Barry Saunders

Sometimes, the snakes are the good guys

Okay, tell me again how black snakes are the good guys, the ones we want to have around our homes, the ones who won’t hurt you.

Well, if they won’t hurt you, how come – after my latest encounter with one – I couldn’t for days lift a half-gallon of kool-aid to my lips because of my sore and swollen right arm?

Naw, it didn’t sink its fangs into my flesh. Even more insidiously, though, it made me injure myself when I began swinging and slamming a shovel at it while trying to shoo it away Sunday.

Dr. Sawbone said it looked as though I might’ve torn the tendon in my elbow while trying to smash it.

The snake?

Oh, he’s Kool & the Gang, since I didn’t land a blow before it slithered – same as one did last month – back under the grill and I fled once more into the house and locked the door.

After a big ol’ black snake snuck up behind me a few weeks ago and Durham County Animal Control refused to come out and get it, I vowed never to venture onto the back porch again.

Of course, when it’s 88 degrees and sunny outside, and you’re paying for the back porch, you figure you should be able to enjoy it.

There was also an element of what cowboys used to call “jumping back on the horse what throwed ya’” in the decision to return: If I didn’t go back out there immediately, I feared, word would spread on the snake grapevine – “He ain’t gonna do nothin’ but yell at you and play Barry White really loud” – and we’d be inundated with those slitherin’ suckers.

I thought I was being vigilant, keeping one eye in the book I was reading, one eye on the area under the table at which I sat, and one eye on any potential snake entry point onto the porch.

Hey, wait a minute –

Even with three eyes, it wasn’t enough. Once again I heard the faint sound of something behind me, and with my peripheral vision spied a long, shiny black object moving stealthily behind me and to my right.

Remembering that the last time this scenario played out I’d almost broken my neck fleeing clumsily, I moved very deliberately this time. Step by step, inch by inch, sloooooowly I turned – and then leaped from the table and started calling the snake names I’m glad the Rev. Gilchrist wasn’t around to hear usher forth from my mouth.

I then got a shovel from the garage and turned off my camera, since what I was fixing to do to the five-foot-long interloper wouldn’t be suitable for viewing.

As stated earlier, though, I did nothing to it. I hurt myself, though.

After writing about the previous reptile run-in, I heard from scores of people with similar stories. Solutions – mothballs, red or cayenne pepper, ammonia – all were offered as guaranteed to keep snakes away.

Talena Chavis laughed when I told her about the so-called solutions.

“They don’t work,” said Chavis, who runs a one-woman snake-removal business in the Triangle. “I have seen pictures of snakes sitting on a pile of mothballs... I was in Home Depot the other day and heard someone asking for sulphur. I knew they were talking about Snake-Away,” a product which she said is worthless. “I walked over and handed them my card.”

Her card says she runs a business called N.C. Snake Catcher, and its website is

It’s a business that sort of just snuck up on her.

“I was house-sitting for a friend in Durham and saw a copperhead in the yard. I called a pest company and they wouldn’t come out. In fact, they were rather rude. Another company said they could come in three days. Another said it was probably gone and wouldn’t come back.

“It came back – with a friend,” she said.

Chavis, a certified wildlife damage control agent, said she “relocated” the two venomous snakes deep into the woods, to a non-commercial, non-residential area. “After taking care of the situation myself, I realized that there was a need because – as you experienced – there are not many services folks can call.”

Oh, you can call; they just won’t come or they’ll try to rob you. When I told someone at Durham County Animal Control that a snake was outside on my porch, she said “That’s where it’s supposed to be.”

One company said it would come out for $250 and remove the snake for $50. Chavis charges a flat fee of $125 to come out and educate people about snakes and “humanely relocate” them from your property. (That’s better, I reckon, than inhumanely trying to relocate one and ending up with a dislocated elbow.)

“I have tools,” she said when I asked if she’s ever been bitten. When it comes to the venomous copperheads, she said, “I tell people that the hardest part about catching and relocating them is changing your pants afterwards.

“I tell people ‘I’m crazy, but not that crazy,’” she said. “I don’t pick them up by hand unless they’re non-venomous and docile.”

The black snake I described is so gentle, Chavis said, that “if you pick it up by its tail and carry it to the woods away from your house, it won’t try to bite you.”

Nor would it have tried to bite me if I’d succeeded at massaging its head with the shovel.

I’m glad I missed – no, really – because Chavis, as did herpetologists to whom I’ve spoken, emphasized the many positive aspects of having black snakes around.

They eat rodents and lizards, she said, and they scare away the venomous copperheads.

“Snakes are very territorial,” she said, “and when a copperhead sees a racer or rat snake, it thinks it’s a king snake and goes away.”

If the snake business ever slows down, Chavis could try combining it with a match-making service. She said she has people who request that she bring snakes to their property to control the rodent population and run off venomous snakes.

“My neighbor told me if I had a black snake I could bring it and put it by his woodpile.”

She did. No word yet on whether it lived happily ever after.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9