“Grab hold of the snake!” William Coles tells me. I study his face for a hint of irony, but there’s none to be found. After a moment of hesitation I wrap my sweaty fingers around the tail end of a boa constrictor that’s violently trying to escape.
This is proving to be a weird day for the both of us. Coles is the chief of environmental education at the Department of Parks and Natural Resources. If I had shadowed him at work on any other day, I likely would have seen him talk to a class of 5th graders or lead a hike up Caledonia Gut. But not today.
Coles got a call around 5 .p.m that a large snake was sighted on Creque Dam road. This is a major concern. St. Croix has a similar climate and conditions to Florida where giant Burmese pythons have overrun the Everglades. The last thing the island needs is for them to get a foothold here, so Coles decides to go hunting.
The snake was sighted between the dam and the falls at a point where the cliff drops sharply from the roadbed. Coles picks his way cautiously down the cliff and starts looking for signs. Within minutes he catches sight of the snake’s tail wrapped up in the roots of a tree at the edge of the road. Without a second thought, he grabs it.
Only about a foot of the snake is outside of the den. Cole pulls on it, but the snake doesn’t give an inch. All Coles can do is keep it from crawling in further. He tells me we’re going to have to dig it out.
We take turns holding the tail while the other picks away at the cliff with a fish gaffe Coles had brought to hook the snake.
“I was hoping we’d find it in a tree,” he says with a shrug. “I should have brought a shovel.”
As we dig, loose rocks tumble past our feet down to the creek bed forty feet below. We’re both covered in dirt and sweat, and to make matters worse, the mosquitoes are starting to wake up. After an hour, we only have about two-feet of the snake exposed and it stubbornly refuses to give up its grip on the root.
I ask Coles how much of his job is doing stuff like this and he immediately replies, “Not enough.”
“It may not seem like it now, but this is the fun part,” he says.
When Coles moved to St. Croix 12 years ago to take this job, he did it so he could keep himself in the field.
“If I was the chief of environmental education for a state, I would be stuck behind a desk,” he says.
Here in the territory he gets to take an active hand. He explains that he is both the person who writes the grants and the one who implements them. If they want to spread their message in the schools, he’s the one teaching the classes. If they want to build a trail, he’s out in the jungle blazing it. And if an invasive snake gets loose, well….
Coles’ primary job is spreading information to the community about “responsible resource use.” He avoids the word “conservation” because he finds it can be counterproductive.
“People say, “Who are you to stop us from doing what’s been our cultural traditions?” he explains.
Instead, Coles tries to get people to think about how much of their culture depends on the environment around them.
When he’s talking to kids, he’ll often start out by asking how many of them know how to make their own snowshoes.
When none of them raise their hands, he tells them of course they don’t know. Caribbean people don’t know anything about snowshoes for the same reason that people in deserts aren’t good at building boats. Cultures are developed by the resources around them.
“As we start losing more and more of our resources because we’ve either paved them over or we’ve eaten them all, we start losing those parts of our culture,” he says. “Our identity is based on those resources.”
Coles thinks that the best way to preserve Crucian culture is to preserve St. Croix itself, and doing that isn’t easy. The ecosystem is incredibly complicated and interrelated.
“One plus one doesn’t equal two all of the time,” he explains. If one animal in the food chain goes extinct, you might not just lose that species. You could also lose any animals that use that creature as food. Likewise, if you add a species to the ecosystem, you’re likely adding a whole lot of problems along with it.
Coles has seen the lionfish invasion develop since the beginning. He’s seen the crazy ants sweep through the rainforest. He knows how much damage a few stray animals can do if they gain a foothold and start breeding. The only way to control the spread of invasive species is to teach the public about what is and what isn’t supposed to be here so they can catch these outbreaks when they’re still small and stamp them out.
Back at the cliff, the sun is beginning to set. We’ve been at it for almost three hours and our little hole has turned into a full-scale excavation. We have at least three feet of the snake exposed now, but its grip on the roots hasn’t let up an ounce.
Four workers from the Ridge to Reef farm spot us from their truck and stop to help. One has a length of cord and he uses it to tie the snake to the tree with a slipknot.
We’re starting to get desperate. Coles briefly entertains the idea of sawing down the tree, but decides against it. One of the farmers suggests just killing the snake, but Coles would rather get it out alive. We start going through the inventory of our cars trying to find some tool that might help.
Tire iron? No. Bug spray? No. Candle? A candle might work, Coles says.
Snakes are very sensitive to changes in temperature. Coles lights the candle and places it in the exposed portion of the den several inches below the snake. At first it doesn’t respond, but then, suddenly, it moves.
“Here it comes!” Coles yells.
The snake doubles back on itself and comes flying out of its den. It moves impossibly fast, and the farmers and I scatter. The slipknot around the snake’s tail holds and for a split second I see it dangling from the tree, silhouetted in the beam of our flashlight.
Coles is on top of the snake in an instant. He grabs it out of the air and the snake immediately grabs him back. It strikes him in his forearm, leaving four deep, bloody puncture holes in his skin. We cut the cord around its tail and Coles wrestles it into a cooler he’d had in the back of his truck.
And just like that it’s over. We all step back for a second and laugh about how strange our evening has become.
The snake ended up being a five-foot-long red-tailed boa constrictor. This bothers Coles. He’d hoped that the snake had been someone’s escaped pet, but most snakes sold at pet stores are at least eight-feet long. It’s also mandatory for pet snakes to have a microchip embedded under their skin, but when Coles checks for it the next day, he doesn’t find one.
“I can’t say that it was, in fact, breeding on the island. I just don’t know, but it is something that I’m concerned about,” he says.
Coles decides to keep the snake as a teaching tool. He may end up showing it off to schoolchildren as a warning about releasing exotic species in the wild.
“It’s way easier to keep something out than to deal with it once it’s here,” he likes to tell them. After our evening in the rainforest, I couldn’t agree more.