A serpent is a serpent by any other name. That said, when I turned five, my parents bought me a baby red-tailed boa constrictor as a gift. He was a tiny thing, maybe eighteen inches long, beautiful colors, home hatched, and very tame. I named him “Sam,” because the only snake I knew of in my little world was lovable “Sammy the Snake” from Sesame Street.

Sam grew fast and was completely docile when handled. Eighteen months later, when he’d reached a solid five feet, my parents decided to buy him a mate. They figured they would start their own home breeding program and sell the babies for a profit.

Boa Constrictor Serpent
Red-tail Boa Constrictor

Children tend to categorize things before they know any better. If you have a dog, all dogs are friendly, etc. So when my parents showed up one day with a nine-foot female boa constrictor coiled up in a box, I innocently assumed the snake would be like mine. Sure, she was wild-caught and her colors were dull compared to Sam’s, but I was sure she would be just as friendly.

I was mistaken. The female was beyond vicious, and when I stuck my left hand in her box to pick up “my new snake” she hit me like a sledgehammer ringed with fishhooks. The force of the strike was nothing compared to the pain of her inch-long fangs burying themselves in my hand; but even worse was the shock and terror that accompanied the attack. I was only six, so it was like a grown man getting his hand unexpectedly engulfed by a 20-foot monster.

I screamed in horror and tried to get away, but the serpent’s fangs were curved and held fast. As my flesh started to rip, the pain became agonizing. I remember the tremendous weight of the portion of the snake that was raised off the sidewalk as I flailed my arm left and right, trying to shake it off. My dad was nowhere to be found and my mom was on the porch, so finally, out of desperation, I cold-cocked the damned thing.

Serpent's fangs, python or boat
The skull of a large constrictor, showing the huge, recurved fangs.

My adrenalized right cross knocked the big boa off my hand, which promptly started spurting blood from a series of sizable holes. The stunned snake landed on its back, but then flipped back over and took off down the block with my mother chasing it. I sprinted into the house in hysterics and found my father upstairs in the bathroom. As I showed him my lacerated hand, I was looking for succor, sympathy – some help at least. I got a hard slap across the face, accompanied by a disgusted, “Be a man!”

I don’t know which of the two I was more afraid of at that point: the boa constrictor or my dad. But like Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us . . .” I learned to face my fears. In fact, when I was fourteen I bought a reticulated python to keep as a pet. “Stretch” (because he would never stop growing) went from three feet to fifteen in five short years. He was a bit tense at times when handled, but he never acted aggressive or tried to bite.

One summer day, I decided to let Stretch play in the foot-long grass in the playground across the street. As I put him down to explore, the sudden onset of nature’s sights and smells must have brought out the wildness in him. He tried to make a break for it, and when I picked him up and cut short his escape, his flailing alerted me that something was wrong.

World's largest serpent can climb trees
An adult reticulated python, one of the world’s largest snakes.

At the time, I had Stretch draped around my neck. Many snake handlers do this, despite the inherent risks. At fifteen feet, reticulated pythons aren’t as bulky as some species; their girth increases as they mature. Even so, Stretch weighed a good seventy-five pounds. I was holding him behind the head, when he suddenly twisted around and looked at me. His tongue flashed in and out, and I got the distinct impression he didn’t like me. When I felt his muscles tense I just knew the strike was coming.

Stretch’s hand-sized mouth opened and he went right for my face. At age nineteen, I was hardly a child. I was doing karate and had been lifting weights, but even so, it took all my strength to stop him in mid-strike. His toothy maw ended up three inches from my face, with me looking straight down into the darkness of his gullet.

The mouth of the serpent.
Staring down the throat of a large python.

Once Stretch realized he’d missed his mark, his powerful coils went into action. In a heartbeat he was all over me like a, well . . . python, wrapping around my neck and chest as he tried to asphyxiate me. I could feel the blood pressure in my head soar as we struggled and he cut both off my air and my circulation. Thankfully, my brother was standing close by and sprang to my aid. If he hadn’t, I hesitate to think what might have happened. Together, we subdued the enraged python and put him back in his cage.

After my previous experiences with cold-blooded monsters, I wasted no time in dealing with the problem. Calls were made, a deal was struck, and Stretch was sent packing. I learned a lot from this. More than just the fact that big snakes are dangerous and shouldn’t be kept around children or even inexperienced adults. More than that we must face our fears and overcome them. I learned that if there are things in our lives that are dangerous or hurtful to us, we need to let them go. Serpents come in many forms. Some slither on their bellies and some walk on two legs. Either way, I have no room for them in my life. The last thing I need or want is to have some cold-blooded predator lurking around that means to do me harm. Well, except in my novels, of course 😉

Max Hawthorne, author

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