to get me to live in harmony with the wild creatures in the mountains, but it has taken years for me to work among the wild creatures downtown and I still haven't adjusted.

Snakes aren't the only menace in the Santa Monicas. My daughter-in-law heard the roar of a mountain lion near her home. It shook trees and scattered clouds.

"I've never heard anything like that in my life," she said. "The dog didn't even bark. He just cowered."

I read once that the best way to deal with a mountain lion in the wilds is to maintain eye contact. The article went on to say, "Make yourself bigger." If you're with a child, put the child on your shoulders. If you're with a dog, throw the dog to the lion.

I usually hike alone, so I don't know how to make myself bigger. I met a bobcat on a trail once and raised both my arms in the air and growled loudly. The bobcat disappeared into the chaparral. A hiker came around a bend and found me alone, growling and waving. He made a U-turn and hurried away.

*

The snake and I stood staring at each other in the corner of my yard. He was coiled and rattling. In Sri Lanka snakes bite 2,000 people a year. Cobras are protected by the government because the people believe in reincarnation. Kill a cobra and you could be killing your dead grandfather's new presence.

I have no such feelings of reverence toward snakes. I do not believe that my grandfather would be hidden in a corner of the yard, coiled and rattling. In a bar, yes, on a hillside, no.

Snakes go back about 100 million years. They originated in Asia and spread out from there. One found its way under my apple tree.

I'm not intrinsically cruel, but I cannot, as Gerry Haigh suggested, love snakes, despite their long heritage. Not after what they did to Adam. However, I would give the reptile under the tree a fighting chance.

My son made me a snake catcher, which is a large pole with a rope looped at the end. The idea is to drop the loop over the snake's head, tighten it by pulling on the other end of the rope and thus capture the snake.

I followed my son's directions and caught the creature in the noose. Then it occurred to me that I didn't know what to do after that. If I released the rope the noose would loosen and the snake would no doubt wiggle free and attack. I would do the same under similar circumstances.

I stood there for a while looking stupid and then knew what had to be done. "It ain't no fun," a Marine drill instructor told me once about killing in war, "but it is effective."

I put the snake catcher down carefully, laid a heavy rock on my end of the rope, got a shovel and, mantra buzzing, chopped off the rattler's head, whack! The D.I. was right. It wasn't no fun, but it was effective. I hope it wasn't grandpa.

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Al Martinez can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com

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