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Vipers in Utopia
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Vipers in Utopia

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I had just hopped out of the van, and the small turbaned man squatting in front of a covered basket was the first person I saw in the sea of humanity outside a small encampment in the alleys of New Delhi. I had an idea of what was going to happen, so as my colleagues gathered to meet to exchange greetings with a local woman from an activist group, I gravitated toward the man with the basket.

As I approached, he lifted with one hand an odd flute fashioned from a gourd, and began to blow some breathy notes. With the other hand, he tipped away the top of the basket, and a thin snake bobbed into view before spreading its fearsome hood.

Without thinking, I dropped to the ground in front of the basket, lifted my little Yashica camera and held the shutter down as the Indian cobra, one of the most dangerous snakes in the world, wavered menacingly within striking distance.

My common sense returned and I rolled away in the Delhi dust. A few colleagues who saw me on the ground thought I’d tripped. I just brushed myself off a bit and rejoined the group. Later, I scrolled through the images on the back of the camera, pleased by what I’d captured and trying to think about the painful paralysis and death I might have suffered in a Delhi hospital, assuming I’d have made it that far.

I’m sure there are people who like snakes. I’m not one of them. I cannot imagine a life in which I would regularly encounter snakes of any sort. I don’t begrudge their existence, but would rather they live their lives far away from me. That’s why I had to talk to Karen Cartee, one of a couple of thousand people I follow on social media. She was a professor at the University of Alabama before retiring to the Dothan area several years ago, buying a house in a really nice neighborhood in the Highlands, adjacent to the Robert Trent Jones golf course, Highland Oaks.

A recent post got my attention:

“Opening up wine for dinner,” she wrote. “Spotted a water moccasin crossing the pool. Losing my mind.”

I scrolled back a couple of days.

“Bill just killed a rattlesnake in the driveway. I am losing my mind.”

I would have already burned the house down.

I phoned Karen to ask her about the snakes. It started shortly after she moved in when a gardener found two small moccasins in a fountain by the pool in the backyard. The gardener dispatched the intruders, and Karen spent a small fortune tearing the fountain out and replacing it with something built with less snake-friendly materials.

She’s not a fan, either; a story about her father waking up in Guam one day to find a seven-foot python sleeping in the mosquito netting just over his head has haunted her for years.

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That’s made it particularly maddening to deal with the infestation of water moccasins in the area where her property is flanked by two bodies of water in the Highlands. She attributes the problem to the presence of rip-rap, a type of rock dropped into the edge of the lakes.

“Cottonmouth condos,” she calls them. “Moccasin apartments.”

She has contacted the homeowners’ association, her city commissioner, Robert Trent Jones Trail offices, the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which owns the golf courses, and has hired exterminators. She’s bought and spread thousands of dollars of Snake Away.

To no avail.

Recently, she went into the backyard to secure a storage area door and found herself homed in on by an aggressive cottonmouth. “The snake saw me and jumped into the pool, swimming toward me with his head reared and his mouth open, like he was going to strike. That stark white mouth. And I wasn’t anywhere near that snake.”

On the Next Door app for neighborhood communications, she has seen that other homeowners in different neighborhoods in the Highlands have reported similar snake issues. One resident who lives more than a mile from Karen, far from any water features, found a four- to five-foot snake hanging from a rafter on their back porch.

I would have definitely burned the house down.

Meanwhile, Karen continues her battle for sanity. She looked into buying opossums, thinking a passel of ‘possums would quickly solve the snake problem. Turns out one can’t buy opossums; it’s against the law.

Some mothers on the neighborhood app have threatened to shoot the snakes. “But it’s illegal to discharge a firearm in the city,” Karen said.

Karen is the first to admit she’s not a snake expert, but reading up on her uninvited guests has given her additional concerns. “There’s not an abundance of antivenin for cottonmouth moccasins,” she said. “Rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes are farmed for their venom to make antivenin, so there is more for those bites.”

Then there is the potential that hospitals would be overrun with COVID patients should someone need to be taken in for snakebite.

“I feel like I am living in snake hell,” she said. “It’s not like this is a forest. It’s not what you’d expect.”

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at bperkins@dothaneagle.com or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at bperkins@dothaneagle.com or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.

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