The next morning I was awoken by Matt’s frantic voice, “The snake got out!”
Not possible. He’s probably in his hide.
I wandered into the guest room where Plisskin now resided. I look at the augmented lid of his tub which was situated on one of the shelves in our bookcase. The plastic grate we had placed over the tub was still in place and was still weighted down by two large rocks (this was one of our many attempts at curing the overabundance of humidity issue we had been having with his enclosure). I removed the rocks and grate and looked inside. Nope. No snake. I suppose this serves me right for naming a snake after the main character from a moved called “Escape from New York.” His name probably inspired his disappearing act.
We turned the room upside down until we found him, one shelf down from his enclosure. He sat, all coiled up, hiding under a few fallen books. I could swear I could hear him thinking: their vision is based on movement. If I just stay still, they’ll go away.
“I’ll open the lid, if you pick him up.”
Shit. Well, here goes.
I swiftly scooped him up and gently returned him to his plastic residence. Not nearly as much anxiety.
Matt fashioned a new lid but cutting a massive rectangular hole in the tub lid and affixed the grate within the hole. Now Plisskin could not possibly lift the grate now, since the tub lid could now be locked in place again.
And… we were wrong. We have no idea how he did it. But my little man escaped a second time. Within minutes, I found him. I quickly picked him up without hesitation. Phobia cured!
During this whole “curing my fear of snakes” situation, we had to put my best friend, Darwin, down. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do. To avoid take breaks from my feelings, I found myself delving into the world of ball python morphs. I was spending hours every night looking at various morphs and then practicing the Punnett squares Lacy had taught me to see what breeding combinations would yield different morphs. It was a fun, intellectual exercise. Its focus was on propagation. On life. But soon I would have to pick up a baby rat to feed to Plisskin. This would be my first interaction with death since crying over my corgi, while holding his paw and refusing to leave his side. How was I going to deal with this?
As the day to purchase and feed Plisskin came nearer, Mark had provided me with contact information for Mike. Mike was a rat breeder and known for breeding quality mice and rats. Mike informed me that every Sunday he meets local customers at a rest stop off of route 100 and the transactions were made there.
Another public place. Another parking lot. Although, I was starting to understand the benefits to this. For truck drivers and movers, they were very familiar with these areas. It also made it easier to transport various goods without having to pay shipping fees. A trucker would just need to use his CB radio and arrange for goods to be taken from point A to point B. This not only saved on shipping costs, but also allows breeders and other business owners in the snake trade the ability to conduct business without having to pay the overhead on a storefront. It was really quite genius. That probably explains why drug dealers use similar methods.
I had made my order with Mike on Friday for me to pick it up that Sunday. Having difficulty sorting out my impending feelings of excitement and horror, I informed Megan, our front desk staff person at work about all of my adventures. Megan has been going to school to be a vet tech, so if anyone was going to appreciate this journey and haphazard string of events, it was sure to be her.
“What will you feed it?”
“As it turns out, baby rats.”
Immediately, Megan went into how smart rats are and how clean they can be. She discussed their merits as viable pets. Megan went on to talk about her experiences with pet-sitting her friend’s rats.
I looked at her, blank-faced, trying to ignore the guilt slithering through my body. I had pet mice for crap’s sake. How could I be feeding them to a snake? Was I some sort of traitor?
Megan caught the change in my facial expression. “Oh, but they are so dirty. And I don’t see why anyone would keep one as a pet.”
All day Saturday I was working myself up for this big transaction. Yet again, I became leery about my safety. There are a lot of great horror films where one of the first victims gets taken out in a rest stop bathroom stall. I mean MANY a victim. It certainly had to take a lot of confidence to make all of these transactions at several of these potentially seedy locations. Which may explain some of the snake-owner “uniforms” I was starting to notice.
When I rolled up into the rest stop parking lot, it was clear as to where the transactions would be occurring, despite the fact that Mike had not yet arrived with in his rodent-mobile. Several individuals stood outside of their cars. Bearded men, camo, Dickies pants, black band tee shirts, oil stained jackets, tattoos, and black-lens sunglasses. Each outfit and accompanying facial expression screamed “don’t fuck with me.” Their stance and posture only reinforced this message. What was I earing? Gym shorts and a rainbow Pokemon shirt.
Despite my mounting anxiety about having to make the purchase and the upcoming task of feeding infant prey to my infant predator, I slid out of my car and plopped to the ground. The high-pitched thud of my flip flops smacking against the asphalt only dramatized the height difference between me and my crossover. I joined the gaggle of consumers, my flip flops slapping against my flat feet and the hot pavement.
I had been having a rough several weeks trying to manage my grief about my dog, and I really didn’t want to interact with any more people than I had to. Knowing full well that, unlike my husband, I do not have a resting bitch face (in fact, I would say I have the unfortunate “resting gregarious face”), I pulled down my blue, green, and purple tinted sunglasses over my eyes. Perhaps by covering up half of my face, it would deter people from randomly coming over and talking to me (I seriously can’t go anywhere in public without someone taking me aside and sharing with me their life story. It is this very fact that made me decide to become a therapist. If I couldn’t stop it from happening, I might as well get trained on how to help and get paid doing it. i.e. if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em).
Apparently, sunglasses did not prove to be an effective conversation deterrent.
As I stood in the crowd of expectant snake owners, one awkward woman waddled up beside me.
Please don’t talk to me. Please don’t talk to me. Please don’t talk to me.
I focused on not smiling. But she would not be deterred. She had the excitement of a teenager at an anime convention, but with the look of Renaissance Festival regular. There is nothing inherently wrong about these two types of stereotypical people, but in my experience, they do require a certain level of energy and ability to maintain higher levels of attention. I possessed neither of these in that moment and did not care to attempt to conjure them up either.
“Bwahahaha! Look at how he’s just tossing the rats.” Her bawdy laugh matched her rotund Renaissance wench exterior.
I slowly turned my attention towards Mike, as if the bar wench’s attention was based on movement. He was unloading his van of rodents. He unloaded massive bin after massive bin of rats, mice, and their offspring. The handles caught my eyes. I narrowed my eyes to read the black lettering scrawled across the worn tape. Are those last names? It wouldn’t be long before my suspicions were confirmed.
“Bwahahaha! Just look at ‘m!”
I had to make a decision. Would I cave and show some level of acknowledgment or double down on my attempt at stoicism. Every part of my therapist brain was screaming JUST SMILE!
The woman would not be deterred. I turned my head and gave a slight nod. And that was all she needed. She was off to the races talking about previous weekends that she had been at the rat-pickup. She talked about other individuals who had attended in the past, their children, her snakes, and her opinions about various rats that were within her eyesight. I said nothing in an attempt to deter this brain dump and release of verbal diarrhea. But I knew it wouldn’t matter. I had acknowledged her. I had given her enough emotional validation that her verbal cup spilleth over.
Her amused rat observation wasn’t without merit. It was quite odd to see a man just pick up rodents with his meaty, big, Bluto hands and toss them into various bins as it they were furry bean bags. I watched a black and white rat stand on its hind legs and curiously sniff the air. He reminded me of my pet mice. He was so cute! And then he was twirling in midair, landing in a new tub, then sold off to be fed to some presumably large reptile. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the little guy.
In the weeks leading up to snake ownership, I had looked into different methods of feeding ball pythons. Outside of feeding live, there was the freeze and thaw method. In this type of feeding, one would purchase already dead rats, keep them in the freezer, and then thaw them when it was time to feed. This method seemed preferable to me, at first, and it was also the only method of feeding allowed in the United Kingdom. Live feeding was strictly prohibited.
But as I considered the pros and the cons, I opted for live feedings. For one, I did not want to keep dead rats in my freezer. I can just imagine some guest at one of our parties opening up the freezer to get some ice and then scream as they found a collection of dead rodents staring back at them. Although this would fit the theme of a Halloween party, we only have those once per year, and often host several others throughout the year.
Another factor was some of the reviews from those who purchased them. “I really like this company! They don’t smell as much of stale urine.” Uhhh… nope. Not interested in smelling that.
The thaw process not only seemed complicated, but if done wrong, you could injure or even kill your snake. Not to mention, that most snakes go on hunger strikes when one tries to alter the method of their feeding. With a full-grown live rat, you can just care for him until your python is done protesting, should you ever hit a food strike. But with a frozen thaw rat, you would have to throw it out. And in that case, the rat would have died for nothing.
And at the end of the day, the rat still dies. At least with a live rat, I can avoid all of the above as well as provide my snake with an opportunity to use his hunting skills. As unsavory as the prospect was, feeding live seemed to make the most sense.
Rats are food, not friends. Rats are food, not friends. Rats are food, not friends. Rats are food, not friends…. I continued chanting this mantra in my head to try to block out feelings of empathy and sympathy for the cute, detained rodents before me, as well as drown out the squawking of the stout woman beside me.
Mike pulled a worn notebook out of the back of his van and started riffling through the smudged pages. He began calling out names. Yup, those were last names on those tubs. One tattooed and bearded man after the next picked up tubs (yes, that was plural) of rodents and put them into their trucks. I overheard one ask the other, “If this wasn’t your hobby, what would be?” The response: “I don’t know, man. My babies are my life.”
And that said it all. These men weren’t just into snakes because it was some Freudian extension of their masculinity, they were also their passions. (I’m not saying that there isn’t a display of masculinity occurring, I’m just saying that it’s a bit more complex than that. Sorry Freud, but sometimes a python is just a python.) They were their scaled children. And they were their proud fathers. This was probably why all of them were so willing to talk about their reptiles and educate others. It was the equivalent of telling other members of the PTA that their child was on honor roll.
It was finally my turn. I thumbed my crisp one-dollar bill. I felt impotent when handing Mike my single green president. Mike looked down at my extended hand and appeared amused. He took the bill and tossed it into the back of the van like he had tossed so many rodents just moments before. I watched as it fluttered inconsequentially to the carpeted floor of the van.
Mike throw some bins around, muttering to himself. It was clear that keeping track of so many different sized and aged mice and rats can be difficult to manage. There are four sizes of mice: pinky, fuzzy, subadult, and adult. Similarly, there are several sizes of feeder rats: pinky, pup, fuzzy, weaned, hopper, and various sizes of adults. Mike had multiple bins of each of these rodents, on top of the tubs he had previously sorted for his regular clients. Watching him look for the bin of rat fuzzies, was like watching someone manually play Tetris.
Within moments, I would find myself in my car, a fuzzy rat sitting in my passenger seat. And the whole way home:
Rats are food, not friends. Rats are food, not friends. Rats are food, not friends…
Once I walked into the front door, I b-lined to the reptile room to complete the dirty deed. I opened up the container that held the rat fuzzy and looked down at it. It was so helpless, with its eyes still not open. The whole thing felt so cruel.
I took the pair of huge tweezers that are used for feeding, and picked up the unsuspecting baby and hung it by its tail so that the snake could see it. Pliskin immediately knew what was happening, and stood up on end like a cobra about to strike. The baby squealed. The snake struck…
The baby rat dropped to the to the ground of Pliskin’s enclosure, right below Pliskin’s head. I looked at the snake. He looked at me. I looked at the snake. He looked at me. I looked at the snake…. His eyes conveyed those of a toddler who drops a toy, shocked and about to cry. Perplexed about what to do. Pick it up or cry? And like a father, my mood shifted dramatically from absolute horror to instant concern.
Well, aren’t you going to get that?
I heard Matt come into the room moments before the feeding. Without turning around, I asked, “What do I do?” Tones of parental concern in my voice.
I was hesitant. Plisskin knew it was feeding time and I would need to have my hand close to him to retrieve the rat. I dug deep and after three deep breaths, retrieved the babe.
Strike two lands perfectly and his coil around the small mammal was instantaneous. His coil was flawed. The baby was half in and half out. It started squealing.
I couldn’t take hearing the noise. I couldn’t take the guilt. I left the room to see Nora and Shadow standing at the top of the stairs, wagging his tail excitedly. Obviously, he had heard the rat pup and came to participate in the excitement.
Great, they know their daddy is a murderer.
My eyes met Shadow’s.
You of all people have no room to judge, Rat-Eater!
I reentered the room to see the snake trying to eat his recent kill. Did he start at the head? No. Tail? No. This snake decided to try to fit this rat corpse in his mouse horizontally.
How is it that I have only been a snake owner for a week and already I know how to snake better than you?