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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Snakes in my life

I have always been curious about nature and as a boy I often brought snakes and other critters home to show to my parents. My mother always acted interested but I could always tell from her body language that she would rather I didn't bring them into the house. Back in the mid 60's I was a student at S.F.State University and working as a instructor in the Natural History of Vertebrates in the biology department. During this time I visited family and friends in Guerneville, California one spring weekend. My friend Tom King, a Banker in town and I decided to go trout fishing in the hills behind Armstrong woods which is now a State Park. While fishing I saw a young Rattle snake and snared it with my fishing pole and line. I Proudly showed it to Tom who backed off abruptly and wondered what I was going to do with it. I told him that I planned to use it in my class and then return it to the wild. As we walked across the creek to go to the place we left our gear I walked near a Yellow Jacket nest and was surrounded by agitated Yellow jackets. I responded by running rapidly,splashing through the water during which the snake came loose but where it landed was a mystery. We were both anxious for a few seconds wondering if the snake was on our person. It wasn't and we were both relieved.

A couple of years later I was on a expedition to Baja, Mexico while working with Dr.Frank Radovsky at the George Williams Hooper Foundation in San Francisco. We went there to collect mammals and look for a flea that infests them. A very unique flea in which the female becomes hypertrophied behind the ear of it's host looking much like a boil. While hiking near San Quintin I climbed to the top of a volcanic hill and put my hand very close to a beautiful nearly golden colored rattle snake that looked me squarely in the eye. The adrenalin pumping and sweat dripping off my forehead was an indication that I should slowly retreat to a safe distance. I was carrying a butterfly net and carefully netted it to take back to camp and show my colleagues. Frank decided to take it back and give it to the California Academy of Sciences where it was determined to be a rare species.

While working in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis we had a couple
of snakes in our lab in the early 70's. I remember that two fireman came in to do their annual fire inspection. They were very curious about the snakes and had me take one out and show them. A couple weeks later the same fireman showed up at my door and asked me to help them recover a rattle snake that had escaped on campus. I gathered my snake hook and a Muslin sack and we were off in a large Fire truck. I was told that a student was riding his bike with a bell jar and snake inside when he dropped it on campus allowing the snake to slither away under a parked car. Upon arriving it was my task to locate and restrain the snake. However, I couldn't locate the snake under the car so suggested that the fireman try to wash it out with their fire hoses. This method didn't work so we called a tow truck to lift the rear end of the car to get a better look. In the meantime the press had showed up as well as several dozen curious onlookers. I finally spotted the snake after the car was lifted and it was curled around the axle behind one of the wheels. With my faithful snake hook I prodded it to move and it dropped to the ground allowing me an opportunity to lift it and place it into my Muslin sack. My photo was taken as I rescued the snake and the story appeared in a couple of the local Davis Newspapers as well as the Sacramento Bee. The byline in the Davis Enterprise on May 19,1972 "Car has to be lifted to catch clever rattler". and "Sly Snake outwits fearful fireman". The author wrote:
"Schulz tried the professional coaxing approach but the snake wouldn't listen".
. In the Davis Democrat May 20, 1972 the headline was "Noisy victim has fire lads baffled". The last sentence read: "Schulz got the crawly critter with his hook, dumped it in the bag and the day was saved". Finally on May 21 the Sacramento Bee had a small story entitled: "Incident in Davis, Rattler is Recaptured". In the article is written: "the crowd cheered as Schulz took a stick and knocked the snake down. Then using a snake hook, he placed the poisonous belly-crawler in a thick Muslim bag". These were excellent examples of how newspaper journalist attempt to over dramatize reality. The story didn't end there however because when the Fireman drove me back to my office I stopped to answer questions from our curious Administrative Assistant Mary Watkins and while talking I placed the snake filled Muslim bag on a chair nearby. I didn't notice that Dr. Murray Fowler had entered the room until he was about to sit down on the chair that was inhabited by the snake in the bag. As he slowly started to sit on the chair I shouted don't sit down there is a rattle snake in the bag. He writes about this incident in his book entitled "Murray" " Hummingbirds to Elephants".
http://www.amazon.com/Murray-Hummingbirds-Elephants-Autobiography-Fowler/dp/0964661888/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1226512475&sr=1-7
He admits that he had grown up with a fear of snakes and from his reaction my guess was that he was not pleased that I left the bag on the chair on that day or any day thereafter.

On another occasion we brought a portable X-Ray machine to the Sacramento Zoo to radiograph a 15 foot Anaconda in it's large enclosure. The enclosure was also occupied by some very large Boa Constrictors as well. I was holding the X-Ray machine over the area to be radiographed and noticed out of my peripheral vision that one of the Constrictors was 2 feet from my head with it's head facing in my direction and tongue protruding intermittently. I tried to ignore the possibility that he could strike me in the face at any moment and the few minutes it took to complete our objective seemed endless on that day.

While rafting the Colorado river in 1982 with my good friend Steve Boyd and five other folks I had another encounter with a rattle snake. We were camped out for 2 nights at a beautiful spot halfway through our 225 mile trip to rest and relax. I was coming back to camp after a brief fishing excursion when I heard Milt Blackman, a Davis Optometrist yelling loudly and holding a large rock over his shoulder. I asked him what was going on and he responded that there was a rattle snake under a bush. He said that he intended to kill it with the rock because he didn't want it in his sleeping bag during the night. I convinced him that I would "handle" the situation which turned out to be true both literally and figuratively. I immediately found a dry stick and prodded the snake to move away. Without hesitation I picked it up by the tail at the base of the rattles as it crawled away, holding it at arms length away from my body. I began walking away from our camp carrying the snake and looked back at Milt who appeared as though he couldn't believe his eyes, his jaw hanging while muttering you're crazy man. I must have walked over 200 yards then placed the snake down and watched it rapidly slither away out of sight. I had done my job saving a subspecies of Croatalis viridis that occurs only in the Grand Canyon.
My friend couldn't get over the fact that I had picked up a poisonous snake and that evening while sitting around the campfire he kept repeating "I can't believe Schulz picked that snake up with his bare hands". In retrospect I wish that someone on the trip had photographed me holding it because I can't believe it either.

In the ensuing years of my career in Zoo Medicine I was charged with teaching Junior Veterinary Students Restraint and handling of birds,reptiles and other exotic animals for clinical examination and drawing blood for analysis. On one occasion while demonstrating how to remove a rattle snake from its enclosure and handle it safely a female student collapsed apparently fainting from watching me handle the snake. It turned out that she had a morbid fear of snakes and it took much courage on her part to even attend the class.

While taking a freshman Veterinary class on a Zoological Medicine Tour of the Sacramento Zoo I came close to "Buying the Farm". I took them behind the scenes in the Reptile house and was explaining how the squeeze cages work for the poisonous snakes on exhibit. I opened the top door of the squeeze to show them how the wire insert below could be pushed down to restrain a snake. As I slid the door back with my left hand my right was near the top of the box. When I got the lid halfway back I saw the Green Mamba's head that had worked it's way above the wire squeeze enclosure and was no more than a foot from my right hand. My response was quick and deliberate thrusting the lid back so hard that if the snake had it's head between the lid and top it would have been decapitated. My adrenalin had peaked at that very moment as I realized that I came very close to being bitten by one of the deadliest snakes in the world. After that incident the enclosures were locked.