It was one of the first dates with my future wife. I took her and a couple of friends on a boat ride up Bayou Bonfouca near the town of Slidell. At the mouth of a small slough, we saw a family of nutria dining on marsh grass. “That’s an invasive species from South America,” I said with an arched brow. “You know they’re devouring our state’s fragile wetlands.”
Wanting to prove that I was a man of action, I hopped out of the boat like The Crocodile Hunter and chased after the aquatic rodents. I knew I couldn’t catch them, but I figured my date would be mightily impressed…
I plodded along the edge of the slough as it wound its way deep into the marsh. Nearing the end, I decided to cross over and double back. The slough was narrow at that point; it would be an easy jump – or so I thought. As I pushed off, my feet stuck in the spongy soil and I dropped like a brick, landing face down in soupy mud. So much for impressing my date!
As I lifted my head from the muck, I saw two glistening fangs pointed at my jugular. There was a huge water moccasin coiled up next to my face. It was as thick as an automobile tire and smelled like a corpse. It rattled its tale, cocked its diamond-shaped head, and flashed its cottonmouth. As a millennial might say, “I was in a hot mess!”
The snake, obviously upset that I had interrupted its sunbathing, lunged for my throat. I closed my eyes and shielded myself with the only thing I had, a clod of mud held together with Spartina roots. The snake bit my makeshift shield and stuck like Velcro. It’s hooked fangs, like my feet before the fall, were trapped in the mud.
I quickly grabbed the snake behind its head. Not only had I survived, I now had proof of my ordeal. I figured my date would be so impressed with my heroic feat, she would ignore the fact that I was now covered in mud. The live snake was my ace in the hole.
Along the way though, I slipped and fell again. I lost my grip on the snake and landed on top of the angry moccasin. I could feel a hard fang pressed up against my cheek. I rolled over as fast as I could, grabbed the snake by its tail, swung it over my head like a lasso and smashed it against the trunk of a water tupelo. The reptile went limp in my hand; my collateral was dead.
When I arrived back at the boat, my party was annoyed. They had been waiting in the hot aluminum skiff for more than a half an hour swatting thirsty mosquitos. When I told them my Jack London-like story, they just shook their heads in disbelief. “No, you obviously were embarrassed because you fell in the mud,” my date said. “You then found a dead snake and made up a ridiculous story. You should be ashamed of yourself…”
To this day, she still doesn’t believe me.
I was staying with friends on Avery Island, home of the famous Tabasco pepper sauce. One night, after a few too many adult beverages, we decided to go out and shine animals. The island is teeming with all kinds of cool critters, from black bears and alligators, to banded armadillos and white-tailed deer.
I rode on the roof of an SUV with a spotlight strapped to my head. As we came around a corner, the driver slammed on the brakes. I catapulted over the hood and landed on the dirt road with a “Thud!” Apparently, there was an obstacle in our path. It was Mephitis mephitis, better known as a striped skunk. My friends yelled at me to get in the car as they hastily rolled up the windows. Emboldened by alcohol (and a shot of urban stupidity), I refused to yield.
“The little guy is so cute and dainty,” I thought, “What harm could it possibly do?” I shook my hands in front of my face and said sarcastically, “Oooooo, I’m so scared!”
The creature pounded its tiny paws on the ground with indignation. “How dare you interfere with my nightly stroll,” it seemed to say. Like Pepé Le Pew, it was on a mission to find a mate, and nothing, including me, would stand in its way.
Like the French knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I taunted the little creature a second time. “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberry!”
“No,” said the skunk. “My parents were skunks and they both smelled far worse! You just pulled my finger pal!”
I had gravely underestimated my foe’s formidable defenses. I was Atawalpa to his Pizarro; I was the Japanese at Pearl Harbor: I had just awoken a sleeping giant!
The skunk spun around, did a front handstand, and pinched its butt cheeks together like an old man before a prostate exam. It fired off a powerful and pungent spray. The stream hit me squarely in the face and chest. I winced in horror at the vile stench. It smelled like rancid, musky vinegar, like a fart inside a rotting corpse wrapped in the petals of a blooming titan arum flower.
The skunk had obviously never heard of the Geneva Protocol!
It looked at me as if to say, “I told you so,” waved its striped tail like a victory banner and slowly sashayed off into the woods.
Defeated and ashamed, I moped back to the car where I was met with contempt and scowls. My “friends” reluctantly let me in and took me home. There, I marinated for the rest of the night in a huge tub of Tabasco Bloody Mary Mix.
Needless to say, I was not invited back to the island.
To this day, like a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, I sometimes catch a faint whiff of that dreadful night – and cringe!
I used to bring animals and animal artifacts to schools. I called it “Mr. Dunbar’s Featured Creature.” Every month, I would “feature” a different group of critters. There were turtles, frogs and snakes, invasive species, prehistoric fossils and birds of prey.
Of all the creatures though, arachnids were definitely the most popular. Kids loved the invisible yo-yo trick, the lightning speed of the trapdoor spider, and the macabre story of how the black widow got her name. The star of the show was always the Chilean rose hair tarantula. She brought down the house. On one occasion, literally!
I was in an elementary school “cafetorium” in front of an audience of about hundred fidgety kindergarteners (Are there any other kind?). Before the grand finale, I lectured the kids about the importance of not frightening the animal. “She’s very sensitive,” I said. “She won’t bite unless she’s threatened (or wants to subdue a tasty cricket). So, I need for all of you to be very, very brave and stay v-e-r-y, v-e-r-y calm.”
Apparently, my lecture failed miserably. When I reached into the terrarium and lifted up the giant spider, my audience went berserk! It was as if I had unleashed Godzilla on Tokyo!
Startled by the commotion, the tarantula sunk its massive fangs into the palm of my hand. The pain was excruciating. Like stones hurled from an atlatl, tears flew from my eyes. I blurted out an expletive that caused the kids (and their teachers) to shriek again in horror. And again, the terrified spider responded in kind!
My class had descended into chaos. It was, as I like to say, “about as organized as a sack of spiders!”
I decided then and there that my next “featured creature” would be a puppy!
Folwell Dunbar is an educator, artist and wild animal survivor. He can be reached at email@example.com.