Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

The Scream Maker

Corallus ruschenbergeriiBy Jack Ewing

Nothing penetrates the consciousness like a woman’s scream. I’m not talking about an ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill scream, like when her husband spills coffee on the new table cloth, or even like when she sees her two-year-old standing on a chair, reaching for a pot of boiling water. I’m talking about one of those screams that pierces to the very center of your being, like the cold winter wind whistling through the trees. I’m talking about a scream of sheer terror. That’s the sound that sent chills up and down my spine, shocked me out of my day dream, and snapped me instantly back into the here-and-now. A moment earlier the only danger to myself and my family was the possibility of me dozing off at the wheel, but my wife’s scream changed all that. Her first expression of hysterical panic was followed by yelling: “Jack, Jack, that snake, that snake.” Without even looking, I knew what surely must have happened.

Hacienda Baru

The incident described above took place in 1975. My wife, Diane and our children, Natalie and Chris, lived in San Jose, where I resided on weekends. During the week, I spent my time working at a ranch called Hacienda Barú, near a village called Dominical. A couple of weeks earlier, one of the cowboys had captured a snake. He called it a “manglera”  and cautioned me that it was extremely poisonous. The head looked triangular to me, and I had heard that pit vipers always have triangular heads. Light greenish-brown in color, with a fuzzy diamond pattern, the manglera was as long as I am tall and about as thick as a shovel handle. The last 20 centimeters of its tail curled up, reminding me of a hook. The cowboy had found it hanging by its tail in a mangrove tree. Knowing that snakes fascinated me, he brought it to the ranch house on the end of a long branch, and we managed to get it into a plastic bag.

A couple of weeks earlier, our family had visited the Cloromiro Picado Institute, where antivenin (or serum) for the treatment of snakebite is manufactured. Mesmerized, we watched technicians hold large vipers securely, force their fangs into glass vials covered with rubber sheets, and “milk” them of their venom. The highly toxic venom, fully capable of killing an adult human, was the key ingredient in the production of lifesaving serum used for the treatment of snakebite. A white-coated scientist explained the process to the visitors. He mentioned that the institute was always in need of poisonous snakes from different regions of Costa Rica. For that reason, I decided that I would take the manglera to the institute. That weekend, it rode to San Jose in the luggage compartment of my jeep, still inside the plastic bag.

Upon arrival at our apartment in San José, I unpacked my things, but decided to leave the plastic bag with the snake where it was. The next day was Saturday, visitor’s day at the snake Institute, and I planned to take the manglera and donate it to their worthy cause. The next morning, however, the plastic bag was empty, and a limited search of the car revealed nothing. I wasn’t about to peek under seats and dashboards. A friend of ours knew one of the snake handlers from the Cloromiro Picado Institute. He came to our house and searched every nook and cranny in the jeep, but the snake was nowhere to be found. Common names of serpents vary from one part of the country to another and the name “manglera” wasn’t familiar to the technician. His opinion was that the snake had already found its way out of the jeep, but recommended that we leave a door open all night. The snake would leave the jeep to search for food and water, he said. We left the doors open at night for a week, and finally decided that there was no chance the snake was still in the car. The mystery of the manglera became an interesting anecdote that was relegated to family history. But then one lazy Sunday afternoon, a scream that threatened to wake the dead, brought it abruptly back to the present.

Instantly awake and alert, my instincts took over and directed my adrenaline charged body to simultaneously brake, pull over to the right-hand shoulder and look to my right. Diane was leaning over, nearly into my lap, with Chris in her arms. The snake’s triangular shaped head  with a short length of neck was sticking out of the ceiling liner of the jeep, close to where Diane’s head had been a few seconds earlier. Its forked tongue was flicking in and out. One of our German Shepherds began barking and halfheartedly attacking. Diane’s screaming changed to yelling, urging everyone out of the car. We all left by way of the door on the driver’s side. I ran around to the passenger side of the jeep, grabbed a stick from the side of the road and tried to drag the snake from its hiding place between cardboard ceiling liner and the metal roof of the jeep. To my horror, it evaded my stick, doubled over, stuck its head back through the hole from which its body was protruding, and tried to return to its safe haven. Panicked that it would escape back to the inner depths of the jeep, I grabbed the manglera with my bare hand, pulled it free of the car, threw it on the ground, and beat it to death with the stick. We all breathed a sigh of relief. The snake was dead. I examined the triangular shaped head more closely, wanting to see the fangs. To my dismay there were no fangs and no pit – a small, heat sensitive depression between the nostril and the eye. Pit vipers always have this second opening, similar to the nostril. My manglera didn’t have it. In spite of the triangular head, it was not poisonous. As I write these words, the same sick feeling I felt then returns to my stomach, the feeling of remorse over having needlessly killed another living thing.

The story about our Sunday afternoon outing was written up in The Tico Times, the following week, and we finally did relegate the entire episode to history. But that didn’t help me with my guilt feeling over having killed the manglera, which had never intended the slightest harm to any of us. It was me who took it away from its natural habitat, starting the chain of events that ended with its death. I was determined to learn more about the manglera, but in those days few books were available about the serpents of Costa Rica. My knowledge was slow in coming.

Near the end of the 1970’s Diane and the kids moved to Hacienda Barú. By then everyone was comfortable around snakes. Diane didn’t scream any more when she saw them, and we learned to accept them as part of our daily life. A very special one lived in the ceiling of our house, where it happily made a meal of every bat and rat that crossed its path. We knew it was a boa, but weren’t sure what kind. Content to remain in its lofty hideaway the snake never bothered us, the only indication of its presence being the occasional nocturnal squeal of an unfortunate rat. We took those noisy occasions as announcements that our attic boarder had just paid its rent. We even gave the snake a name, “Agatha.”

In those days, there were no cabins or hotels in Dominical, and visitors to the area usually stayed in someone’s home. A biology student from California, named Harvey, once stayed with us for a couple of weeks. Shortly after Harvey’s arrival, a family of Norwegian rats also moved in.

Norwegian rats are big and smart. They will turn up their noses at even the most alluring rat poisons and are much too clever to be fooled by a rat trap. Their only weakness is being creatures of habit and routine. Experience had taught me that if a rat runs along a certain beam every night at a certain time, it will be so punctual that on future nights you can set your watch by it. My only successful method of exterminating them was to wait until a few seconds before the normal nightly run and aim an air powered BB rifle at some point along its path where the rat habitually paused. Chris would watch and let me know when the rat appeared at the beginning of its run. I then began to squeeze the trigger, timing the release of the BB for exactly the moment the rat paused. If my aim was true, and killed the rat, all of its companions promptly left the house. If I missed, they just hung in there and varied their routine making it nearly impossible to hunt them in the future. As astonishing as the Norwegian rat’s intelligence may be, it was no match for our attic guard.

It seems that the newly arrived Norwegian rats were making their nightly runs through the snake’s territory, not ours. We would catch occasional glimpses of them, but not long enough for a clear shot with the air rifle. On the third night, Agatha scored. The scream that the big blue rat let out when she nailed it, was comparable to Diane’s on that Sunday afternoon when the manglera crawled out of the ceiling of the jeep. Harvey decided to climb into the attic and investigate. His presence upset Agatha so much that she wouldn’t eat her dinner, and instead let the dead rat drop. Harvey captured her and brought her downstairs. About fifteen minutes later, one of the other Norwegian rats came across its dead companion’s body. The second rat took off running and screaming. It was joined by the third member of the family, and both noisily fled the house, and ran off into the night, never to return.

Harvey stretched Agatha out on a table to measure her and take notes about her physical attributes, things like the number of scales on her head. Seeing her clearly for the first time, I realized that Agatha was a manglera. Harvey explained that the of end of her tail was curled up in its characteristic hook-like shape so she could easily hang from tree limbs. Serpents of her species spend most of their time in trees. With the help a book on reptiles, Harvey was able to determine that she was a common tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii.) After Harvey recorded his observations, he returned Agatha to the attic, where she continued to live and eat bats, rats and opossums for a number of years.

Diane and I still live on Hacienda Barú which is now a National Wildlife Refuge. We don’t kill any snakes on the reserve. We will move poisonous ones that consistently cause problems, like hanging out near peoples homes or along the walking trails. Although our relationship with the common tree boa got off to a bad start, the whole family learned to appreciate the presence of our upstairs boarder.  As a matter of fact, rodent control was only one of Agatha’s functions around the house. She was also an interesting conversation piece. We learned to be careful not to mention her to our favorite guests. After all, we wouldn’t want our lady guests to scream. But in all households, certain guests are less welcome than others, and a few stay longer than is polite. With guests like that, a casual comment at breakfast often served as a very effective hint.

“The snake hasn’t come into your room at night has she? She’s usually no bother at all, you know, but sometimes she just takes a liking to certain people and crawls right into bed with them.” The unwanted visitors were invariably packed and gone by noon.

I have come to believe that it is best to let the snakes live, even the poisonous ones. In the overall balance of nature, they will do more good than harm. When you see lots of snakes, it is usually because something is out of balance. There might be an overabundance of rats, for example. Once the rat population diminishes, the snakes will go elsewhere. Humans have always had an innate fear of snakes that induces us to destroy them, even those species that provide valuable services for us. Our fear is usually born of ignorance. Today, very good field guides are available for the identification of all living creatures. Snakes of Costa Rica by Alejandro Solorzano, is an excellent source of information. Had it been available back in the 1970’s, I would have been able to identify and learn about the manglera rather than mistake it for a dangerous serpent. Even so, it would certainly have induced Diane to scream.