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Eyes on the prize
Horry Electric Cooperative member Russell Cavender has learned the hard way to keep a close watch on venomous snakes like this copperhead.
Photo by Milton Morris
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The snake chasers
In a typical year, Russell Cavender, his son, Hayden, and fellow nuisance-animal operator Jamie Sargent travel more than 40,000 miles responding to calls in the Lowcountry. April, May and June are their busiest months.
Photo by Matt Silfer
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Removing squirrels from attics and opossums from crawl spaces is all part of the job. Cavender usually sends the younger men out to handle these tasks while saving the snake and gator calls for himself. “I’ve earned my keep,” he says.
Photo by Matt Silfer
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When Russell Cavender isn’t catching or rehabilitating wildlife, he’s posting pictures, videos and stories of his latest exploits on social media. “I post a lot on Facebook,” he says. “I just like telling people what I do.” Cavender has even created a public-figure Facebook page for Peanut, his pet crow. Follow their adventures at facebook.com/TheSnakeChaser and facebook.com/Peanut.
Photo by Matt Silfer
It’s not quite 9 a.m. when the guys pull up, prepared for another morning battle. Exiting their truck, they strap on back-mounted spray tanks and square off against their vast, green target.
To the casual observer, it’s shrubbery. To professional snake removers, it’s a reptilian hideout.
Unassuming in their khaki cargo shorts and white tees, the men approach the bushes Ghostbusters style, hoses blazing. Their tanks carry enough home-brewed snake repellent to send scaly intruders slithering back to mama, wishing they’d never been hatched.
It’s a typical summer chore for Horry Electric Cooperative member Russell Cavender—aka The Snake Chaser—his son, Hayden, and fellow nuisance-animal operator Jamie Sargent. They’ve already finished setting underground traps in a nearby neighborhood where moles have been tormenting the sod. Next, they’re off to look for venomous snakes behind high-end North Myrtle Beach townhouses bordering a cypress-filled pond. And, at any moment, the cellphone clipped to Cavender’s belt could ring with an urgent request to remove an alligator from a neighborhood pond, a trio of snakes from a drugstore or a swarm of bees from a freaked-out homeowner’s azalea bushes.
It’s what Cavender loves to do: catch critters, whether they’re furry, feathered or scaly.
“If it moves, we’ll catch it,” he says.
The men grab their snake tongs and buckets and head for the brush.
“I caught 19 cottonmouths here over the last couple of years,” Sargent says. That sounds impressive until Cavender chimes in: “I caught 29.”
In this business, there’s bound to be a little reptilian rivalry.
Answering the call
“People are so afraid of snakes,” says Cavender, recalling the time he had to rescue a woman who locked herself in her bathroom to avoid the enormous snake she’d seen slithering through her bedroom. The call came at 2:30 a.m.
“I’d caught a snake for her a couple of weeks before. She wouldn’t leave her bathroom,” Cavender says.
When he arrived, the front door was locked. Despite her pleas to knock it down, Cavender waited for police officers, who reluctantly agreed to break in. The Snake Chaser cautiously approached her bedroom, where the tie belt to her bathrobe was curled on the floor. That was the first time he had to rescue someone from a terrycloth snake.
One Sunday afternoon, a gentleman called to report a snake in his bushes. Cavender assured him that the snake wouldn’t be there by the time he arrived, but the man was insistent and promised to keep the reptile in his sights.
“He was waiting behind a bush when I got there. He’d been watching a stick for 35 minutes,” says Cavender. “It’s not the first time that’s happened.”
But not every call is so benign. Nine years ago, Cavender broke his heel while liberating a raccoon from a dumpster and couldn’t put any weight on his foot for several months.
“It was one of the most miserable times of my life. April, May and June are our busiest time of the year,” Cavender says. “But I still caught a couple of alligators while I was on crutches. I still crawled through attics.”
Now 48, Cavender often relegates ladder climbing and belly crawling under dank, webby, muddy crawl spaces to his younger colleagues. Another benefit to being the boss: Cavender assigns himself the fun jobs.
“I get to go catch the snakes and alligators,” he says. “I get to do what I like to do.”
But he also has to deal with the wildest animals of them all—the humans who call for their services.
“Everyone who calls me is freaked out,” Cavender explains. “I always talk to people calmly. I am a diplomat to the extreme.”
Part of the job is calming people down and explaining the procedures and legal restrictions on removing nuisance animals. It isn’t always a quick process, and Cavender insists on doing it as humanely as possible.
“People don’t understand. If a raccoon has babies in your attic, you’ve got to wait,” he says. “If they die there, it’s going to cost a few hundred more to clear them out.”
From hobby to occupation
Cavender grew up in the Carolinas chasing and studying wildlife. He caught his first snake at age 4 and his first venomous one (a rattlesnake) at age 7. It never occurred to him that he could make a living at it until 1993, when he was working as a maintenance manager for an oceanfront condo complex in Myrtle Beach.
Catching snakes didn’t seem like the most reliable way to support a family, but there were always side jobs from pest-control companies and property managers that weren’t equipped for reptile hunting.
“I wanted to work with animals and hated working for other people,” says Cavender. “I can’t have someone tell me what to do.”
It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate discipline. Cavender’s dad spent 28 years in the Marine Corps. He was an avid hunter who raised hunting dogs. Mom was an animal-control officer, so love of animals and unrelenting work ethic come naturally to him.
While building his business, Cavender would clean pools in the pre-dawn hours and catch creatures until dinnertime. During one stretch, he worked six months without a single day off. The calls kept increasing, and his reputation grew. In 1997, The Snake Chaser became a full-fledged business.
As a boss, Cavender says he’s no picnic. You’d better be on time and ready to work. He wants every job done to perfection and has zero tolerance for excuses, even from his son.
That’s fine by Hayden Cavender, 26, who has been capturing snakes, removing raccoons, banishing bats and wrestling alligators with his dad since age 5. He can’t imagine doing anything else.
Neither can Sargent, a former “surfer dude” whom Cavender hired 11 years ago.
“This is the most exciting job,” Sargent says. “You never know what you’re going to get into. Every day is different.”
Wildlife removal is no career for the squeamish or anyone opposed to pain. The senior Cavender has been called to remove about 1,000 dead animals, with the occasional carcass exploding on him. He estimates he’s been stung several hundred times. There have been broken bones, torn ligaments and countless bites from raccoons, snakes—only one was venomous—and squirrels.
“The squirrels are the worst,” he says. “They bite right through the gloves. I could feel teeth hit bone.”
Back to the wild
Some people like to leave work at the office, but Cavender isn’t one of them. After a day of wrangling wildlife, “I can’t wait to get home to pet my dog and feed my crow,” he says.
His backyard is a personal zoo and wildlife-rehab center where Peanut, Cavender’s mischievous pet crow, swoops in and perches on the snake chaser’s shoulder as soon as he exits his truck. Regular visitors know to sidestep his 75-pound, tunnel-digging tortoise, Professor X, and to expect a greeting from the 150-pound pig, known simply as Hey Pig. Hazel, the border collie, will want to play fetch.
Along with chickens and a temperamental goose that’s been around for almost 20 years, there are always animals on the mend. While most people call The Snake Chaser to get rid of wildlife, local veterinarians and animal hospitals call him when an animal needs rehabilitation. Georgie Girl, a newborn deer snatched by a hungry coyote in Georgetown, found sanctuary in Cavender’s menagerie. Now almost a year old, she beat the odds and will head back to the wild soon.
Just past Georgie Girl’s enclosure, two cautious but curious owls with luminous orange eyes perch in the shadows of a room-sized bird cage. “Supposedly, they were a breeding pair. But Samson and Delilah turned out to be Samantha and Delilah,” he laments.
Shiny black crows, or rooks, inhabit the next enclosure. They’re among Cavender’s favorite animals.
“I’ve always been fascinated with crows. They’re smart. They are up there with chimpanzees and dolphins,” says Cavender, who plans to breed European crows, which can be worth $3,500 apiece.
Cavender doesn’t keep snakes anymore, although he occasionally leaves a bag full of reptiles on the kitchen counter where he won’t forget them. Christine Cavender, his tiny, red-haired wife of 28 years they met while working in a pet store—is used to it. “What did you bring home today?” she’ll ask.
There are moments when Cavender can imagine himself on adventures far away from South Carolina wildlife, eating at fancy restaurants and watching big-city crowds, but they fade quickly. His daily adventures are hard to beat.
“I love it. I’m in the perfect line of work for me,” he says. “If I won the lottery, I might give the business to my son, but I’d still want to be rescuing animals and catching alligators and snakes.”
Back away from the reptile
Unless you’re an expert, do not pick up any snake. Most people can’t tell harmless rat and corn snakes from venomous copperheads and end up getting bitten. “Eight out of 10 people who call us incorrectly identify the snakes in their yard,” Russell Cavender says.
Listen to your attic
If you hear rumbling overhead, you have a guest. Get professional help immediately. The longer you wait, the more damage the intruder might do.
Never feed the gators
Not only is the activity illegal, but it also teaches the animal that humans are a natural, easy source of food. That’s when the large reptiles—which are not naturally aggressive—become dangerous. Feeding any wild animal is never a good plan.
Trim the attic welcome mat
Keep potential intruders away from your attic by leaving a 9- to 12-foot clearance between nearby tree branches and your roof. Squirrels can easily jump 8 feet from tree to rooftop, and raccoons are resourceful climbers. Once on the roof, they tear soffits, explore exhaust fans and rip through shingles and plywood to access your attic.
Leave the ladies alone
When a fox, raccoon or other nocturnal creature is spotted roaming around in daylight, it doesn’t necessarily mean the animal is sick or rabid. Females often adjust their schedule to feed during daylight hours, so they can protect their young from predators at night. Don’t approach, but there’s often no reason to panic.
Honeybees swarm every spring to perpetuate their species. “It can be terrifying to see a huge collection of buzzing bees hanging from a limb or attached to a tree trunk or mailbox, but it’s a good thing,” Cavender says. “Honeybees are vital to our planet’s survival.”
Every year, the original hive creates a new queen and takes many bees with her to a new location. The swarm is waiting for its scouts to return and give the queen their new address.
Honeybees are not aggressive when they swarm. They are full of honey and shopping for real estate. Leave them alone, or find a local beekeeper to collect them. They usually move on within 24 hours.
Get rid of mulch, pine straw and natural substrates around your home. Instead, use rock or gravel for landscaping. Remove leaf litter under bushes, plants and trees. Trim low branches so you can see the ground, which leaves snakes no cover for protection.
Watch your step around other snake attractants, like woodpiles, debris, metal and discarded appliances (all good hiding places), as well as fishponds, bird feeders and food left for outdoor pets.