Snakes live forever

Last week I was walking in the woods near my work during lunch and for the second time ever, I came across a venomous snake, and once again it was a copperhead. And my reaction was, to the letter, identical to my reaction last time. My first reflex was to freeze, the caveman brain yelling “WATCH OUT! A SNAKE!”- until my me-brain instructed me to access the situation and identify the snake. Indeed it was a venomous snake. My next processed thought was to slowly back away, then after that it was “Quick! Get the camera!” My brain didn’t work so efficiently or as reliably after that. I took a bunch of pictures with different zooms and angles, trying not to disturb the snake, the whole time not realizing the obvious. This picture offers a clue.


Funny, the snake seems to have some flies on him. I finally started to notice that, then wondered if the snake was dead. After poking him with a super-long stick I was pretty sure of it. But I still didn’t want to get bitten by a “mostly dead” snake that might snap suddenly. So I had to keep on jabbing to make sure he was really, really dead. Like the munchkin coroner’s song in The Wizard of Oz.

The problem of transport of the snake was solved by the fact that I had a backpack, plus I had an empty Ziploc bag from lunch. Surprisingly, the nearly-grown copperhead fit into it just fine. The next step was to figure out a way to do a quick formalin fix for this snake in order to kill any gross things on him, plus to keep him from stinking and rotting until I got home. That problem could easily be solved in the lab, but it wouldn’t be so easy to hide exactly what I was doing from everyone else in the lab. I…managed. We won’t talk about how that was done.

I managed to get the pit-viper-in-formalin home, but I’m going to have to wait on attempting taxidermy on him. I’m not entirely confident I can do it, never having taxidermed a reptile before. There were a lot of tutorials on youtube on how to tan his hide, but I couldn’t find a good one for actual taxidermy. I did find a forum on that had step-by-step instructions on rattlesnake taxidermy, so that will have to do. Unfortunately, my first attempt at pit viper taxidermy will have to wait, because most of my taxidermy supplies has already been packed away to move to the new house. So I carefully skinned him and did an informal necropsy to see what I could learn about him.

Copperhead Skinned

There were no marks or any kind on his skin, but he had some blood coming out his mouth. Upon opening the thorax, you could see that his chest cavity had massive internal bleeding. Other than that, there didn’t seem to be anything else wrong with him. This suggests blunt trauma, ie, he was squashed. I wonder how that happened. I’ve seen enough snakes run over by cars to know that he would have been a lot more flattened if that had been the case. He would have been stuck to the road. This kind of trauma was more like he’d been stepped on, but who would be dumb enough to step on a copperhead? If so, did that person get bitten? Copperheads are pretty shy, and they usually only bite if they’re stepped on. Plus his skull was intact, and if somebody were trying to smash a snake on purpose, they would aim for the head and not the thorax, right? Jon suggested a great story- he was swooped up by a hawk (there are several hawks that hang out in Lullwater and we see them all the time), the copperhead bit the hawk, the hawk dropped him from a great height and the snake died from slamming onto the pavement. It was a little odd, after all, that this snake was found right at the edge of the road. Copperheads prefer to hide in the leaves than to sit wide out in the middle of a road in plain view. So maybe he was dropped onto the road, then he used his last ounce of strength to crawl to the edge, where he died. I like this story the best. I’d hate to think somebody killed him on purpose.

In addition to his thoracic cavity filled with blood, I learned that his last meal was a small mouse. Also, his stomach doesn’t look much like a mammalian stomach. It’s really long and narrow, resembling a large intestine more than a stomach. Which makes sense if you’re a long and narrow animal. Also, he had only one lung. This single lung was also very long and narrow. Again, it makes more sense to have one long lung than to have short, wide, paired lungs taking up all that space if you’re a long and narrow animal. I’d read about how many snakes have only one lung, but it was cool to see it in person. Oh, and I found out that he’d been a male snake. Unless those were musk glands. Hard to say.

So now I have this striking and beautiful snake skin, still sitting in my dissection bucket until I can attempt to taxiderm it. I’m not sure what to do with it. I could go the coward’s way and just tan it and have a pretty snakeskin. Or I can be daring and try to create my first reptile taxidermy. It would really be a shame if I messed up though and ruined this gorgeous skin. I guess we’ll wait and see.


License to Dog

When we went to pick up Giles after our trip, we approached the receptionist at the kennel and asked for him. The receptionist laughed and said “Oh, yes….Giles.” What? What’s so funny? What did he do?

She said that he had quite a personality and that he made many, many friends while he was there and that he was the nicest dog to everyone. She said the techs would be sorry to see him go and that he’s welcome to come back anytime.

I felt irrationally pleased, like my kid had just come home with a good report card or something. I guess in a kennel setting, he can’t destroy anything and so they have no idea that he’s a Horrible, Terrible, No Good Very Bad Dog.

But the best part? They made him a sturdy-looking ID card. I like how his paws are on the counter so that he looks like he’s sitting at a desk.

He has a License to Dog to now!


And speaking of very bad dogs, we came across this sign in Bratislava. My dad paused at it, saying that it was an interesting sign. He translated it for us and he said that it said “Beware- Horrible Dog.” Interesting because in English we wouldn’t make a sign with that word choice exactly.
Horrible Dog

But I want to have it blown up into a poster because Giles is definitely a Horrible Dog. We call him that all the time.

That Moon

We’re back from Epic Europe Trip. And we’re closing on a house tomorrow so it’s been kind of busy. When I walked into the lab this morning, I was bracing myself for some kind of bad surprise to be waiting for me, but there were none. I guess I’m relieved, but on the other hand I would have kind of liked it to have seen shattered glassware everywhere, several small fires on the lab benches, a pool of acid burning through the sink- as if the lab simply couldn’t function without me.

So I have some pictures. Too many to go over one by one. But I feel like sharing a few, and it will be awhile before Jon gets around to his more comprehensive writeup.

Our first city was London. I’d been there several times, including one New Year’s Day, 1998. I had visited London’s Highgate Cemetery and we were looking at all the sites you’re supposed to see- like Karl Marx. Douglas Adams is also buried at Highgate, but he wasn’t dead yet in 1998.

After visiting Karl Marx, I had stumbled upon another random grave that was pretty striking to me. Her name was Mandy Moon. I can’t even explain why I liked it so much, but it was probably because I just liked her name a lot. I had no camera at the time, so I just nodded my head to young Mandy and went on my way. She stuck with me, though, and I ended up naming my online presence after her, taking her name for all my screen names. After somebody told me once that it sounded like a stripper name, I lost my affection for it but by then the name had stuck.

Well, 15 years later I found myself back at Highgate Cemetery and this time we were there specifically to find Mandy Moon. I really wanted to visit her and to finally get a picture of her grave. This proved to be more difficult than I expected. Actually it was more needle-in-haystack-like than I expected it would be. For one, Find a Grave has her listed, but does not give any hint as to where she might be within the Cemetery. Two, Highgate Cemetary is very large, and three- I hadn’t been there in 13 years and had no idea where I’d found her grave the first time, except that it was vaguely in the vicinity of Karl Marx. And to top it all off, from our approach in the neighborhood, it was a major challenge to find an entrance to the cemetery at all, let alone find a particular, unfamous grave within it. We ended up walking nearly half a mile before we found the entrance.

Once inside, we asked the Grave Lady, who had a big index of names and locations of particular graves, where we might find Mandy Moon. Grave Lady didn’t know- Mandy Moon was not listed in that index. She must not have been important enough. So we walked in the direction of Karl Marx and decided to try our best from there.

Locating Karl Marx was no problem.


But after that, there was nothing else to guide us. In addition to all the other difficulties in finding Mandy Moon, there was the overall confusing terrain. This cemetery is not laid out like a typical American cemetery, with all the graves lined up in neat little rows and closely-clipped grass. The graves didn’t line up in any particular pattern and a lot of the area was overgrown. It was like somebody just threw all the graves any which way into the woods.


It definitely seemed hopeless, but we had come all this way so there was nothing to do except walk around and try to find her. At first we tried to split up to search sections in concentric circles around Karl Marx, but that lofty plan inevitably disintegrated into the two of us walking around aimlessly, hoping to just run into Mandy by random chance.

But this time, it turns out, random chance prevailed.

We’d found her shortly after that point where both of us, tired and hot and having a plane to the Netherlands to catch soon, were fully ready to give up and each trying to come up with a way to break it to the other that we would have to leave and call it quits. And suddenly, she just appeared.

Mandy Moon 1

Her grave was loaded with flowers. She seems to have a lot of friends and there are definitely still people taking care of her. We worked it out that if she died in 1986 at age 25, she could still have parents who visit her, maybe some brothers and sisters, some friends, possibly a husband. Maybe even a kid who would by now be older than she ever was. I don’t know if I’ll ever find out. That caption at the bottom of her grave that I liked so much was still there. I had to push all the flowers aside to see it:


And there was nothing more to do than have my picture taken with her. I’ve stolen her name several times, after all. I hope she doesn’t mind.

Mandy Moon