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Press: Family learns snakes weren't driven from Island

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Posted by W von Papinešu on September 03, 2002 at 09:58:15:

GLOUCESTER DAILY TIMES (UK) 29 August 02 Cape family learns snakes weren't driven from Island (Richard Gaines)
Identification of the species of snake that has established a colony in and around the home of the Marston family up in the wilds of Gloucester will not be possible -- not without a herpetologist with luck enough to capture or at least get a good look at one of the serpents.
But this much is certain: Around their home in the largely undeveloped granite and thickly wooded hills above Goose Cove, the Marstons don't have a lot of neighbors, but they have a lot of uninvited snakes, and at least one of them is very big.
"It's at least 4 to 5 feet long," says Jill Marston, who, along with the snakes, lives at 6 Annisquam Heights, off Dennison Street, with her husband Chris and children, son Cameron, 13, and daughter Kaley, 12.
Since June when it was first sighted, she's seen the big snake and the many little ones, about a dozen, often enough to accept them bemusedly as part of the family settlement.
She blithely walks barefoot to a corner of the foundation of their house to point out the skin of one of the small snakes that stuck in a crevice where it was recently shed and a nest with specks of snake egg shells under a rhododendron bush.
"It was huge," says April Worcester, a professional exterminator with her father's firm, Cape Ann Pest Control, who came upon the big snake while on her annual ant control assignment. The company specializes in mice, roaches, rats, fleas and ticks and the like. "The like" doe not include snakes.
"I was spraying around the foundation and the granite front door steps, and I saw a couple of little snakes, about 10 inches long moving around," Worcester recalls. "Then I saw the big one. I ran around the front. It went into the cellar. It was about as thick as a coffee can."
Worcester's iffy, on-the-run ID was boa constrictor, based on the appearance: brown circular splotches on a tannish base, and the impressive body mass.
Boas, of course, are an exotic species, by nature at home in Central and South American rain forests, not the rocky hills of central Cape Ann. But they are similar in appearance to the Marston's snakes and are popular pets; so, routinely are found in the wild far from home after escaping captivity or being released.
Boas are non-venomous but can grow to lengths of well more than 10 feet and -- as their name suggests -- squeeze the life out of their prey, which are small mammals, before consuming them.
A less exotic theory was offered by Thorn Tasker, a close friend and semi-permanent guest of the Marstons, a Cape Ann native currently crab-fishing out of Alaska.
On close inspection, Tasker speculated that the small snake hanging from his hand after biting on a few weeks ago was a milk snake.
Milk snakes, which attain lengths of more than 4 feet, have gray or tan bodies, with reddish brown blotches bordered in black and are found in woodlands, fields, rolling hillsides and borders of wetlands, under houses, barns and out-buildings. Their prey of choice is small mammals, frog and fish. While non-venomous, milk snakes will bite.
Because of their appearance they are sometimes confused with the copperhead and because they also will rattle, they are sometimes confused with the timber rattlesnake. These venomous snakes, which are native to Massachusetts, are also said to inhabit the Cape Ann uplands, albeit in small numbers.
Jill Marston, in fact, reports seeing a small rattler dead on the road not far from her house a couple of years ago.
The little snake that bit onto Tasker's hand (presumably not a copperhead or a rattler) became aggressive when he tried to grab hold of the big one.
"I shouldn't have been grabbing the snake" as it made its escape into the basement through a crack in the foundation, the mischievous Tasker concedes. "I hadn't seen the body and I hadn't seen the head. My hand couldn't close around it."
The Marstons and Tasker are not at all agitated, and are even entertained by the clear and present mystery of the uninvited additions to the property.
While they haven't come to nicknames, they haven't thought about eliminating their guests either. Not that elimination is a viable option. The only simple step in snake control is the distribution of moth balls, which act as a repellent.
Most people are not as sanguine as the Marstons about their snakes.
Take Martha Hart of 61 Quarry St., off Washington Street, in the Bay View area, a few miles north of the Marstons, also up in the Cape's central hill country.
When she came upon a snake in her yard one day last month, as her son William, 21, recounts, she retreated to her bedroom screaming and to this day walks her property with trepidation.
"I thought she'd lost it," he says. Then he checked the spot and found a black snake, more than a yard long.
In the folly of youth, William took up gloves and a pillow and tried to capture the snake. "It was aggressive. It reared up and came at me before ducking under the porch."
The Harts' snake almost certainly was a black racer, which can attain 6 feet in length and is the only large black snake native to the area. It favors rocky ledges, so would be at home on Quarry Street, which was a center of the Cape's thriving granite industry more than a century ago.
Though non-venomous, the black racer, which is a constrictor, while fast moving -- as its name suggests -- puts up a vigorous fight and will bite hard and often.

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