A Snake on the Loose Is Big News in Our Town

The missing Morgantown snake is on everyone's minds – and mailboxes. Benyamin Cohen

"Atlanta to Appalachia" is an occasional series about life in the wilds of West Virginia through the eyes of a couple who never dreamed they'd love it there.

As I type this, a 15-foot-long python is on the loose in my neighborhood. Its last known location was outside a Dunkin' Donuts. I know this because I live in a small town and, for about the past week, this is all anyone has been talking about.

A runaway snake is a break from hum-drum reports on city council meetings and pesky potholes. Local TV stations have been tracking it with breaking news enthusiasm since word of its escape arrived late Thursday night. That's when it slithered out of the back of a moving pickup truck and into the nearby woods. Considering that West Virginia has the third-highest forest coverage of any U.S. state, those involved in the search-and-rescue mission have their work cut out for them.

As for the rest of us, it's a welcome respite from the national news cycle. While most of America is chattering on about President Trump, the NBA playoffs or "Jeopardy!" contestants, here in Appalachia we have our eyes glued to the Great Escape of 2019 (or is that E-snake?). A local bar is offering a drink called the "Snakebite." Not surprisingly, someone created a "Morgantown Snake" parody account on Twitter.

Local resident Mickey Barry photoshopped a picture of the snake next to the famous statue of actor Don Knotts, who was born here in Morgantown. "Maybe the next school will be named the Morgantown Pythons," Barry joked to me. Hometown hero supremacy is now up for grabs.

On the Mon and Preston Country Rumor Mill – a vibrant Facebook group with 39,000 members, more than the actual town population – conspiracy theories abound.

"I've got to admit though, this is kind of nice to have something that's a little entertaining," police chief Ed Preston told the local news before helpfully adding, "but just because it's entertaining, doesn't necessarily mean that people should let their guard down."

How to find a really big snake in the woods

Besides getting the word out, the city is using drones and, rumor has it, even python-hunting dogs to track it down. But Emily Sanders is using good old-fashioned know-how to locate the missing python. For the past 34 years, Sanders has operated the Exotic Jungle here in Morgantown – where she sells hamsters, ferrets, chinchillas and everything in between. And, yes, even snakes. Sanders used to own a 25-foot python named Kujo. "She was awesome," she tells me when I pop into her store for the latest scoop.

Her shop has been ground zero for the hunt to find the missing python. You can't walk down an aisle of parakeet cages or cat leashes without hearing someone chatting about it. Officials say the snake is four inches wide and capable of eating small livestock. "If you have one that's eating live chickens, that's a huge snake," Sanders explains. "If they wrap around you, they can break your leg." I ask her if it's legal to own pythons here in West Virginia. "The laws here are kind of a little this, and a little that," she responds, shaking her head.

Emily Sanders, seen here holding one of her milk snakes, has owned an exotic pet store in Morgantown for decades.
Emily Sanders, seen here holding one of her milk snakes, has owned an exotic pet store in Morgantown for decades. Benyamin Cohen

Some states have laws on the books about such things. Through Facebook, I found Lexin Vincent, a 20-year-old in southwest Louisiana who owns three pythons. He's named them Bernice, Regina and Mr. Snappy. "You have to get a permit to have them once they reach a certain length," Vincent tells me when I reach him by phone.

I ask him if he has any advice for us here in Morgantown. "A snake that size? They'll find it. It'll be easy to spot a snake that big."

This Louisiana snake, known as Mr. Snappy, has lived up to his reputation.
This Louisiana snake, known as Mr. Snappy, has lived up to his reputation. Courtesy Lexin Vincent

He has a couple of snakes that will grow up to 20 or 30 feet long. "I have one that's really calm," he says, adding that people are still afraid to come to his house. So why does he have so many snakes? "One thing led to another," he says with a laugh.

While reptiles on the run are rare here in Appalachia, it's common in states like Florida where a snake on the loose is just a typical Wednesday. In April, snake hunters found a record-breaking 17-foot-long Burmese python in the Florida Everglades. It weighed more than me. But I think we can all agree that Florida has this sort of thing in spades. Earlier this week, a woman from the Sunshine State called 911 and calmly told the operator: "I have a gigantic alligator in my kitchen."

Back here in Morgantown, the local cops have enlisted Emily's help. She's been stopping by the snake's last known location each morning on her way into work and in the evening on the way home. It's been cold the past few days, and she believes he's hunkered down in some nearby abandoned homes. She thinks he'll re-emerge when the weather warms up and it's dry, although it's supposed to rain for the next 10 days.

"Ultimately, they're gonna find him," Sanders says as I leave her store. "He'll be lying in someone's yard, basking in the sun somewhere. He's not going to be crossing the highway. He's just as scared as we are. But I think ultimately he'll pop out."

And when he does, she'll be waiting by the Dunkin' Donuts.