Spitting cobras, emus, and a Gila monster were but a few of my living companions in the seventies. Ironically, I am so not an animal lover, it is more that I tolerate animals. If you had told me that one day I would live amongst exotic animals within the confines of my own home, I would have run the other way. For four years, I endured co-habitation with a strange husband and his strange home business. I met my ex-husband in Tennessee. We dated for a short time and during a moment of insanity, I agreed to leave my family and friends and run off to Florida with him. All of our belongings were packed in my Datsun pickup truck and off we went. Our destination was unknown. For one week our home was in a tent in the Okefenokee Swamp. Our neighbors were raccoons that ravaged through our meager food supply on a nightly basis. Mosquitoes as big as hummingbirds buzzed us relentlessly. Of course, there were alligators galore lurking in the water’s edge. Once, we rented a sixteen foot flat bottom boat and trolled a few good miles through the murky waters of the Okefenokee Swamp. In some spots it was like going through a jungle with the occasional alligator eyes peering above the surface of the water at us. All seemed well and almost relaxing until we ran out of gas and were upstream from the base camp. The sun was setting and no other boats were in sight. All we could do was paddle. I with the oar in the rear paddling on one side, then the other. My ex was in the front sculling to steer. My job of paddling was the more strenuous of the two, but there was no way that I was putting my arm in the water as gator bait. Fortunately, after about one hour, a loan boater was puttering his way back to camp and seeing our dilemma threw us a line and towed us back to shore.
Without remorse on my part, we left the swamp in search of a more stable home environment. Next stop was a small town called Lake City, Florida and a job offer for my spouse as an alligator wrestler at a place appropriately called Alligator Town. It was a paycheck which afforded us our first roof over our head, a travel trailer in a nearby trailer park. The trailer was so small that if anyone came to visit, we all had to sit outside. The belongings we had packed in my truck stayed in the truck. The bathroom in the trailer was not much more than a spicket in a small closet. One week was all I could stand. After that, we moved on up the road to a bigger trailer…whoopee. At least this place had a toilet and a tub in the same room. The spare bedroom was used to house our ferret, named Freddie. The living room was rather spacious, therefore, my hubby set up a large aquarium for his python (or maybe it was a boa constrictor), I forget. Whatever big snake it was, it escaped during the night. Can you imagine having to tell your neighbors that if they find a rather large nine foot snake, please return it to us? It brought us notoriety. The local newspaper got wind of it and ran an article. Fortunately, the snake was found and returned to its aquarium with extra cinder blocks on the top to keep it inside. My neighbors didn’t visit me.
To supplement our meager income, I got a job and we were able to locate a house in the country in which to move ourselves and our growing menagerie. The house was crummy, but beggars cannot be choosers. It was at the house that my husband decided to become an entrepreneur. He formed the Suwanee Zoological Society and the spare bedroom became home to caged rattlesnakes, pythons, cobras, copperheads, lizards, and anything else he could get his hands on. If I try really hard, I can conjure up memories in that house that nightmares are made of. One in particular was when I was sleeping and heard a noise out of the ordinary. I got out of bed and went into the hallway to the door of the spare bedroom housing all the critters. Like hundreds of other times, I opened the door and reached in and turned on the light switch. The first thing that caught my eye was the overturned cages on the bedroom floor. My next move made my heart stop and all the blood drained out of my head. I looked up from the floor and turned my head slightly and came face to face (within probably two inches) with a boa constrictor. Apparently, he had escaped from his cage and in so doing, knocked over anything it slithered over. Slowly backing away and closing the door shut, I went back to bed and slowly pulled the covers off my husband and then with a heavy handed slap in the middle of the back, woke him up. For the next few days, I was finding baby snakes all over the house, some were harmless, some were poisonous.
My best friend was not phased by our strange habitat and she visited frequently. On a whim, we decided to cook dinner for the gang. Bustling around the kitchen, we gathered our ingredients and cooking utensils to make the dinner. She was unable to locate a particular size pot in a bottom cabinet. I told her I would find it and reached into the cabinet and again experienced another heart-stopping moment when I realized my arm was hovering above the head of a coiled rattlesnake. Knowing well enough not to make a sudden move, I slowly backed out and when I knew I was out of range began yelling for my husband. Hearing the panic in my voice, he made haste to the kitchen and focused his attention to where I was pointing my finger. With a sigh of relief, he said, “So that’s where it has been hiding.”
The house we lived in was in need of much work. The kitchen was probably the worst room as it needed new linoleum, new wallpaper as what was in it was busy and hideous, and the ceiling had a hole in it leading to the attic. The hole was covered with a heavy piece of butcher paper. It was from this point that a six inch baby cobra dangled and it was I who noticed this anomaly. Again, summoning immediate help, my husband walked into the room and carefully pulled the little poisonous snake from the ceiling. Looking at me with the utmost sincerity said, “I was going to tell you about losing this snake.”
Snake hunting expeditions took my husband and his buddies away for days at a time. For the most part, I was only at the house for a few hours each night because I was working two jobs. All I wanted was a shower and a few hours sleep before the next shift started. The times when I was at the house alone usually did not bother me, except for one. A recently acquired addition to the animal inventory was a Gila monster, which is a very dangerous reptile. I instructed to feed the animal…carefully. Honestly, I did try, but it lunged and scared me to death. The Gila monster did not get its supper that night and it apparently was upset with me. Although it was in a cage in a closed off bedroom, it was making a terrible racket by banging up against the cage and making threatening guttural noises. I couldn’t afford to go to a motel and I had nowhere else to go, but I was determined not to stay in the same house with this creature; so I got my blanket and my pillow and slept in the car for the next two nights.
One day a package arrived at the house from a fellow reptile lover. Tokay geckos were supposed to be in the box, but we were not sure how many. The tape was carefully cut and the outside packing was peeled away. The lid was lifted off of the box and in a split second, hundreds of Tokay geckos escaped and ran at lighting speed in every direction. They are speedy little lizards. For the duration of our stay in that house, we were finding Tokay geckos everywhere. Our neighbors, who were not especially fond of our being there, reported geckos in their homes, too. It wasn’t totally a bad thing because they loved to eat roaches and palmetto bugs (which were in abundance) and spiders, which I despise. It was unnerving, however, to be lying in bed and feeling the scurrying lizard run across the covers or be awakened out of a deep sleep with their croaking. The reason they are called Tokay geckos is because that is what they actually say, ‘Toe-Kay’, over and over again.
My most memorable moment of self-awareness in that I was living in a mad house was on one of those days my husband was out on a reptile hunting expedition. I was home alone and it was pouring down rain, a real gully washer. A pickup truck drove up and a man with a large plastic garbage can stood on my doorstep. I answered the door and he asked if this is where someone bought snakes. I said, “yes, but you will have to come back later.” He said he couldn’t, he had a big rattlesnake and if we did not want it, he would go elsewhere. Well, I had witnessed my husband toting a sack containing snakes hundreds of times. I didn’t see the harm of giving the guy money and me putting the snake, still in the bag, in the “snake room” until my husband got home. Well, this particular snake was not in a bag. The man was wanting me to put the snake in a bag. When he took the top off the trash can, all I saw was a humongous body of the largest rattlesnake I had ever seen. “No way, man,” I said. He was actually angry that I wouldn’t take the snake off his hands and pay him money. He said a few choice words and left with his snake. When my husband returned, I recounted the event to him. His response was, “Are you crazy?…Do you know how much money that snake would bring?” Did I feel foolish because my priorities were not straight? No. This was the beginning of the end of our four year marriage.