Boomerang Days: Reptile Rampage!

A Longhorn does college all over again.


I hate snakes. As a rule, I avoid them, steering clear of zoo reptile houses, skipping the early chapters of Genesis, and refusing to view any Samuel L. Jackson film that takes place on or near a plane.

But a Longhorn must face his fears, so I’m returning to the campus for a snake hunt.

My guide is UT lecturer and curator of herpetology Travis LaDuc, PhD ’03. We meet in the shade of DKR and scuttle down to the muddy shore of Waller Creek.

We wade ankle-deep in the water as he explains why Waller Creek is the perfect place to bring his students in hopes of finding snakes. Snakes love the creek’s patches of sunlight, the nooks and crannies, and one particular flat rock that serves as a popular snake mating spot—kind of a reptilian South Padre Island. LaDuc estimates that in this stretch of creek alone there are hundreds of snakes. My sphincter does the cutest little spasm.

Today we’re hunting the blotched water snake, not the most flattering of species names. Campus also has a large number of Texas rat snakes. “But we don’t see them,” LaDuc assures me. “They live up there,” he says, glancing at the trees above us. Great. We’re surrounded.

As we trudge upstream, carefully lifting rocks and poking shrubs, LaDuc points out other signs of wildlife: raccoon tracks, sunfish nests, heron prints. “The herons eat the snakes like candy. Big gummy worms.”

Now I’m really disturbed. Do I fear the snakes or the birds that eat the snakes or whatever eats the birds? The more I think, the further I slip down the food chain.

It’s peaceful down here below the bustle of campus. The sunlight filters through the oaks and elms, dappling the rocks and water. Then we spot a snake and I squeal like a castrated Jawa.

Like a renegade doodle, the snake squiggles through the water in my direction. I can’t quite read its expression as I quiver but I’m pretty certain the snake is giving me the stink eye. I make a run for it.

As I leap away like a ballerina on crack, LaDuc calmly reaches into the water and snatches it up.

He gives a forgiving smile as the snake snaps down on his hand, drawing a trickle of blood. Blotched water snakes are not poisonous, but they do bite. LaDuc has been bitten more than 100 times.

“I’m fine. No scars,” he tells me. (Though I imagine there are some emotional scars he’s not mentioning.)

The snake wriggles and twists, but soon calms in LaDuc’s knowing grip. I creep back to watch as he places it in a plastic jar. LaDuc doesn’t mind the bites, the thick musk snakes emit when threatened, or their hairless, tubular bodies. He adores snakes!

“How can you tell the sex of a snake?” I ask. “Very carefully,” LaDuc tells me.

“I’m just a snake guy. I really like rattlesnakes.” This is the kind of statement that narrows down the field in online dating, but LaDuc is a passionate defender of our slithering cousins. “Rattlesnakes have the potential to cause us great harm … and they’re not coming after us. They’re not choosing to hunt everyone down.”

All I can think is, not yet.

The water is getting deeper, but LaDuc isn’t slowing. I hadn’t expected my thighs to get this damp today, but I follow. Before long, the water is up to my waist. It’s here LaDuc chooses to tell me about some of the other residents of Waller Creek, namely the snapping turtles. I think of all the yummy bits and pieces I’m offering beneath the surface, like a walking food truck for the creek’s aquatic life.

After two hours, LaDuc leads me from the water and to his truck, where he examines our snake before returning it to its habitat. And I do something unexpected. I offer to hold the snake.

It’s not so terrifying. Maybe LaDuc is right and maybe my fearful repulsion is unfounded. I can hold a snake! Then LaDuc announces he’s going to check the snake’s nether regions.

“How can you tell the sex of a snake?” I ask.

“Very carefully,” LaDuc tells me.

Turns out male snakes have hemipenes—two penises. I can hardly handle one! They come out from either side of the snake, covered in barbs to hold onto the female. This is getting more fun by the minute.

As the snake twists about my arm, LaDuc pulls out a thin, steel rod and explains that he’s going to prod the “vent” just above the tail. (I didn’t know there was anything but tail.) I brace myself and prepare for the protesting bites. To my surprise, nothing happens. If anything, he’s smiling.

It’s a boy snake. And why shouldn’t he smile, the guy has two penises!

I ask LaDuc how he managed to grope the snake so intimately and not freak it out.

“I have a way with snakes.”

He does. He really does.


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