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An Escaped Boa Constrictor!
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Mike has a REAL snake problem....

Dear Sir,

Two years ago, my pet boa constrictor escaped from its tank when my young cousin unlocked it during my wedding reception.  It was spotted in my landlady's wall 2 months later, but then it was never seen again.  the snake was only a year old at the time, and about 2 1/2 feet long.  What are the chances that it's still alive, or still in the house?  We just moved out of the apartment, and into our first house.  The landlady is taking me to court over the snake, (for $3,000 in exterminating fees), and I am trying to find out as much as I can on exterminating costs for snakes.  One guy said he would drill a bunch of holes in the base of the walls between the studs and inject poison gas to kill him at a cost of around $150.00.  Another guy told me that it would be a waste of time and money if the snake hasn't seen, because he probably left the building.

If you could find the time to send a letter back to me with your opinion or solution, it would be greatly appreciated.  

Sincerely Yours,

Mike S.



And our rather long reply....

Hi, Mike:

You seem to have an unusual problem!  Although you might be surprised at how many times this happens.  Much the same thing happened to one of our regular customers a few years back.  His snake (not a boa) was lost for a couple of months, but finally showed up in the basement.  (It was originally housed in the basement, and this was in a single-family home, not an apartment)

My advice?  Forget the guy who wants to inject "poison gas" into the walls - this is probably illegal in every state of this union!  And $3000 for exterminating is ridiculous.  The second guy is probably right.  In the end, I think it would be quite doubtful that your snake were still alive in the apartment walls, and, I agree, is probably dead or has left the premises.  Reptiles such as a boa would tend to move out of a building unless it had a copious food supply, or a large habitat.  If it were still there, after 2 1/2 years, you should see signs of this.  If he died somewhere in the walls (entirely possible) it is also possible that no one would have "smelled" a decaying body - it would depend on the construction of the building, where he died, and how sensitive a tenant's sense of smell.  Some people would smell it, some people wouldn't.

Of course, the snake's escape would depend on many other factors:  How old is your building and how many units comprise the entire contiguous building?  If the building were "old," presumably it would have developed places where a small snake could have escaped.  They are very adept at finding these spots, and could sneak through a very small crack or hole.  If there were several (or many) individual units, it's chances of escape would be increased.

You didn't mention what kind of construction the building is, or what part of the country you are in.  Do you live in a climate where it gets cold (freezing) during the winter?  A crawl space in the winter would be too cold for a snake and it would gravitate to warmer regions of the building and probably be spotted or detected by someone.  

Does your building have a basement or crawl space?  If so, there would be more places for the snake to hide successfully.  The resident rodent population (if there is one) could possibly keep the snake satisfied for awhile, but even this would be doubtful, because the snake would soon run out of food (unless your building has a high population of mice).  Boas will only eat live animals, so food left out will not attract them the way it might for other animals.  And if you DID have a large population of mice in the building, (that the snake could live on) I think you would have noticed the mouse problem even before your snake escaped.  I assume no one else has spotted the snake (inside or outside) in the time since it escaped.  If not, this would be a further confirmation that he's not there anymore.  If the building has a basement or crawl space, a careful search for shed snake skins might indicate whether he was still there or not.  No skins, no snake.  If it were still alive, then it would also be eating (something) and would also be shedding skins.  Lastly, a 2 1/2 foot boa is not dangerous to humans, even after 2 years.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of people are afraid of snakes, and are not receptive to this fact.

The problem that will arise between you and your landlord is that she will demand that you PROVE the snake is not there.  This cannot be done.  You can't prove a "negative," it is impossible.  It is only possible to prove a "positive."  


If you have a zoo in your city, I would call them and ask if you can speak to their herpetologist.  This is a "snake expert" and he/she could give you some further hints as to how you might proceed.  A herpetologist might even be able to help you set up a "snake trap" to perhaps help prove to the landlord that the snake was gone.  Again, depending on how the building is built, this could be easy or hard!


HOW DO YOU MAKE A SNAKE TRAP?
Cage a small rodent (mouse) in an area where you suspect a snake problem of this sort.  Make sure the mouse has food and water and is alive.  Set the cage up close to a wall, where the snake will find it, and sprinkle flour or talcum powder around the cage.  Examine this powder closely every 12-24 hours for signs of ANY animals coming near the cage.  You might also put food OUTSIDE the cage to see if there is a resident population of mice (that a snake might live on) in the structure.


And if you deal with exterminators, make sure the guy that shows up is an actual exterminator, not a salesman.  If he's a salesman, remember that he gets paid for the total amount of the sale, not necessarily for the success of the job.  Deal with a local firm that has been in business for years, (pick your own standard) and are members of our National Pest Control Association.  If the company uses "salesmen," the man that shows up at the door usually won't be the one that does the job.  Lastly, don't forget the guarantee - if the snake is discovered later on, he should come back (no charge) and take care of the matter.

If you were in MY area, I would arrange an appointment to observe the conditions, and then, perhaps, recommend a procedure, (and a cost, with guarantee) or refer you (at NO cost) to someone that could help.  You should expect this course of action from any ethical exterminator.  

One of the places you should start would be the "American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists" - they have been around a long time and have a website at:

                 http://www.utexas.edu/ftp/depts/asih/


You could also check at the following location for other links to reptile clubs where you could pose your questions.


                 http://www.planetpets.simplenet.com/repclubs.htm


Ultimately, to get any REAL answers, you will need someone who is familiar with the habits of boa constrictors, along with someone familiar with building construction and perhaps also with the specific apartment building.

Also, if the landlord has filed suit, I would advise you to get a lawyer - even if she sues you in a small claims court where you DON'T need a lawyer to go in front of a judge.  The lawyer will be able to help you with the "law part," especially if the landlord goes in without a lawyer.  If the landlord has a lawyer, make sure you do also, (very important) or you will probably lose.  I have  learned this from personal experience!

Anyway, I hope I have been of some help.  And please let me know if there is any other questions I can help you with.  If you need the name of a reputable exterminator in your area, just let me know where you are, and I'll try to get you to a good man for the job.

     ----John



Then we got a note from Mike's wife....

Hi John,

This is Liz S-, Mike's wife. Thanks for your reply. In answer to your questions, we live in Westchester, New York, about 40 miles outside of the metro New York City area. The building we lived in was an old house that pre-dates town records and is estimated to have been constructed around the early 1900's.  It was then sub-divided into two apartments. The basement is the original slate stone foundation with a dirt floor. You can easily see outside through the falling stone work. We have had many critters living in our basement in the five years we were living in that house. The attic crawl space is equally as dilapidated, neither of these spaces is insulated.

Our winters are quite cold here. We had a pretty mild winter last year in terms of snow due to El Nino, but we easily hit freezing and below during the winter months. The winter before was quite bitter. We really doubt the snake is still there or alive. We did however have a large rat problem there. We constantly complained and finally threatened to call the board of health due to the damage they were causing our property. We also have three indoor cats and were afraid of injury or possibly rabies if bitten. But at the time the snake was lost, he was quite small and still eating small mice.  After our threat she did finally put down poison bait traps.

If you could give us the name of a reputable exterminator in the area, that would be greatly appreciated. We have been trying to get in touch with the herpetologist at the Bronx Zoo, but they are reluctant to put us through to them. I guess in New York they get a lot of cranks. We really are just looking for someone (an expert preferably) to write us a letter that we could have notarized stating what we all believe. We are also willing to try and trap the snake if he is still around. But not at her crazy price.

Anyway, thanks for your help. We look forward to your reply.

Liz S.



To which we replied....

Hello, Liz:

Based on your description, I would seriously doubt that any snake, a boa especially, would survive this long, either in the crawl space OR outside.  It would quickly leave the crawl space to the outside, and would not survive in this temperate climate.  It would be impossible, unfortunately, to PROVE this as a fact.

As a practical matter, the only way, I think, to resolve this would be to engage a herpetologist to assist you.  He or she would need the confidence of your land lady, of course, as would the exterminator.  Exterminators, very few anyway, are prepared to do anything about snake problems (of this sort) and I would definitely be suspicious of any proposal to use any kind of chemical to do this.

I think the only "proof" you could get would be to set up a device, possibly one such as I described in my previous message, to try and see if there WAS any snake activity.  A herpetologist could probably improve on my ideas, knowing snakes better than I, just a lowly exterminator.  The fact that your "trap/cage" remains undisturbed for a determined amount of time would be the strongest proof you could get.

Exterminators do, however, have experience with many different kinds of animals, and if they have this wide experience with animals, can oftentimes deal effectively with the unusual invader.  Unfortunately, this industry is rife with part-timers and charlatans, which makes your choice difficult when you get to the unusual.  This unethical kind of exterminator will recognize the unusual, and seek to extract money from you as quick as he can.  (Not necessarily a lot, as evidenced by the $150 guy!)

Give me a couple of days, and I will get you a couple of names in that area for you to contact.  Please remember that it all boils down to the man that shows up at the door, not necessarily the company.  As soon as I get you those names, I will also recommend a few questions and inquiries you should use in dealing with the company and the service tech that shows up.

In the meantime, maybe it would be better to write a letter (or email) to the herpetologist instead of trying to telephone them - although I can't see why they should be reluctant to put you through.  After all, you might get rich one of these days, be grateful to the institution, and give them all your money!

Failing that, a recommendation from a local pet store for a local snake expert to help you or help you find someone that will help.  You should try for someone local, because he will probably have to deal directly with your landlady.

Much depend on the contact with the landlady, both by exterminators and experts.  If she is one of those people who refuses to back down, these people will be the most help.  If she'll talk to your "expert" that's definitely a good sign.

If you have any questions, let me know


------john

P.S.  Actually, there IS a way to kill a snake in a building, not knowing where it is in that building.  That method would be called "fumigation" and is the same thing as you see on TV, where they stretch a tent over the entire building.  A fumigant is then injected inside the tent and the structure, for a determined amount of time and then aerated for another determined amount of time.  This kind of fumigation kills any living thing, including plants, so the preparation is onerous.  Depending on which fumigant is used, it can also damage metals, or even masonry.

Most exterminators, here in the northeast, are either not licensed or not experienced in "tent fumigations."  (As an example, we are licensed for fumigations, but do very few, and we have never done any tent fumigations.)  Fumigations of this sort are usually only used for dry wood termites in the southern climates.

Fumigation is definitely not a practical solution.  Fumigants can't be used in cold weather, and, as you might imagine, fumigating in this manner might be quite expensive.  An ethical exterminator would never recommend this as a viable solution to your problem.

  ----John



And Liz wrote back...

Dear John,

Thanks for your reply. I found someone in my office, who has a friend, who worked with snakes at another Zoo. He was just transferred up here to the Bronx Zoo to work with small mammals. He gave me the name of the Herpetologist at the Zoo, as well as, the curatorial intern that works with snakes at the zoo and their e-mail addresses. Hopefully someone will respond. If the snake is alive, we would ultimately like to get it back and find it a better environment to live in.  If we find no evidence that he is still around, then maybe exterminate the area so he is not a threat to anyone. We would also like to avoid paying this women $3,000 in fraudulent charges, especially after living there for five and half years and paying over $60,000 in rent.

We look forward to hearing from you on those exterminators. Thanks so much for your time and all your help, you're great.

Sincerely,
Liz & Mike S-        

Note:  Mike and Liz have yet to have any resolution on this matter....

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