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  • Boa Bait

    At the old Discovery Center on Clinton Street in Syracuse, New York, a tiny hole-in-the-wall storefront science museum, I had my first job since I left my beloved Beaver Lake Nature Center. Every morning, I cleaned animal cages.

    The morning in question, I first cleaned the rat cages. Then I turned to Elizabeth’s cage. Elizabeth was a boa constrictor. Apparently, I hadn't washed my hands well enough. Or the rat smell clung to my clothes, or Elizabeth was confused.

    I picked her up and held her wrapped around my shoulders while I cleaned her cage. I could have put her in a snake sack and tied it up, but I'd been holding her to clean her cage for weeks and thought nothing of it until . . . BAM!
  • Something hit my neck with incredible force. I had read somewhere that a boa’s head, when it strikes, is moving around 60 miles an hour and the impact nearly knocked me over. Meanwhile coils and coils wrapped around my neck and squeezed. Quickly, I pressed my fingers, hands and then wrists up inside her coils and tried to pull her away. She was incredibly strong. I wasn't making much headway, when Frank, the artist, arrived. He took one look at me and ran screaming from the building, leaving me abandoned with a snake squeezing my neck.

    Elizabeth was a large boa, but not big enough to eat an adult human. She was, however, trying. She was gnawing on my neck. She was trying to swallow me, and squeezing with all her might.

    Although she couldn’t eat me, I realized, with fear and horror that she might be able to kill me. Boas do kill people sometimes. Frank, the artist, did not return. Only one other person was in the museum, and that was Rachel, my immediate supervisor, who was down in the basement on an important long-distance telephone call. And Rachel was terrified of snakes.
  • Realizing that I was unable to keep Elizabeth from strangling me, and that in fact, her grip was tightening and tightening in spite of my best efforts to push the coils away from my windpipe, I hollered down the stairs for Rachel.

    Rachel must have heard the fear in my voice, because a moment later, she appeared. The two of us, struggling with all our combined strength, managed to unwrap Elizabeth from my neck. We shoved Elizabeth back in her cage and Rachel drove me to the emergency room. She had flung down the important phone call and would have to explain and apologize later.

    At the hospital, the nurses and doctors oohed and aahed and removed two sharp, small, back-curved teeth from my neck. I wish I had saved them, but it didn't occur to me. I was spaced out in kind of shock.

    After that, I always cleaned the snake cages first, and then the rat cages, to cut down on possible strike stimuli.
  • The next day, Saturday, I was working alone—only one of us worked on weekend days. When I came in, Elizabeth was not in her cage. I looked all over for her, wondering if in my hurry to put her away the day before, I had neglected to properly close the cage. Finally, I looked up, and there she was, in the rafters.

    I was scared. How would I get her out of the rafters and back in her cage? But I remembered advice my father always told me—when the bronco bucks you off, you have to get back on the horse and ride. I climbed on a chair and then up onto Elizabeth’s cage and then up onto a rafter and walked through the rafters to where Elizabeth was waiting.

    Balanced on the rafters, I carefully unwound her and wrapped her around my shoulders. How else could I navigate the rafters? I was worried, because there was no one else in the museum to call if she decided to try to kill me again. But she did not, and I put her in the cage and locked it.
  • Elizabeth became an escape artist. The locked cage did not slow her. And Cleopatra, our other boa, soon followed suit. One time, Cleopatra was missing in the museum for months. I had many opportunities to ride the bucking bronco of fear. So far, no one has tried to kill me again. No snakes, anyway.

    * * * * End Elizabeth the Bucking Bronco.
  • I apologize if I've already told this story. I'm beginning to to forget what stories I've told, especially since I've probably written over a hundred stories for Cowbird that I never had time to post.

    The cover photo is from a BBC video on boa strangulation. Here is the video about boa strangulation.

    I have lots of pix of me with Elizabeth and Cleopatra, but none are accessible at the moment.

    Here is a link to the second picture, online.
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