St. Augustine, Florida- The last few months have seen the nations oldest city (the "Ancient City" as dubbed in its own travel brochures) come to the forefront in news of a sort not desired by either the merchants nor the politicians. "Founded in 1565, it is the oldest continuously occupied European established city, and the oldest port, in the continental United States." ( National Historic Landmarks Program - St. Augustine Town Plan Historic District) Today it is a quaint town of 12,000 known for tourist sites like Ripley's Believe It or Not, the Fountain of Youth, huge outlet malls, and where on George St. in the historic district vendors hawk t-shirts boasting of it as a "Quaint little drinking village with a fishing problem."
Personally, I like the place. The Bed & Breakfast Inns are some of the best in the nation, and shops are highbrow enough to support art without being snooty, and at night the whole area relaxes for a good time without being rowdy.
In July 2009, a Wal-Mart customer came across an unexpected surprise in the garden center when he was bitten by a Pygmy rattlesnake. And in the last week of September, 2009 a rattlesnake was found that tipped the scales at the other end of the spectrum. In a report (now modified with cropped and edited photographs on its website), the Wednesday September 31, 2010 edition of the St. Augustine Record first showed pictures of what it deemed as "...possibly the largest rattlesnake ever caught on record." (Thank God that one was not in the garden center.)
David Kledzik, Alligator Farm reptile curator, said there are four venomous snakes that live in St. Augustine: the Pygmy rattlesnake, the "Cottonmouth" or Water Moccasin, the Coral snake and the Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake. The latter is the largest of the group, and is common around palmettos and dense ground cover in wooded areas, usually in sizes from three to six feet in length.
How they get into garden centers is still a mystery. As the one found there was a Pygmy (and initially mistaken for a baby Diamondback), it could have been a stowaway on any of multiple plant deliveries from the local nurseries. Less likely, it could have slithered across the cooler asphalt before daybreak from the adjacent lot, when the irrigation system was running, attracted by the runoff water from the sprinklers.
In July, 2009, Jeriel Joiner, 27, was in the garden aisle of a Wal-Mart on U.S.1 in St. Augustine with his girlfriend about 4:30 p.m. when he reached under a plastic shelf to retrieve a baby bottle that had fallen. When he brought his hand up, he had a Pygmy rattlesnake affixed to his finger, according to a St. Johns County Sheriff's Office report.
A Pygmy rattlesnake bite is usually not life threatening, but it's extremely painful and can result in the loss of a finger, according to the Florida Museum of National History.
Joiner said he "...didn't even think about the snake being venomous until his finger started to burn and he noticed a small rattle at the end of the tail.", according to News4Jax.com. He reported that his hand was swollen to the "...size of a catcher's mitt", though an exaggeration given the photograph he submitted. (Maybe if he groomed his finger nails the snake would not have bitten him!)
Pygmy rattlesnakes are found across the southeastern United States and, while quite reclusive, are most commonly encountered by humans in late summer. These snakes are generally 14 to 25 inches long and feed primarily on mice, lizards, insects and spiders. Their rattle is often so small that people do not hear it when it sounds a warning.
Throughout Florida In the past three years, bites by snakes have been reported at Wal-Mart garden centers in Viera, Sanford, and Pembroke Pines, Fla. In May 2006, a woman reported being bitten by a black snake at a Wal-Mart in Jacksonville.
A resident at Tuscany Village Townhomes near the Interstate 95-State Road 16 interchange called police Sunday evening, September 27, 2010, to report a "possible 6-foot long snake."
When deputies arrived, though, they realized that was a gross underestimation.
"It was just huge," said Sgt. Chuck Mulligan, a spokesman for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.
"It is without a doubt the largest rattlesnake I've ever seen," he said, or so reported Chad Smith for the St. Augustine Record.
Later accounts pegged the reptile at 7 feet six inches, just shy of the world record. Interestingly enough, photographs of its entire length are no longer available on the web, just the cropped and edited versions seen in this article.
Mulligan only saw the snake in photographs but estimated it was at least 10 feet. Later reports cited its length as much as 15 feet. Certainly from the first photos in local papers, this snake was larger than the scaled down version now found on the website of the St. Augustine Record. In fact, all of the photographs available from the Record now do not show the snake in its full length as did the first reports.
Early documentation mentioned KB Homes as the developer of Tuscany Village, the subdivision where the behemoth rattlesnake was found. A check with the KB website notes, "Jeffrey T. Mezger serves as President, Chief Executive Officer and a Director of the Board of KB Home, one of the nation's largest homebuilders." Their 2008 annual report shows assets in excess of $4 billion (2009 not available).
Perhaps the mention of KB Homes as the developer of Tuscany Village in the early reports and the KB sign in the background of one of the photos has something to do with the changes a few months later. I am unable to say, and have not been able to elicit either a reply or a comment from Mr. Mezger or his corporate office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.
Joy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said herpetologists who saw the deputies' photographs confirmed the snake was an eastern diamondback but couldn't say how big it was.
"I know since I've been with Fish and Wildlife it's the biggest diamondback I've seen," said Hill, a 15-year FWC veteran.
"I've never seen a snake that size in my life," said homeowner, Scott Russom. He and his neighbors kept the snake in their sights until a trapper arrived.
Brandon Booth, the one who trapped and killed the snake, said he's seen snakes like that before. And he knows they're not something to mess around with. "They're venomous. So they can kill you or make you lose a limb." he said.
Booth took the snake to Jacksonville and gave it to a guy who runs a muffler shop and also makes things from snake skin.
"It was a shame to kill such an animal.", said Ms. Hill. "Scientists would welcome the opportunity to study it, and even zoos would have purchased it."
This author will continue to research and try to find the shop where the snake eventually was "...traded for future automotive repairs..." by Mr. Booth. Perhaps additional photographs and corroboration can be obtained of the actual size before it was cut up into "...holsters for knives."
Time will tell. Maybe.