Snakes on a Plane: My true story involving a Philippine wolf snake!

(plus an added story about a snake in a car)




by James W. Grier


When you work with snakes, you learn a lot about people. I have repeatedly experienced this lesson, including another incident that I wrote about earlier (about a bite from a copperhead snake, MHS Newsletter, Vol. X, No. 9, September 1990, pages 8-10).

In 1991, while working in the Philippines with the Philippine eagle, I found a wolf snake (Lycodon aulicus) that I kept and brought back to the states. The trip home generated the full spectrum of human responses to snakes. The details of the story are taken from my work logbook.

I have been working in the Philippines for several years and frequently travel there during breaks between teaching sessions at North Dakota State University or on leaves of absence. During a one-week trip for meetings during March 1991, I was at the University of the Philippines at Los Baņos, south of Manila on the forested slope of Mt. Makiling, and was staying with a colleague.

I got up one morning around 5:30. There was no running water so I went to get some from a well with a hand pump outside the building. It was a beautiful morning with a bright blue sky and a good view of the mountain. There were tiger orchids at the front wall along the apartment. When I was carrying one of the buckets of water into the apartment, I spotted a snake crawling up the wall (rough cement) by the back door. I caught it, a snappy and nasty biter, and put it in a jar. I took it later to another faculty member and colleague in the Zoology Department and museum on campus. He identified it as a wolf snake, or locally called a common house snake.

One of the government people in our eagle working group, with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, was also the person responsible for permits. I told him about the snake and asked him whether I could get a permit to keep and export it. At that time there was no problem since it was a common species, so I was able to get the permit (cost about $1) and bring the snake home with me. (Regulations for all natural biological resources have recently become much more restrictive.)

On the day of departure I put the snake, a small young one, in a secure container with air holes and carried it in my carry-on luggage. I did not try to hide or smuggle it and had the permit available, but did not advertise it. If asked, I would indicate what it was. I had previously asked this airlines in the states whether I could carry snakes on board and they said yes. In fact, they had even shipped venomous species in the past for me. That was the start of what proved to be a very interesting (and long, approximately 30 hours in the air and waiting in airports, including a shift of 10 time zones and crossing the international dateline) day!

At the airport!

I got up at 3:30 in the morning. It was a beautiful morning with a clear sky, the moon was in the last quarter or so, and there were lots of stars out. It was also very hot and muggy, like a sauna, which is typical for there. I got a taxi and was at the Manila international airport terminal by 4:50. There was the usual chaotic mass of humanity and taped up cardboard boxes (luggage) at the airport. With all of the people and stuff, plus heightened security against terrorism at the time, it was very slow moving through security and check in, including several inspections and machines for both checked and carried luggage. The airlines had security checks of their own, in addition to the numerous airport checks. It took an hour and forty minutes just to get to the check-in counter!

After check-in, I had to pick my way through the mass of humanity and luggage to find the entrance to the gate areas, none of which was well marked and there were no easy routes. I paid the departure fee, went through the departure gate area, then down the halls, and through another security check and to the gate, where boarding on the 747 was already well underway; but it would still be nearly an hour for scheduled departure (and much longer than that for actual departure). So far, so good. The snake had made it through at least 5 or 6 security checks to that point and no one had asked about the container.

I was not so lucky on the final check! Going down the ramp was another airline security check. They were going through all carry-on baggage, manually, item by item. They asked what was in the container and I told them. The person checking my stuff balked and sent me back to the gate desk. They called the manager on a phone and he said that the snake could not be taken aboard, period. They would not let me carry it aboard and said it could not go into the hold either. They said I would have to board without it; the snake would have to be picked up at the airport by someone else or, at the least, I would have to leave it back at the terminal. But, under no circumstances could the snake go onto the airplane.

I argued briefly, trying to convince them that I had carried snakes on that airline previously with full knowledge and cooperation of the airline and with no problems. But there was no yielding, so I gave up and started back down the ramp and security check again, without the snake. However, I decided to pursue it further. I went back to the desk, argued some more, and asked for them to talk to the manager again. The person called him again and said he checked the manual again and it said that “no jungle animals” could go on the plane. That included snakes and monkeys, regardless of size and whether they were harmless or not. We discussed and argued it some more. I was getting more and more miffed. I threatened to stop doing business with the airline and pointed out that I was one of their card-carrying “preferred” customers, all to no avail.

I gave up again and started into the security check line again. But I decided to continue fighting it, so went back once more and asked to talk to the manager myself. I wanted to see the manual and regulations, as I had a copy of the regulations back in the states and didn’t believe what they were saying. The woman at the desk told me to take a seat and wait for the manager, whose office was in another part of the airport. It got close to the departure time but the woman said it was okay, that people were still being checked in. In the meantime the computer system had gone down. Such problems and electrical “brown outs” were routine throughout the country and everyone was more or less used to them, but it meant that remaining check-ins and everything that normally goes on in airports had to be done by hand, which delays everything and also was tying up the manager.

I waited over an hour. Eventually, as I was about to finally give up, the manager came. I told him that at least in the states snakes were frequently transported on this airline, that the commercial trade imported them by air routinely, that I was associated with the university, that I was considering no longer flying with that airline, that I would contact the home office back in the states and complain, etc., etc. He repeated what I had already been told and was absolutely unyielding. He said there was no way the snake was going on the plane; and that was all there was to it.

So I left the snake and permit papers on the counter, took the rest of my stuff through security, and boarded the plane – fuming (I rarely get upset about anything). On the plane next to me was a sweet, kind Filipina (Filipino woman) who wanted to chat. I was distracted by the snake situation but tried to be polite, talked with her, and started cooling down.

Then the manager came on the plane and to my seat. He said he had talked to the captain and the captain had no problem with the snake going on the plane, so they would make an exception. The captain came down out of the cockpit to join us. He was calm and not bothered by the snake and, in fact, seemed slightly amused by the whole situation. The manager asked the captain how it should be carried, whether it should go in a special box and be carried in the cockpit, in the hold, or just what? The captain told him to give it to me and that I should carry it in my carry-on bag as I had originally intended. The captain told me that hopefully all of the remaining travel would be through terminals and that it would not have to go through security again, that I should just quietly carry it through.

The manager had become more agreeable and told me he was terrified and paranoid about snakes. I think that was the real cause of the problems (and also the solution – he didn’t want the snake left in his gate area!). He also told me that a few years ago they had loaded a big shipment of snakes and a box with 50 snakes (cobras, I think) broke open. The snakes escaped into the plane and not all of them were found. The plane had to sit out of service for over a month while they continued to search for the snakes. In addition to the danger and having a plane out of service, the incident cost the airline a considerable sum of money.

We went back to the service counter where he wrapped the container with several layers of airline security tape then gave the snake and papers back to me. I was relieved, apologized for all of the hassle, and told him I would continue to do business with the airline. We shook hands and parted on friendly terms. The airport computers were still down; there were still many people trying to check in and board; the routine chaos had been compounded; and we continued to wait for a considerable time before taking off.

From Manila to Seattle

Depending on the direction of departure, flights can go over absolutely devastated, deforested, and depressing landscape or over some relatively good rain forest toward the mountainous coast north and east of Manila where the forest is protected from human development by frequent typhoons. On this flight we went over extensive areas of green, good-looking and unbroken rain forest, which helped my spirits. After the coast we headed out over the ocean and had an uneventful trip to Tokyo.

At Tokyo, even though the departure gate for the next flight was at the same terminal and right next to the arriving flight, security was high. There were fears of terrorism and we were routed out of the terminal, down a long hall, and through x-ray machines and security checks again … before going back to the terminal area where we had just come from! I passed my camera, film, and snake around the x-ray machine, prepared for another round of problems.

This time when a Japanese security guard encountered the snake, he thought it was neat. When I told him a snake was in the container, not only did he not object but laughed and had to show it around to all of the other security people there. The security women thought it was great and wanted to smell it, by fanning their hands over the holes in the container toward their noses! Then they squealed and laughed and handed it back to me. They were all smiling, chatting wildly with each other in Japanese, and having a good time over it as I left the security gate.

I made my way back to the terminal and had a long wait until the plane departed for the states. During the wait, I lost my camera. I had been resting with my eyes closed, in the midst of lots of noise and commotion in the terminal and, as well as I can determine, someone had unzipped my bag and stolen the camera. But at least I still had the snake and it looked like the rest of the trip would be no problem.

The flight across the Pacific, aside from a couple rough spots with lots of turbulence and bouncing, mostly went smoothly and I made it back through the time- and culture-warp. Working in both the Philippines and US, whether physically or by phone, is almost like living simultaneously in two very different worlds.

Through customs ...

We landed in Seattle and lots of bleary-sleepy-eyed passengers got off the plane and started through immigration and customs. At customs I went through the isle that deals with live animals and declared the snake. The guy who was checking me almost went into shock. His mouth dropped open and he looked at me with this incredulous wide-eyed stare and said, “You mean you have a live snake with you!?” and, “You actually carried a snake on board an airplane!!??” I said, “Yes.” After carrying on about the serious problem we had on our hands, he regained his composure and sent me to the agriculture area. He told me I would have to clear the matter with them and then come back to him and he would try to figure out what to do about it.

When I went to the customs officer for agriculture, he was not bothered in the least and said, “That is no concern to us; go on through.” I told him the other guy had told me I needed to go back to him. But the agriculture officer said it was no problem and waved me on through. I picked up my other baggage and headed on through the terminal and on to the next flight.

Another trip through security

We landed at Minneapolis. Unfortunately, my flight from Seattle arrived at a different concourse than the next flight, to Fargo. That meant that, at that time, I had to go through security checks again!

I went through the line and the security person was checking all bags manually, in addition to the x-ray machine. When asked what was in the container, I said a snake. The woman said she needed to check with the airline, so she called in an airline representative. That person, also a woman, said she saw no problem with it but wrote down my name just in case they needed to get back to me. I proceeded to the gate and waited. The flight was delayed for a late pilot, but then was ready to depart and people started boarding. Just before I got on the plane, an announcement was made over the PA system, “Dr. Grier please come to the service desk.” When I went there, I was told I could not take the snake onto the plane.

I asked the woman behind the desk why and she said I would have to talk to the pilot. He was just coming down the concourse, late. He would not look at me or talk to me directly but told the service counter woman that when the office had asked him whether a snake could come on board, he was not in favor of it. He said he was responsible for safety and, in case the snake got out or others became aware of it, he did not want other passengers panicking at 30,000 feet. He had also asked the stewardesses their opinion and they had all voted against it.

When I asked him (through the service counter woman since he would not speak with me directly, even though we were standing there side by side) what I was supposed to do with the snake, he wasn’t sure. He finally agreed to let it go in the hold as a special door-to-door item (where I gave it to them at that point and they would give it back to me at the other end). I turned over my carry-on bag and boarded. At the other end I finally had my snake home, safe and sound.

Finally home ... but would it eat?

When I got it settled into our quarantine area, where all new animals are kept, I tried to feed it a small pink mouse, which it refused. I didn’t really know anything about this species of snake, so I did some reading and discovered that they are primarily lizard eaters! I thought, “Oh great! All that hassle and now either it’s going to starve or I’ll have to work on a permanent supply of lizards … here in North Dakota!” I was swamped with other business, so put off trying to figure out what I was going to do with it or where I was going to get a lizard supply. A week or so later just for the heck of it I tried another pink mouse. It took it! I have been feeding it mice ever since and still have the snake today. [That was as of 1997. It became old and died a few years later. It was no longer alive as of 2006.]

It is definitely interesting to work with snakes, not only for our interests in the snakes themselves but also in observing the reactions of other people. How a person responds toward a snake all depends on the person and their previous experiences with snakes, including when they were impressionable children!


An added true story, from October 2005:


by James W Grier

This incident occurred after a field trip in which I was helping one of my graduate students with his rattlesnake work in western North and South Dakota.

Luckily the loose snake wasn't one of the rattlesnakes that we were working with!

The day before we were heading home from our field work with rattlesnakes, we also picked up a bull snake. Another student back at the university is working with bull snakes, so we intended to bring it back with us. We put it in an empty rattlesnake collecting bucket and put it in the back of my car. When we went to transfer the bucket to the grad student's vehicle, the bucket was empty. We didn't know if the snake escaped before putting the bucket in my car or afterwards, but suspected the latter. We took a few things out of the back end where the bucket had been but couldn't find any trace of the snake.

I wasn't sure if it was even in the car, but hoped that, if so, it wouldn't stay hidden and eventually end up dying there! I hoped that it would sooner or later show up or perhaps I could coax it out with a heating pad and a hide box on the floor of the car at night when it would be cool.

Then, on my way home after traveling for a few hours, the snake popped its head up out of the defrost vent in the dash in front of me, so I knew it was in the car and its whereabouts. I hoped it would come out further so I could grab it, but it just rode along for several miles with just the head up, keeping an eye on me and watching out the window of the car. I tried flushing it out by turning on the defroster at full heat, but it just pulled back down into the heating system. I kept the heat blasting until the car got too hot for me and then I gave up, turned off the heat, and didn't see it again.

When I got to the first big town with a Ford garage, I stopped and talked to the service guys to see what they suggested. (One didn't like snakes and wouldn't even come close to the car, while a couple others didn't mind snakes and were quite helpful. A service department secretary who hated snakes stood by and watched with fascination.) They described the heating system and told me how to set the baffles etc so I wouldn't inadvertently trap it inside. There are too many ducts and hiding places so it wasn't worth trying to take things apart to get at it. So I headed back onto the road.

Then about an hour further along on the interstate, I felt something lightly touch my foot. I drive on long trips with my shoes off as that is less tiring. I looked down and sure enough, the snake had come out of the floor vent, turned around, and was heading back into the vent. So I grabbed it with my toes and pinned it down gently. While I held it with one foot, I took the car off cruise control, used the other foot on the clutch, put the gear in neutral, then stepped on the brake, and brought the car to a stop on the shoulder. I leaned down and grabbed the snake with my hands, gently pulled it free of the heating vents, and put it in a bag for the rest of the trip home.



by James W Grier
website at NDSU
e-mail: James W Grier
Last Updated: 8/19/2006
Published by North Dakota State University