Frank’s little mutt-dog Alacita is curled up on the couch to my left, and Missy the German Shepherd is trying to crawl onto my lap from the right. Missy is slowly, lovingly licking everything within reach, which unfortunately includes the computer, and when I move it further away from her damp smooches Alacita stretches her little head across the keyboard and quirks her eyebrows up at me with her well-practiced poor-little-doggy face. It’s especially effective tonight, thanks to the bare patch in the middle of her forehead that the vet shaved off to get to the wound on her head. Alacita’s had a rough week.
A few days ago I was trying to take a photo of the lizard who’s been hanging out in our bathroom, and as I took crappy picture after crappy picture I realized that 1) cobwebby bathroom ceilings make terrible backdrops and 2) it’s kind of weird that we’ve seen so many lizards here and so few snakes. Immediately I looked around at the rafters behind me, because that’s the kind of thing where as soon as you think it, you see a snake and think what a weird coincidence that was, right? But the rafters were empty, and I gave up on the little brown lizard and went back out to the garden to finish weeding. Or rather, to continue weeding in the certain knowledge that it will never, ever be finished.
It was a weird animal day in general: I tried to keep Missy from eating a wasp that turned out to be a moth in disguise,
Zach found an ant that looked like a spider because its butt had fallen off,
and I pulled a bunch of ticks off the dogs and threw them into the creek while reflecting how strange it was that the dogs were constantly covered in those things yet neither Zach nor I have had one yet. This time the coincidence-imps were paying attention; ten minutes later I felt something crawling inside my left sleeve and found (of course) a hopeful tick, who followed his friends to sleep inside the fishes. (Ticks are hard to squash, but after a few botched attempts at killing them with a machete I discovered that the tiny fish in the creek make a much more efficient and satisfying disposal squad.)
As dark fell, Zach went to get the laundry in off the line. A few seconds later I heard a most un-Zach-like noise and he came flailing back to grab a headlamp. While walking across the grass in the dark, he had stuck his foot right between two mating cane toads. Judging from the look on his face, it was not an enjoyable experience. I bet they looked displeased as well, but then these guys always look kind of cranky.
Finally, after dinner I came out of the cabin to find Missy stalking slowly towards the little bridge that spans a creek to connect our cabin to the bathroom. I gave her a friendly poke, but instead of the usual tail wag she flinched, gave me a quick nervous glance, and took another slow step forward. I looked ahead to see what she was so transfixed by… and saw, stretched across the path just a few feet in front of her, a familiarly patterned snake whose wide triangular head was unmistakable even in that dim light.
I called Missy and she turned around immediately (thankfully – trying to pull her away by the tail was Plan B, but she’s a big girl) and I shooed her into the cabin. The snake had pulled back a bit by the time we came back with a light, but the vertical pupils and unique coloration were clear – it was a fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in Costa Rica.
Of the many poisonous snakes in Costa Rica, the fer-de-lance is the most feared. They are responsible for almost half the annual snakebites here. Most people that get bitten these days survive thanks to the ready supply of antivenin, but may suffer from paralysis and memory loss, and if they don’t get help fast enough the skin over the entire affected limb can turn black and slough off.
It had never before occurred to me that there would be a legitimate reason to kill a native snake that was minding its own business, and maybe if it had just been Zach and me we could have just been extra careful for the rest of our stay… but there were three dogs running around the cabin night and day, and fer-de-lances are infamous not only for their potent venom but also for their unusually aggressive nature. After a few minutes’ deliberation and several heartfelt apologies to the snake, the poor guy was dispatched with a shovel.
I feel sad for the snake, and guilty that he died for such a small offense as trespassing into our front yard. He was beautiful, and he was here first. But he was just way too well-armed to make a good neighbor.
Frank said he’s found a few fer-de-lances on the farm in the dozen or so years he’s lived here, but usually they’re far enough away from the houses and garden that he can just shoo them back into the woods. Ronnie and Christian, the two guys who have been working here for years, found and killed one a few years ago, and some previous WWOOFers said they’d seen two during their stay, but generally fer-de-lance sightings have been reassuringly few and far between. However…
Just few days later, Ronnie and Christian uncovered another fer-de-lance while clearing brush along the driveway. Alacita usually follows them around all morning, and she saw it first – she was on the snake before the guys knew what was happening. Ronnie waded into the fray and bashed the snake with a machete, and when Zach and I got there the snake was dead and Alacita was sitting on a rock, enjoying the attention while both men carefully searched her for puncture wounds.
Incredibly, there didn’t seem to be a scratch on her. Apparently even mongooses (mongeese?) are often no match for a fer-de-lance because these snakes are so much faster than cobras, the mongoose’s traditional enemy, but this little dog must have bit down on just the right spot. We stared at the dead snake while Ronnie told us horror stories about people who’d been bitten and hadn’t gotten to help in time, until finally the call of the weeds became too loud to ignore and we headed back towards the garden.
Alacita started after us, but as she trotted along her tail began to droop. She stopped in the middle of the path and sat down slowly, with her head tilted strangely, then sank onto the ground. Upon reinspection we found a small spot of blood in the middle of her forehead – her miraculous escape had not been as complete as we’d thought.
Obviously, this story has a happy ending or I wouldn’t be pushing her little head off this keyboard tonight. Frank took her to the vet, who said that it looked like she’d been barely grazed and wouldn’t even need any antivenin. She came home to bellyrubs and tuna, and was running around again with her tail flying within hours.
Phew! So, for a change of pace from the flesh-melting snakes living in our backyard, who wants to see an adorable grasshopper? He was not at all cooperative about posing for a picture – he kept leaping onto the camera lens whenever it got too close.
Finally he stopped to chew on his foot for a few seconds.
This one was even cooler, and even tinier.
And THESE guys! Holy cow! Frank has a bunch of books out in the tool shed, and when I picked this dusty one up it made a strange cracking sound. On the back side were some broken mud tubes and a tangle of twitching legs.
Those are all spiders, and they’re all alive. Barely. There are wasps that hunt down spiders, paralyze them with a well-placed sting, and stuff their still-living bodies down into a tube that the female constructs from mud ferried over one mouthful at a time. Then she lays eggs in each tube and seals it up. When the larvae hatch, they have a still-fresh spider breakfast waiting for them. Blerg.
Last, but in absolutely no way least, are these lovelies that I found under the sink in the other cabin.
I was ALMOST positive I knew what they were and that they were harmless, but without checking in first with the all-knowing Wikipedia gods I just couldn’t touch those things. It turns out that they are indeed harmless – they’re tailless whipscorpions, or amblypigids, and they’re probably doing a bang-up job of keeping all the other creepy crawlies out of the bathroom. They can’t see very well, but they use those crazy long legs to feel around in the dark, and even to communicate with each other by touch. They’re really amazing bugs… but MAN am I glad they’re smaller than we are.