RALEIGH — Zachary D'Alessio shares his apartment with three ball pythons, a mouse-eating menagerie that curls around his neck, twists around his arm and greets him with fork-tongued kisses.
Three makes a wriggling handful - especially Basil, who is pregnant with six.
But at 21, D'Alessio aches for the unwanted snakes turned loose into the woods, evicted by the college student who couldn't afford a bigger tank, discarded by the birthday boy who preferred Nintendo.
So he and some friends sent out an invitation on Craigslist.com: All homeless slitherers accepted here. Space for 40. Venom OK.
From what local herpetologists can tell, D'Alessio's newly formed Carolina Reptile Rescue is the Triangle's only snake rescue. There's an informal network of people who'll stash a corn snake here, a milk snake there.
But nobody else would accept a red-tail boa, a 125-pound cast-off whichD'Alessio will soon welcome into his nest.
"They have a kid on the way," D'Alessio said of the boa's former family. "I'm supposed to pick him up tomorrow. The guy wanted to say his final goodbye to the snake, and I respect that."
Inspiration comes from having seen too much cruelty, ignorance and neglect. Toomany people buy Burmese pythons, never knowing they can reach 20 feet and 200 pounds.
In south Florida, so many have been dumped that they are devouring the native wildlife, including endangered storks. The snakes themselves fare no better in the wild, dying in winter freezes.
D'Alessio has seen serpents meet the sad end. Once, in Greenville, he found a 4-foot python floating dead in the Tar River - obviously a tossed-out reptile refugee wondering how it got so far from Ghana.
What D'Alessio has in mind is a collection of snake-loving college students united under one banner, operating a serpent shelter with donated tanks.
"We just can't see snakes thrown out," said Alex Dancer, 18.
Supplies won't be a problem. Samantha, the 10-pound python D'Alessio adopted last week, came with a pair of tanks courtesy of her grateful former owner. Mice will come from sympathetic snake breeders, and if that doesn't suffice, D'Alessio knows how to breed them.
From there, Carolina Reptile Rescue will operate a snake adoption program. Details are being hashed out, but the idea is to have new owners sign a waiver agreeing to have their snake tanks inspected after a week or so.
"I'm not saying you need an electronic thermostat,"D'Alessio said. "I'm saying you need bedding, a decent water pond, a heat source and a hide box."
With three pythons in his southwest Raleigh apartment, D'Alessio doesn't seem like a herpephile in over his head. You wouldn't even guess that inside this nondescript building off Lineberry Road, there's a trio of constrictors.
Besides being pregnant, Basil has a respiratory ailment that requires medicine fed orally through a dropper each day. When D'Alessio got her, part of her tail had been cut off, leaving a stump.
Then there's Dao in the tank across the room, whose neurological issues cause him to turn repeated back flips. Meanwhile, Samantha is shedding.
It's a lot to keep your eye on, but D'Alessio is already thinking of switching from mechanical engineering to veterinary science at Wake Tech.
Ask him how he developed such fondness for a creature long associated with sneakiness and sin and D'Alessio will tell you that snakes can do so much more than dogs. They're so much more mobile, he explains as a python knots itself around his fist.
Someone needs to watch out for the legless among us. Someone needs to shelter the beasts that crawl through life on their bellies. From his student apartment, D'Alessio offers his warm heart to the cold-blooded.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-4818