First came the sounds. Shuffling noises, as if someone were dragging a peg leg across the attic floor. Scratching noises behind a wood panel in the hall. Sshht, sshht, ssshhhtt . . . .
Then the skins began appearing -- scaly, parchment-thin hides; one under a kitchen cabinet, one attached to insulation in the laundry room.
The sounds and sheddings were upstaged last Wednesday by the real thing when a two-foot black rat snake coiled around a bathroom pipe in Maggie Tyler's Civil War-era house.
"All I heard were screams," said Tyler, 77. "I ran in and my 10-year-old great-granddaughter was standing in the bathtub screaming for help. My granddaughter, her mother, was standing on top of the toilet, yelling. I ran outside and grabbed a garden tool and came back and killed it. Chopped it in two. But that's when I knew we had to do something."
Enter the Snakebusters: Raymond Goushaw III, 27, and Bill MacKenzie, 24, both of Manassas. Their mission: to loosen the forked-tongued terrorists' hold on Tyler's Fauquier County home.
"Some of the Civil War-era houses have rock foundations and the snakes can go in between the rocks, so there's nothing people can do," Goushaw said. "And rat snakes are good climbers, so they can go right up the sides of the house. Or they can climb up in a tree, crawl over on a limb and go into an open window."
In the last two years, Tyler said she has found at least 10 snakes, including baby black rat snakes in the bathtub. "I scalded them with hot water from my tea kettle," she said. On another occasion, she found one of the serpents speed-sliding across the dining room floor.
The first snake was discovered two years ago by a plumber in the hall, Tyler said. "He didn't stop running until he got to the street."
Last Thursday, Goushaw and MacKenzie removed about 40 snakeskins and a black rat snake from Tyler's attic. On a second desnaking mission Tuesday, MacKenzie pulled two "black rats" and several newly shed snakeskins from the attic.
Two poisonous copperheads were discovered near the barn by Goushaw, who stood with a cowboy boot planted gently behind the heads of each until MacKenzie arrived to help bag them.
MacKenzie and Goushaw released the copperheads from Tyler's yard miles away in a wooded area known to them as a snake den.
Goushaw in 1987 started the All Reptile Propogation business -- which includes a warehouse that provides animals to collectors, zoos, pet stores and researchers interested in safe testing -- housing an average of 400 nonpoisonous snakes. They would like to expand and are moving the warehouse to an area with less stringent ordinances on keeping poisonous and large snakes, MacKenzie said.
Prince William County laws prohibit the keeping of poisonous snakes but allow large snakes to be kept as pets if they were bred and raised in captivity, police said. Manassas Deputy Animal Warden Karen Hayo said that city has no laws limiting or regulating the keeping of snakes.
The Snakebusters have been busy recently, receiving 10 to 12 calls a month from desperate homeowners in need of having their properties de-snaked. They have removed critters from an office building in Alexandria, basements of suburban houses and barns in rural areas.
Goushaw said he has been bitten at least 1,000 times, mostly by nonpoisonous snakes. "Most of the time they bite and let go, but some will chew on you," he said. "But people should remember when they get bitten they can hurt the snake if they jerk away. They'll let go, but if you pull, you could end up pulling out one of their teeth or injuring their gums and they can get an infection called mouth rot and die."
"Most of the time a kitten can do more damage than a very mad nonvenomous snake," MacKenzie said.
Both have suffered more serious snakebites. At age 15, Goushaw was gnawed by an eight-foot Thai mangrove snake as he tried to force feed it a rat. For two days he suffered an upset stomach, body aches, and a high fever.
MacKenzie was "exhilarated" by his first poisonous bite at age 14. "I got to find out firsthand what happens when you get that kind of bite," he said. He wrote of the experience in a journal, noting that the symptoms were fever, nausea and blurred vision.
Goushaw said snakes are often the victim in showdowns with people.
"Fear of snakes is not a natural fear, it's a taught fear," he said. "You can give a child a snake and they will play with it until an adult tells them they should be afraid. But people shouldn't fear snakes -- they should just respect them and be aware that you must take care around them."
Myth: Snakes like milk and can attach themselves to a cow's udder. Fact: There is no evidence that snakes like milk or that they can get it from a cow.
Myth: All snakes spit. Fact: Only the spitting cobra is able to emit spit.
Myth: Snakes can curl themselves into giant hoops and roll down hills. Fact: The mud snake, most often associated with this feat, has a sharp tip on its tail, which it sometimes whips around to poke its prey. But no snakes can form a hoop.
Myth: Snakes have ears and eyelids. Fact: Snakes have a protective membrane over their eyes that periodically is shed along with the skin, but it is not an eyelid. Snakes have a bone that allows them to feel vibrations in their jaw, but they cannot hear.
Myth: Sulfur and mothballs repel snakes. Fact: There is no evidence that either substance repels snakes.
Myth: Snakebites are always fatal. Fact: Only 2 percent to 5 percent of snakebites lead to death, and in this country those usually are bites from diamondback rattlesnakes.
Myth: Poisonous snakes can bite only once, then they die. Fact: Nonvenomous snakes sometimes inflict a series of 6 or 7 bites, and may not let go immediately when they inflict a wound. Venomous snakes can produce more than one supply of venom, and discharging the venom in no way injures the animal.
Myth: Snakes are mean, evil creatures that prowl around on their bellies looking for victims. Fact: Usually a snake will try to escape an encounter with a human because of an instinctive fear. They bite to defend themselves when they feel threatened.
SOURCE: Raymond Goushaw III and Bill MacKenzie, snake enthusiasts who have studied snake behavior and habitat.