Saturday, 24 July 2010

snake day

The farmer and I both dreamed of snakes last night, there was nothing snakey about yesterday, but today there certainly was.

On the way back from the farmers' market we paused on the driveway to let a boa cross our path. He was in no hurry and ambled slowly across the road, not so very big, maybe 5 foot, and beautiful. I have a 12 minute video of a boa eating a squirrel, or rather the second half of the squirrel, filmed one morning on the path below the house. The squirrel had been in a cacao tree and both had fallen onto the logs below. All I could do was wait, there was no way around. When she finished she scowled, raised herself up and flicked her tongue at me. I know it was rude to record her, but what else could I do there with a camera? (I was late for a meeting and hence had to show my reason.) We like and encourage boas in this area, great rodent control! And as soon as I work out how to upload the video I'll do it!

Back on the farm we heard that the workers had killed a terciopelo (Bothrops asper), or fer-de-lance in English. One of them had seen it yesterday near the public road that runs through the farm and all three had returned this morning to look for it. The fer-de-lance has a terrible reputation - the "ultimate pit viper", and is responsible for most of the venomous snake bites in Costa Rica. It's large and nervous / aggressive, and is almost always killed on site by the locals. Normally we do not like snakes being killed on the farm, but with this one we allow it. Having the Botanical Garden with its many visitors we can't take the risk. So it had been killed as quickly and as simply as the men could do it: they caught her with a forked stick and broke her skull.

We went over as soon as we could. She was a good size, beautiful and sleek. Her skin was the most scaly skin I've ever seen on a snake, not small close fitting mosaic style scales, but large diamond shaped ones which all seemed to move independently. Her belly looked almost like a shrimps the way the large rectangular scales overlapped each other. They were as smooth as glass and a wonderful creamy white. Terciopelo means velvet in Spanish, and her back did feel somewhat velvety with each scale having what seemed like a soft nap to it, but it was a hard sort of velvet. The skin was loose on her, probably to allow for its elastic nature. Her vertebrae were hard and raised in a ridge that ran the whole length of her body. I have never been so close to a fer de lance before and was surprised by how blunt and snubbed her nose was. The skull was broken so we couldn't save it for cleaning and we didn't open the mouth to look for her fangs - there are too many stories of venom leaving those fangs even after the snake is dead.

The farmer wanted to try the meat and so Evenor and I cleaned and dressed her. We slit the length of her back and removed the skin which came off easily. Very simple to dress, the ribs and meat wrap around the alimentary canal and organs which come away from the flesh easily just with pulling. It is a two person job, but not messy or difficult. It was in cleaning her we confirmed she was female (I had thought so due to her size and aggression): terciopelos give birth to live young and she had about 80 embryonic sacks with 3 inch, still transparent, snakes inside. Sad, always sad to see such beautiful creatures killed, but also lucky for us in that by killing one snake we had avoided the possibility of killing 80 others.

We buried the head and viscera and took the meat and skin home. The dogs sniffed cautiously at the skin and then retreated giving a wide berth - this I was very happy to see! I stretched and tacked the skin to a board, scraped it several times until it was soft and clean and then rubbed ash all over the inside and have left it propped up below the house where the breeze will reach it. The farmer oven roasted about 9 inches with black pepper. It was very tasty, a lot like chicken breast but more tender. The only issue is the bones which are fairly soft but not soft enough to eat. We'll use the rest for soup, I think the meat will come right off the bones. Eating her for me was the best way to respect and value and give gratitude for her life. Her beautiful skin will be used in the botanical garden to show visitors and to educate a little more about the types of snakes and creatures which make this area their home.

I did have a third snake experience today. I was going to the kindergarten to water our newest garden additions and a group of local kids and two youngish men were standing staring at something in the pasture. There was a lot of brandishing with sticks so I asked and they said it was a terciopleo. Having come freshly from the dressing, still with spots of blood on my leg, I wanted to see. Plus it was close to where we had spotted the boa earlier. Sure enough it was a boa, probably the same one. I had a hard time convincing the others it was not venomous, dangerous or anything to be feared. Most people kill all snakes on sight here and many crazy stories are wildly believed such as boas give birth to terciopelos once they reach a certain age, or that they have a venomous bite at night. Total baloney of course, but it's really hard to shake fear out of people. The kids wanted to start throwing stones at it and I had to use my sternest teacher voice to tell them absolutely not. Luckily for the snake and me (I was thinking I'd have to climb through the fence and pick him up to move him somewhere safe, and demonstrate he was in fact harmless), a local amphibian and reptile advocate walked by. He went in, picked up the boa - to the hysterical excitement of the kids - and took it away. Thank goodness.


  1. What an amazing post. We also have the fer-de-lance in Trinidad. They are called mapepires here and we have two kings - the mapepire balsain and the mapepire zanana. The zanana is more rare and lives at a higher altitude. She is very shy which is a good thing because she is very dangerous. Really glad I found this blog. I'll be back to visit.

  2. My goodness! I'm not that keen on snakes and am happy to live on an island that doesn't have any. Still, they are beautiful creatures and have their part in nature's plan.

  3. From what I had read, fer-de-lance is bad news. In the wild, I would have left it alone, but not near the house or farm. Costa Rica is such a tropical paradise, its my kind of place!


thanks for sharing!