The capital of suburban snakes

OAK PARK, Calif .– A story that hit the headlines recently fueled my nightmares: A woman in Santa Rosa found 92 rattlesnakes under his h...


OAK PARK, Calif .– A story that hit the headlines recently fueled my nightmares: A woman in Santa Rosa found 92 rattlesnakes under his house.

Apparently, it is extremely unusual to find so many people under one property and no one was harmed by the poisonous snakes. But if you, like me, are among the majority of Americans terrified of snakes, these warnings bring little relief.

Snakes live in all counties of California, and urban development encroaching on the wilderness has increased the frequency with which we encounter them. There is also evidence that wildlife has been further displaced by severe drought and forest fires.

“We are seeing a slight increase in encounters with snakes, as many of them have left this degraded habitat,” Sabrina Ashjian, California state director for the Humane Society, told me.

I grew up in Thousand Oaks, a suburban community about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where the line between nature and civilization has always been blurred. My high school was closed once because a the black bear was too close to campus.

The first time I saw a snake in the wild was when my family found two on our property – one trying to squeeze under our garage door and the other already curled up in inside. The firefighters who removed the snakes informed us (to my eternal horror) that the pair are preparing to mate.

In my hometown and the rest of Ventura County, where much of the population lives near open space, many residents find snakes on their land that local firefighters learn to deal with such incidents. (Firefighters also deal with snakes in Los Angeles County, although in a few other parts of the state or nation.)

Every Ventura County fire truck comes equipped with a snake catcher – essentially a long pole with tongs on one end – and new hires learn to tell the difference between gopher snakes and rattlesnakes. The department receives about 1,000 snake calls a year, spokesperson Captain Robert Welsbie told me.

Credit…Sonoma County Reptile Rescue / Associated Press

But in Ventura County, there is one place considered “the snake capital”: the hillside community of Oak Park, which is served by Station 36.

“If you work at Station 36, people would say, ‘How are all those snake calls going? ”, Welsbie told me. Snakes are so linked to the identity of the station that its patch features hissing rattlesnakes.

Oak Park, an upper-middle-class community of about 14,000 people, owes its bounty to snakes to geography – on both sides, it adjoins acres of wilderness protected by the federal government.

While driving through Oak Park recently, I noticed deer crossing signs on the main streets. The logo for a local shuttle line was a leaping mountain lion.

Residential areas here receded into open space, and some streets ended with footpaths leading to browned hills.

This is the truth about wealth in California: succeeding here often means living among wildlife, including snakes.

A few years ago, as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I shaded a rattlesnake wrangler who caught snakes in the backyards of Jamie Foxx, Ellen DeGeneres and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Where do snakes live? Hills. Where do celebrities live? Hills.

Welsbie, who worked at Station 36 for six years, told me that the the biggest rattlesnake he has ever seen was inside an Oak Park house. The snake, which sat on a window sill, was at least four feet long and stout.

The owners didn’t know how he got in. The last time they remembered leaving a door open was 36 hours earlier.

“We were all shocked,” Welsbie told me. “Thinking that this thing was living inside that person’s house.”

For more:


The founder of Hastings College of the Law organized the murder of hundreds of Native Americans 160 years ago.

School, tribesmen and alumni disagree on what to do now.


The smoky taste of wok hei, without wok.


Today’s advice comes from Marsha Porte, who recommends visiting California’s more than 1,100 historic sites:

“I have visited over 500 so far. I find myself in places I have never been before (sometimes off the beaten path) even though I have traveled extensively in my 70 years of living in California. At each location, I read about the meaning and took in the geography, imagining what it looked like in the years of its existence.

I highly recommend this fun adventure. I’ve been doing this since my husband passed away six years ago. I take photos and hope to make a photo book when I finish this project. Examples: where angry Native Americans killed a cattle rancher (you understand this conflict), Japanese internment camps, trails where teams of mules carried borax, where Spanish explorers first landed on our coasts, the first California Capitol, places of early industries, the standing adobes of the 1800s, Mark Twain’s little log cabin, and more. I find every place and every story fascinating. ”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.


Berkeley Bowl is a grocery store like no other, with rows of bulk containers of nuts, oats, and dried fruits as well as the widest selection of produce I’ve ever seen.

It’s the kind of place that inspires an unusual level of devotion in its customers.

So when a couple who met in a class at the University of California, Berkeley, started planning their wedding, they decided to take their engagement photos at – you guessed it – Berkeley Bowl.


Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. – Soumya

PS here the mini-crosswords of the day, and a clue: “Handle” to pick up a pumpkin (4 letters).

Miles McKinley and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can join the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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