Run-ins with reptiles

I never had much contact with reptiles growing up. When I was volunteering in a church in Nicaragua with a team from the UK who were mostly also late teens, one of the lads bought at iguana from the market. It was being sold to eat and he bought it to surprise a team-mate. Its legs were tied together and its mouth was sewn shut so we untied it and ended up releasing it in a tree in the backyard. I still have a scar on my finger from its desperate bite.

My mother-in-law has a tortoise who roams her backyard, sometimes the house and on rare occasions manages to set off down the road towards the marsh. I often wonder if he would be better off there, but some people catch and eat the few tortoises they find by the river, so then I’m glad when somebody returns him. He used to be called Felícia until we found out he was male and not female after all. So now he’s called Félix.

I’m not sure how typical Félix is of tortoises in general. He doesn’t seem to hibernate, but then the climate here is different and the cold spells are shorter. He has also been known to eat dead rats, dead pigeons and dog poo alongside the vegetable peelings and dry dog food he is given.

My little one likes to wash him and scrub his shell with a toothbrush although we only do this when it’s warm enough for him to dry quickly and get his blood heat back to where it needs to be.

In the searing heat of February, while shovelling some of the pebbly sand from the pile on the verge in front of the house, one of the guys found an egg. Around two centimetres long and one wide, it reminded me of the texture of a nerf gun bullet, like spongy white foam. My husband identified it as a snake egg although he didn’t know which kind.

Thankfully snake eggs do not look like stones

I popped it into an open tub on top of the microwave so that it didn’t roll onto the kitchen floor and went to look. Since the verge was being cleared in order to be concreted, I was keen to find any other eggs before they were covered over. My little one was delighted when we found two more, still surprisingly cleanly white.

My mother-in-law expressed surprise that my daughter would want to touch the eggs, which she thought were disgusting. I joked that the eggs weren’t going to bite and she replied that seeing the consequences of snake bites in her work in a healthcare centre meant that just seeing the eggs was enough to give her the heebijeebies.

She suggested feeding the eggs to Félix and was taken aback to find that a three-year-old would be upset by the idea of feeding live babies to another animal. The memory of the dogs’ chick and chicken-killing frenzy was still quite raw at this point. I assured the little one that we would find somewhere ‘in the wild’ to put the eggs and she agreed to the plan and stopped crying. We were due for a nap by this time but it struck me suddenly that we now had three unattended and uncontained snake eggs in our kitchen with no idea about when they might hatch.

After an internet search on snake egg identification, in which I couldn’t find any useful information about eggs and merely scared myself seeing close-ups of numerous deadly snakes, we decided to take them to their new home ‘in the wild’.

At this point I should have asked about where the eggs were when they were found (above or below the sand and how far) but, being aware of my daughter’s anxiety about the fate of the eggs and being on a stealth mission to avoid discovery by any people or any of my mother-in-law’s dogs, we didn’t set out to discover this vital piece of information.

We took the eggs to a patch of land near the road where my husband had already warned me about snakes (and where, it being local knowledge, I didn’t think it would be unfair to introduce three more potentially deadly pit vipers) and placed them behind a grassed over pile of builders’ sand. We then made a swift retreat to our house for afternoon nap time.

My daughter was sure that the mother snake would come back to look after her eggs (like a bird presumably) and wanted to pop back after her nap to see whether they had hatched. The next day I showed my husband where we had left them and discovered that one of the eggs was now darker and had sunk in on itself.  “Well, the snake inside has died; you put them in direct sunlight,” he pointed out. We covered them over with sand. It is only in writing this post, months later, that it occurs to me that I know that turtles bury their eggs on beaches and make sure they are well covered with sand.

We don’t know what happened to the remaining two eggs. Perhaps they hatched and the snakes made it safely into ‘snake country’ (as a family friend recently called the whole area where I take my little one for walks). Perhaps they made it into the marsh and spend their time avoiding being speared and eaten by large wading birds. Perhaps they will grow up to eat the young nomadic capybaras that sometimes pass through.

I have mixed feelings when I think about the Great Snake Egg Rescue Attempt. I’m glad that my little one was able to find the eggs and see them close up (with no threat of an adult snake nearby). I’m glad that she wanted to protect them and that we could take them to a place where they had a better chance of survival. At the same time it’s hard not to feel frustrated about the lack of information available (or perhaps just the difficulty in finding it) and frustrated with myself because I didn’t apply what I did know about reptile eggs (but had forgotten) and that definitely resulted in the death of at least one of the snakes.

In this case, I need to remember that the eggs would have either been concreted over or fed to the tortoise if we hadn’t taken them elsewhere, and I have learned something about heat and eggs.

I would love to hear your thoughts? Do you have mixed feelings about any of your interactions with the natural world?

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