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Observations: Living in the danger zone

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image An arachnologist may say that this wolf spider my wife found in our recycling bin isn’t lethal but I can guarantee you that the heart attack I’d have waking up in the middle of the night, walking into the bathroom and seeing him attached to my face would

There are a lot of things that want to kill you in Florida.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

It is amazing to me that I could walk this earth for nearly a half century without knowing that simple, fuzzy little caterpillars can sting the living crap out of you. I learned the long overdue lesson last week after taking the dogs out. I felt something crawling on my neck towards my chest, grabbed at it and saw a small caterpillar. Within a few minutes, my neck felt as though someone had rubbed fiberglass insulation on it.But it was quickly forgotten until two days later when suddenly a horrific pox appeared on my neck where I had felt the caterpillar. It wasn’t quite to the degree of full-blown elephantiasis, but it was nasty.

There are a lot of things that want to kill you in Florida, and now I have to add the simple, fuzzy caterpillar to that list.

I’ve visited 47 states and more than a dozen countries. I’ve lived in Minnesota, Colorado and Florida. Florida is the only place in which I have ever been forced to take an ax to a weed —  yes, an ax; not a little hatch or a hoe, but a full-blown ax. Even then, the weed fought back. I have no doubt that had I attempted to wrestle with it without being armed with an ax, it would have tried to kill me. Shortly after the ax incident, I bought a chain saw and the weeds have been a little more docile ever since. But I know that if I ever let my guard down (or if my chain saw breaks) they will try to break into my house at night to raid my refrigerator and kill me in my sleep.

It is ironic, given the sheer number of sharks that would like to eat people, that I never realized how deadly Florida truly was in the eight years I lived on a boat. It wasn’t until we moved into our first house that I became aware that nature was fighting back.

The battle began only a few weeks after we moved into our house, first with the weed incident and then with a blatant and vicious assault in the dead of night. Regarding the latter incident, I noticed one evening that our pool pump didn’t shut off on schedule so I left the “safe” confines of the screened-in lanai to manually turn the pump off. It was dark so I had to work by feel. Just as I reached towards the electrical panel, something leaped in the darkness and landed smack dab on my face. I was certain that it was positioning itself to suck my brains out of my eye sockets. I ran screaming, tearing at the alien assaulting me until finally I tore myself free. Yeah, it was just a frog but who’s to say that it didn’t have poisonous little suckers on its feet?  I’m thinking it probably even had tattoos. And maybe a weapon.

A few weeks later, I realized how fleeting the safety of that screened-in lanai really was when I had to chase away an extremely irritable pygmy rattlesnake using a pool net.

One typically beautiful Sunday morning in Florida (way off topic here but isn’t it amazing that almost all Sunday mornings are beautiful in Florida?), I went out through the front door to pick up the morning paper from the driveway. On that particular house, we had a hardwood inside door along with a screen door and a gap of a few inches between them.

Not more than 20 minutes later, I went back to the front door to get something from my car. I opened the inside door and was just starting to open the screen door when I caught something stir at the very lower end of my vision. I looked down to see a snake curled in between the two doors. And it was no ordinary snake, it was a CORAL SNAKE. I slammed the inside door shut and ran. I would have been screaming, but at the time, in addition to my wife who is no lover of snake-like-things that can kill you, we had two teenage foster daughters. Can you imagine the sheer volume of screaming that would have resulted had I actually started it?  The high-pitched wailing alone would have shattered all of our windows, thus allowing who knows how much lethal stuff into the house to kill us.

Without saying a word, I ran out through the back door and used a rake from the garage to open the screen door from the outside. The coral snake, now obviously annoyed, slithered away. Had it not been for a good friend who was a biologist that would have been mortified by my natural instincts, I would have gone all Florida-serial-killer on that snake using the rake. A photograph I took of it later confirmed that it was indeed a coral snake, rather than the “friendly”, similar-looking king snake. I also later found out that nearly every suburban neighborhood in Florida has a resident coral snake or six. To this day, I still shudder to think what would have happened had the snake zoomed into the house when I opened the inside door. Absolutely nothing pretty would have come from that.

And, oh yeah, Florida is the only state in the nation with crocodiles. You didn’t know that?  They are endangered, with an estimated 2,000 of them living mostly on the very southern tip of the state, although they have been found as far north as Sarasota. Why don’t you hear of them?  Because crocodiles are crafty predators that know how to stay out of the news. Say you are walking the dog down a road next to a swamp and an alligator jumps out to eat both you and Fido. That makes alligators bad, right?  Wrong!  Because what happens then is a crocodile jumps out to eat the alligator after it has eaten you!  Thus, the alligators get the bad press and the crocodiles just get full bellies. Seriously, where else but Florida could that story possibly be true?

In Florida, we have spiders as big as house cats, monkeys that throw rocks, cockroaches that growl, fire ants that kidnap and torture small dogs, and an estimated 50,000 feral pigs. The pigs not only tend to be grouchy and really, really bad things to hit with Honda Civics, but they also carry lethal diseases that they are more than happy to share with all of us (and it’s a little ironic that human physiology shares a bunch of commonalities with our swinish brethren).

This city is a metropolitan area of nearly four million people, yet you can drive down Shell Point Road in the early morning hours and not only see wild pigs grazing, but just a few blocks away you’ll also see wild goats grazing. The wild chickens, it seems, prefer to keep U.S. 41 as a barrier between themselves and the pigs and goats. I’m not sure the chickens would kill you, but anything is possible. They have probably gained strength and street smarts while fighting with the cockroaches, so I wouldn’t count it out.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’ll blame that on the caterpillar pox (I honestly had no idea there could be a caterpillar pox!). The truth is that I love Florida and there is a bit of a thrill knowing that life is a little edgy here and that simply walking out to pick up the Sunday newspaper could turn into a death match with a venomous snake. Besides, we also have dolphins (like Flipper!) and otters living here, too. Yes, I’m sure both would love to kill us now and then, but they are smart enough to maintain their hard-earned “cute and lovable image” while biding their time, waiting for the right opportunity to do so.

And even then, even if the crocodiles, fire ants, alligators, otters, cockroaches, spiders, panthers, bobcats, bears, snakes, monkeys, dolphins, wasps, mosquitoes and everything else gang up, they’ve got nothing on the most horrific, nightmarish, worse-than-a-cheap-slasher-film, gruesome, hideous, unspeakable menace of them all:  a text-message-sending-driver in an SUV on I-75. The spiders can only wish they had that kind of power to kill.

Stay safe out there. And please don’t pet the crocodiles — it makes them grouchy.

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