The City Magazine Since 1975

Pit Crew

Pit Crew
August 2009
Face to face with the scaly residents of Edisto Island Serpentarium

I grew up with two sisters plus a buncha snakes (and I don’t mean pets). In the summer, when we headed out to swim in the sound, my dad would clear the moccasins off the bulkhead before we tested the waters. It was commonplace for snakes to rain down from cypress tree perches into our fishing boat. And we learned to stay up on water skis mainly from fear of falling into the mythic, deadly “snake balls” that we knew were churning just under the surface.

So before heading out on a recent venture to the Serpentarium at Edisto, I sought out the bravest and most snake-savvy crew I knew: 10-year-old girls. Fifth-graders Olive Gardner and Kara Schwacke are about as fearless as they come. Or rather, their curiosity and predilection for adventure tends to downsize their fears. Just knowing they were on board enticed two other pals—grown women—Ellen McGauley (Charleston Home editor and Florida-born farm girl) and Capt. Melissa Ellis-Yarian (an Air Force doctor who’d recently completed a hard-core, bug-eatin’, rabbit-skinnin’ survival course in the Texas Hill Country). All five of us packed into a car loaded with snacks aplenty and gabbed our way south.

After passing the requisite cow pastures and oak allées, we came to the Edisto Island Serpentarium, which, from the outside, reeks of aged Florida roadside attraction. But inside, the place is well-rendered. Of course, there are glass boxes with local (and tropical) venomous and non-venomous reptiles, but the thing that really creeped us out? The pits.

The tease pit, a sedate area with a nearly cute crowd of harmless snakes, features a sunken island surrounded by a thin water channel and towering concrete walls. Visitors stand, as we did, around the edge and gawk down. “That’s where my friend dropped her glasses last time,” pointed Kara, who, oddly enough, seemed like she was being stalked by one lanky critter. “I was standing right beside her, and the snake.... Awww, I think he recognizes me.”
A giggle fit (part nerves) then sent us outside, where the jungle-like landscape flows into the remaining pits in a way that had Ellen and me twitching, constantly looking over our shoulders, and mumbling about pruning trees. That’s because the pit trees—whose branches are two arm-lengths from the lookout wall—were, upon inspec-tion, crawling with snakes. “Mythic my butt, snake balls are real,” I thought, staring a writhing, airborne mass in the face(s).

I wish I could tell you more. But honestly, thinking back on the way those reptiles shimmied through the water, flung themselves from one sapling to another, and stared at us with purpose gave me the grade-A willies. I did joke about buying rubber snakes in the gift shop and placing them along the outdoor exhibit paths, but the truth is, I’ve been paranoid about bumping into those suckers ever since I learned that they collect many of the local varieties here in the Lowcountry. Rattlers, moccasins, corals, copperheads—apparently our backyards are teeming with these critters. And when the Serpentarium closes for the season in September, they release ’em into the wild. Yikes!