Like the snake in her backyard, Barbara Svalina bit off more than she could chew.
Svalina had placed mousetraps around her house in Fuquay-Varina a few weeks ago to try to prevent those pesky rodents from ruining her vegetable garden.
On a recent Monday afternoon, she noticed the trap she placed next to her house was missing.
“I thought maybe our cat carried it off,” she said.
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But while gardening later that day, Svalina found a 4-foot-long black rat snake under a eucalyptus tree in her backyard.
A closer look showed a rectangular bulge protruding from its skin, about 3 inches behind its head.
“He had swallowed the trap,” she said.
Svalina’s situation soon became the center of attention among neighbors and friends interested in how it should be handled. Their questions about morality and safety were hashed out on social media. Could the snake survive without help? Did the family have an obligation to help it?
Black rat snakes are some of the most common in the United States and are more likely to pop up in areas such as Wake County where there’s an abundance of ongoing residential development. Svalina and her family have seen several pass through their neighborhood in recent years.
They’re not poisonous. But if the family tried to help the snake, would it bite someone and cause an infection? Would it hurt itself?
Svalina and her family didn’t know what to do, so they decided to leave the snake alone for a few days.
“We thought he would regurgitate it or maybe even digest it,” Svalina said.
In the meantime, she took photos of the snake and posted them on Facebook. She explained the predicament, drawing mixed reactions from friends.
Some sympathized with the snake.
“Oh poor thing,” one person posted.
Others thought the family should put the snake out of its misery.
Svalina and her family didn’t want to kill the snake. Black rat snakes are known for being docile, conflict-averse predators of mice and rats.
Plus, Svalina and her family had grown fond of the snake. They named it Trouble because they had untangled it from the deer netting around their garden only a few weeks earlier.
“He’s not the smartest snake in the world,” Svalina said.
Students to the rescue
So the family left Trouble under a wooden flower crate, where it had slithered after his eucalyptus tree hangout was discovered. The snake stayed there for four days.
A friend recommended reaching out to N.C. State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Svalina called the school and was referred to the school’s Turtle Rescue Team, a nonprofit organization run by students.
The team, which treats about 300 wild reptiles and amphibians for free each year, agreed to treat the snake. So the family pulled the snake out from under the crate the next morning, put it in a pillow case and drove it to the clinic on William Moore Drive in Raleigh.
Alyssa, Svalina’s 12-year-old daughter, recorded video of her dad wrangling the snake.
“I thought it was gonna bite me,” she said.
Svalina said she hurried to get to the clinic, but was slowed by traffic caused by the football game between N.C. State and Florida State. By the time she reached the clinic, the mousetrap was sticking through the snake and the pillow case.
The Turtle Rescue Team got to work almost immediately.
“We’ve had snakes that ate golf balls and fake chicken eggs, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” said Dr. Greg Lewbart, a veterinarian and N.C. State professor who founded the Turtle Rescue Team in 1996.
The snake would have died without help, Lewbart said.
The team called Svalina a few hours after she dropped off the snake to say it had survived a procedure to remove the trap. The team also found a mouse. She quickly posted the news on Facebook.
“Good luck Trouble,” one of Svalina’s friends posted. “You were blessed to have come across a savior. Most people would have chopped your head off with a shovel!”
A fresh start
The rescue team comes up with its own names for its patients to keep track of them. The team names the animals based on a different theme it adopts each year.
This year’s theme is food. Some of the baby turtles they’ve saved were named Skittle and Lemonhead, said Lauren Brierley, a second-year veterinary school student who volunteers on the turtle team.
Trouble was renamed Spaghetti.
As of Monday, Spaghetti remained in the Turtle Rescue Team’s care. The snake is doing well, Lewbart said, and even ate a mouse the other day as part of its rehab.
Svalina hopes the team will allow her to release Spaghetti back into the wild of southern Wake County, where she plans to tell her story and preach about the importance of caring for animals.
“You have to appreciate nature, even if you don’t like it,” she said.
As for the mouse traps, “I haven’t reset any because I don’t want to hurt anything else,” she said.