“Free snake removal,” read the ad on Craigslist. “I am a lover of snakes and hate seeing them killed. I relocate all the snakes I catch. I am an expert on the snakes here in Southern California; venomous or not, I will remove it and relocate it for you. I’m in North County, if you are close enough to me, I will not charge you anything. Call or text me at 760-846-6677.”
Seventeen-year-old Emerson Sims of Encinitas has been catching snakes since he was six years old. “I have a really outdoor family, constantly camping and hiking, and my dad taught me how. We were on a hike and we came across this kingsnake — so, non-venomous. He taught me that snakes are pretty rowdy right after you come in contact with them or grab them, but they’ll warm up to you. He grabbed the tail and held it outwards, and the snake was freaking out, but after a couple of seconds, he put his hand under its belly to support it and then picked it up, and at that moment, it calmed down.”
Sims’ first-grade Waldorf school class met at the San Diego Botanical Gardens, and when a group hike crossed paths with a gopher snake, he saw his chance for glory. “It was almost as tall as me. My mom freaked out, but my teacher convinced my parents, ‘This is your kid’s passion; you can’t stop him from doing it. Get educated on it; get him educated on it, and let him do it.’” So they did. “When I was younger, it was more about catching the snakes, showing people. How cool is this?” His phone serves as a portable gallery of trophies. “But as I get older, I realize it’s more about teaching people, because people hate snakes and want to kill them. They’re overseen, like sharks.” Hence the ad.
As we spoke, an ex-Floridian stopped to ask about a snake he had spotted in Carlsbad — it turned out to be a California king. “I golfed at Pelican Hill [in Newport Beach],” he marveled, “and the sign just says it: ‘Rattlesnakes.’ Tom Fazio build a nice course, but you can die out there… You have to have balls to live in California.” (This from a man whose private lake featured its own alligator.)
A rattler was the reason for Sims’ most exciting call so far. “There are a ton of snakes in Rancho Santa Fe,” he said — even before the ad, friends were using him for relocations from RSF to a Solana Beach nature reserve. “The mom who called wasn’t home, but the son was walking around the backyard with a shovel and a rake. He was planning to kill it” — but he couldn’t find it. Sims spotted the snake in the shade and made an approach. “He was rattling, so I hung out next to him and let him be” — just like Dad taught him — before stroking its belly and catching its head with a snake hook.