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'I Got Him, Dad, and He Bites, Too!': My son's fearless reptile wrangling

A lot of kids, when suddenly confronted by a snake, freak out. My oldest son, Dean, from the moment he could crawl wasn't that way - he'd go after it.



A lot of kids, when suddenly confronted by a snake, freak out. My oldest son, Dean, from the moment he could crawl wasn't that way - he'd go after it. His younger brother, Ross, is that way, and so are my other four, for that matter.

Dean, however, was always one jump ahead of everyone else. Not only did he have the ability to make instant decisions as a child, but his curiosity and reflexes have benefited him as an adult - today, he is an F-16 Viper pilot and is presently on a year-long tour of duty as a peace-keeper in Afghanistan.

As a very small boy, Dean was fearless. "What happens if he goes after a rattlesnake?" was a question asked by his beautiful mother as Dean dragged home everything that crawled and slithered. Yeah, I thought. What if?

The answer came on a trip over to OMSI's Camp Hancock (now the Hancock Field Station) near Fossil, Oregon. As we were going around a curve near Antelope, I spotted a magnificent Great Basin gopher snake on the shoulder and decided that was the moment Dean was going to learn that snakes can bite. "Whadda' think, Dean? Do you want that snake?"

Before he could answer, his mom said, "Oh, no, Jim. You wouldn't!"

Dean didn't even hear her; he was so focused on the snake. I opened my door, dumped Dean out and away he went, right for the snake. His first grab was near the tail and true to form, the snake turned around and sunk his hundred or so teeth around Dean's wrist.

But Dean, being the nimrod he was, just used his other hand and grabbed the snake by the back of its head and headed back for the old Ford, tears streaming down his face, but with a big grin, shouting, "I got him Dad, and he bites too!"

From that experience, it was easy to have a discussion about the potential injuries to one's body and health when one is careless about picking up any snake, especially a you-know-what. You'd think that would have been that and for most part, it was. But when Dean was about 16, we were living in southeast Arizona where I was the manager of Ramsey Canyon Preserve, which was in those days known as the hummingbird capitol of the world. The Huachuca Mountains above the preserve are also home to several of southeast Arizona's classy reptiles - among them, the rock rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus).

Dean was, and still is, a great people person. (That may be why he's doing what he's doing in Afghanistan.) I often turned him loose on nature walks with visitors and guests. One day a very overweight man came puffing down the trail with a wild look in his eye and shouted, "Your son (gasp) was just bitten (gasp) by a rattlesnake!"

"What was Dean doing the last time you saw him?" I asked the breathless Good Samaritan.

"He was sitting on a rock with his hand in Ramsey Creek," he said. "And as I was leaving to report the snake bite, he said, 'Oh, boy, wait till my dad hears about this.'"

When I arrived at the reported place, Dean was sitting there with his hand in the creek and wearing a sheepish grin on his face. His first words were, "I'm sorry, Dad, I was showing them the snake and got careless..."

To make a long story short, Dean recovered without any side effects and the snake went on to live out his life after being so discourteously handled by a not-too-cautious but very inquisitive kid.

Now to why this tale got started. Not too long ago, I was writing my weekly column with the aid of my MacBook when Skype bounced up on the screen. It was Dean calling from South Carolina. As I answered the call, one of my grandchildren appeared. "Hi Grandpa, this is Sam. Wait 'till you see the beautiful broad-headed skink we caught!"

My lovely daughter-in-law, Carol-Anne, came into view and added, "Yes, the boys are so excited about catching the skink they had to call you." Soon, the skink filled my desktop, firmly held in Sam's hand, but as I examined it, I noticed fresh blood on his hand and asked about it.

"Oh," Sam replied. "That happened when I caught the skink, and it bites, too."

Carol-Anne, with the hint of a smile, said, "The apple didn't fall far from the tree, did it?"

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