It’s not every day you get to watch two grown men wrestle a young Southern Pacific rattlesnake from its hiding place underneath a pile of sticks into a Plexiglas tube.
All in the name of education – and with a certain amount of scientific machismo – Drs. Robert Espinoza and Greg Pauly held up the anxious and finally squeezed-in reptile to the gaggle of folks who had joined these two for a Lizard Walk in Malibu Creek State Park.
“Stand back and get in line,” they directed as youngsters and oldsters obeyed. After all, who wouldn’t want to touch the rattle end of a wild, just-caught rattlesnake? This was no ordinary traveling reptile show that you’d find visiting libraries or first grade classes. No, this was a nature in nature experience.
A program from the Natural History Museum, this family-friendly trek got kids squealing with delight as some adults shirked back, happy to let the little ones go first, get close and touch whatever critter was discovered. And a LOT was discovered on this half-mile trail.
In fact, the regular hikers and outdoor folk who were enjoying the trails around the popular park probably didn’t realize the reptile potential that lurked underfoot and just a stone’s throw away from their….feet. If you’re not looking for wildlife, you probably would have missed it slither, zip and zoom away.
The outdoor excursion started off on a high note: young Andrew procured a Western yellow-bellied racer snake, a reptile not often seen in the area. (“Wow, I don’t remember the last time we found one here,” said Espinoza.) In fact, fearless Andrew was the star of the morning also catching more than his share of beasties.
Other young snake wranglers-in-training were not as lucky as Andrew whose mother confessed that she probably will have to buy him a snake stick (long pole with a flipped end to catch slippery snakes) to encourage his uncanny reptile connection.
Since it was an overcast and cool morning, reptiles were not out basking – which meant more digging for lizard lookers. It seemed critters were found…well, everywhere.
Side blotched lizards were acquired from a hole near an open space; a Western skink was lifted from a pile of rocks; an extremely large Western fence lizard (male with a bright blue belly) was caught hiding under a pile of logs; and a California king snake was peacefully enjoying his stack of sticks before being presented to the group. (All reptiles were released back where they were found – much to the dismay of many youngsters who wanted to hold and/or take the treasured critters back home.)
The only common SoCal lizard not found was an alligator lizard. Newts, said our lizard leaders, used to be plentiful in the area, but aren’t typically found anymore in the Santa Monica Mountains anymore. Introduced crayfish and bullfrogs found newt eggs a delicacy. The newts have moved on.
As kids perfected the rock flipping (“Make sure you flip the rock in front of you; you don’t want some thing to run into your legs!” was the instruction that most kids forget in their zeal of discovery), parents were thrilled to have pro biologists validate their child’s fascination with reptiles (“You should see what his/her room looks like”).
And just as the group was walking back to the parking lot, there as if on cue, the rattler was discovered. Espinoza and Pauly channeled their inner Steve Irwin as they carefully grappled the annoyed snake into the show tube with rattle end exposed.
Sure the kids lined up first to touch the dry rattle (who learned it made up of hollow keratin segments), but the adults were there as well – even some adults not part of the group but who witnessed the earlier wrestling match and just had to see the temporarily restrained snake for themselves.
After the snake was released back into its home territory and the walk officially ended, many parents were still wrangling their kids who continued to search, hunt and turn over rocks and logs. “He’d stay here all day,” said Andrew’s mom, who while watching her intent and determined boy. She was probably was imagining that one day her son would be leading such an expedition of his own with a new flock of eager-eyed, reptile-crazed youngsters. Yup, it could happen…
— Story by Brenda Rees
— Photographs by Martha Benedict