Snake, rattle and control

Linda Boyko

Photo By Larry Dalton

Some psychologists have suggested that the fear of snakes—from a basic dislike to clinical ophidiophobia—is an evolutionary trait, passed down from the time when our mammalian ancestors lived in a world dominated by reptiles. That might explain why, despite decades of television nature programming, the human race has yet to shake its dubious notions about our scale-clad neighbors. Well, that hasn’t deterred Linda Boyko and her colleagues at the Northern California Herpetological Society from doggedly continuing to educate the public about snakes and their other reptilian cousins. As the president of NCHS, Boyko works to promote education, conservation and safety information about snake and reptile issues, and also arranges for the removal and relocation of venomous snakes and interloping lizards. With a little knowledge of how they act, she says, there’s no reason that people and reptiles can’t coexist peacefully.

How long have you been working around these animals?

I’ve kept reptiles and amphibians since I was a kid.

So, you got into herpetological work as a hobby?

Yes, I kept snakes in my early twenties, then over the years I began keeping lizards of all kinds. I’ve been a member of NCHS for 10 years, and I’ve sat on the board for eight years. I have a large amount of respect and fascination for these animals, and I always give them the respect they deserve.

Tell me more about the NCHS.

First and foremost, we’re an organization for people who like reptiles—we can get together, participate in activities and hear speakers on the topics that interest us, from local “herp” experts to researchers like Eric Stoopes and Ari Fleagle, who we fly in. They’re doing some amazing research on the Boelen’s Python, a beautiful jet-black snake with iridescent scales.

In addition, we do outreach programs to educate the public about reptiles and amphibians. We do some educational seminars at retirement communities, those which are built close to rattler turf. We work with other organizations that just want more info on rattlers because their activities might bring them into contact with the snakes. We try to help people learn what they can do to get along with [snakes] if they will be a continued problem on their property.

It sounds like rattlesnakes are the type of venomous snake that people are most likely to encounter.

Yes. The Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus). That’s what we have in our area.

What does it take to work in snake removal?

You have to have a good understanding of the behavior of snakes. Getting into this kind of work, I would recommend practicing with non-venomous snakes—practice hooking and bagging something that can’t kill you first. One moment of inattention and you’ll need to phone 911 in a hurry. You’re not going to get rich doing this kind of work, and, at times, it just sucks. I’ve often wondered what the hell I was doing under a house on a 105 degree day, and I have walked more countryside than I ever cared to looking for dens, but there is something about the rattler that makes me want to learn more, and to stop “Mr. Bill” from grabbing his shovel to cut off a snake’s head the minute he sees one.

Does that happen often?

Sure. I get [to a job] and he’ll proudly show me his macho kill at the bottom of a garbage can, only for me to inform him that it was a harmless Gopher Snake. So many people can’t identify the snakes that we have in this area that they’re killing harmless snakes, ones that help keep our ecosystem in balance.

What other types of reptiles do you work with through NCHS?

We work with everything that comes our way, anything that falls under the category of reptile or amphibian. We have a primary rescue team of three people; they really make things happen. Snakes are the majority of the calls we get, followed by iguanas, then Bearded Dragons and monitors. We get a lot of calls each week for unwanted reptiles, some as far away as the East Coast, all looking for a good home for their large and unruly pets.

The best calls are the people who say, “I need a home ‘like yesterday’ for my reticulated python. It hasn’t been fed in weeks because I can’t afford it. I’m moving and I can’t take it with me.” We’ve picked up some that were so big that I was actually nervous having them in my house while trying to find a foster parent. A large amount of the animals come to us very sick—the owners let their health get quite bad because they weren’t properly educated when they got the pet. I just wish we could get that through people’s heads: Before you buy, come to see us and learn all you can. We promise that you and your reptile will be happier in the long run.