Snakes on a Bus | Detours | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Snakes on a Bus 

Local reptile wrangler never shouts, "Enough is enough!"

"Would you be averse to me bringing a rescued small python in with me?" said the e-mail from Lance Cheuvront. "It would be contained in a sack and safe. Your choice."

I had asked to see some of Cheuvront's work: The 37-year-old North Sider is an aspiring horror novelist, multi-instrumentalist and persistent blogger, but his main avocation is capturing pet reptiles on the loose, when law enforcement or the Humane Society in several counties call.

Still, I had no idea he would propose to bring a snake to my Downtown office tower. On behalf of the other cubicle-dwellers, I demurred. Cheuvront assures me no one would have noticed the creature.

"I can sit with a snake in my hands in a crowded room, and it's so quiet because of your body heat that most people will not know it is there."

That's no idle speculation. Lacking a car at the moment, Cheuvront says he has taken a bus to and from some recent snake-snagging missions. "Depending on the species," he says, "I use [different] snake sacks — heavyweight duck canvas or heavyweight polymer. I'll sack the snake, put it in a backpack," and buy it a one-way ticket to his basement.

Currently, he has a boa, three rat snakes, two cobras and three pythons, including the 4-and-a-half-foot-long female ball python who almost made the office visit.

"I try to place them in good, healthy homes," he says, "or in research programs or schools — anywhere I know they're going to be taken care of and not used for breeding purposes" for the pet industry.

How he catches them depends on their species, their size and whether they're venomous. "Anything over 12 feet, you've got to do it by hand, or else you risk injuring the snake," he says. He's been bitten by non-poisonous snakes more times than he can count, and three times by the poisonous variety. "I lived. I have full use of all my appendages. I credit my father completely with that. I was trained in venomous snake first-aid by the time I was 6 or 7."

Growing up in Aliquippa, Cheuvront always had a house full of serpents, he says: "sometimes as many as a hundred. We kept the entire basement set up for snakes, but there were animals all over the house. In my life, I've never purchased a reptile, but I've had a thousand."

That's nothing compared to the thousands he estimates that his father, Elmer, caught and cared for over the years. At 90, Elmer is retired from the field, but Lance says his father began collecting snakes in World War II, helping the Air Force with research on rattlesnake venom and the pit viper's heat-sensing abilities. He went on to collect rare specimens, lecturing locally and writing a natural-history column across several decades for small newspapers in their hometown and Sewickley, starting in the 1950s.

"My dad was the first person to collect an albino timber rattlesnake in the state of Pennsylvania," says the younger Cheuvront. "It's back in the stacks of the Carnegie somewhere."

Today, the escaped pets he picks up are not museum specimens.

"Seventy-five percent of the snakes I get are in horrible condition — not properly fed," he reports. "The reptile mind only does a few things, and feeding is the biggest of them. If you come across a snake that is starving, it's either being starved or it's ill." The cause of their misfortune, he says, is "people buying animals they have no business with. I would be OK with outlawing private ownership of snakes."

He'd regret only losing the chance to live with his own scaly bunch. "I try to use every opportunity, when I pick up a snake, to educate both law enforcement and the public about all those misconceptions."

The impending release of the Samuel L. Jackson movie Snakes on a Plane is but the latest obstacle to rehabilitating the snake image.

"Snakes are afraid of anything larger than they are," Cheuvront assures. "They would much rather scare you away than waste either energy or venom to injure you. Because they need both things to feed."

Just something to think about for my next long bus ride.



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