Axe Man, Snake Lady

When Charlotte Sanger moved to Atlanta in 1996, Deanna Savage and her husband, Emanuel, known as Manny, welcomed her as one of the family. Manny helped Charlotte get a job with the Forestry Service after her son Ishmael was born, and the Savage kids have always treated Izzy like a little brother. As they became old enough, Derek and Gloria would watch Ishmael whenever Charlotte was at work or out at a singing gig. Charlotte loves the Savages as much as she does her own family, and especially enjoys the frequent jams at the house, where musicians from all over play together until the wee hours, which she and Brian continue to attend after they move to Avondale Estates. When Charlotte and Brian were just starting their music careers, and their friend Claire was establishing herself as a sound tech, they made many important contacts at those gatherings.

Since getting her job with the Forestry Service, Charlotte has become known as the Snake Lady. She has never been afraid of snakes, and, as a child, studied and handled them, though, in civilian life, she typically observed the poisonous snakes from a respectful distance when she encountered them, and didn’t try to pick them up. As an adult, she has immersed herself in every detail of their care, feeding, proper handling, venom, and treatment for bites. When she started work and learned there was such a job available, she immediately applied to be an assistant, and started working toward a degree. Using her employee training benefits, she registered for night classes at Mercer’s Atlanta campus, eventually earning a degree in zoology, with a concentration in herpetology, and now, regularly gives talks at schools, churches, civic groups, nature centers, and scout troops, on how to interact with reptiles found in the environment. A popular feature of her talks is when she handles copperheads, cottonmouths, or rattlers.

During her time in this capacity, she’s been bitten at least once by every type of snake, so, as a precaution, she regularly gets injections of antivenins against the main snakes she handles. Each one comes with differing levels of severity, from copperheads, whose bite causes immense pain and swelling in adults, but usually not death, to Eastern Diamondbacks, who are the deadliest type of snake found in Georgia. She’s also become the person everyone in her neighborhood calls if a snake shows up. Most of what she deals with near her home are garters or brown snakes, but occasionally, a copperhead will come along, and Charlotte has put the word out to contact her when in doubt, rather than engage or harm the snake, unless immediate personal safety is an issue, or someone gets bitten. In those cases, she especially gets notified, sometimes at odd hours of the day or night. While most of the local snakes are not dangerous to humans, they can be scary when they suddenly pop up, and it’s never fun to get bitten, even if it isn’t deadly. Whenever she’s outside, Charlotte has taken to wearing high top, military-style boots, reinforced in the areas most vulnerable to a strike. She’s passed along to Izzy and Brian the same level of respect and caution in dealing with the environment.

For her talks, Charlotte usually spends half her time outlining the typical types of creatures found in a given area and shows slides of some of the species she’s dealt with in the wild. Always nearby are the cages with the live reptiles in them, and there’s always a reaction whenever the rattler makes its distinctive sound. She always saves the dangerous snakes for last, and usually limits the time she handles them, both for her protection and to lessen the stress on the snake. Usually, there’s an assistant with her, who’ll have a snake around his or her neck, and Charlotte often walks around with non-lethal reptiles, to give people the opportunity to touch them, or see them up close. When she’s ready to bring out the deadly snakes, she recites a list of rules, which include cautioning people to remain seated, to not approach her, to take no flash photos, to not make any sudden movements, and to never attempt to handle such a snake on their own. At those times, her assistant puts away the other snake, and assumes a watchful stance between her and the audience. One trick they use is for the assistant, usually a young man, to stand in front of her and a few feet away to point out features of the snake while Charlotte handles it, so if anyone should ignore the rules, the assistant can act as a buffer.

Consequently, Charlotte is a popular guest whenever it’s Ishmael’s turn to a bring a parent to class for career day. She never brings lethal creatures with her on informal visits to the school, focusing more on educating the children on the type of reptiles they’ll most likely encounter, and instilling in them a proper respect for the environment and the creatures who live there. She also brings other reptiles with her, such as Anole lizards, enlightening kids on fascinating items, such as the fact that the lizard can detach its tail to escape a predator and can grow a new one.

Among her favorite targets for criticism are snake handling religions, which, in addition to endangering humans, also will sometimes mistreat the snakes. While the church she and her family attended when she was growing up was a mainstream Christian denomination, Charlotte has cousins who are Pentecostal, and part of their worship involves snake handling. Once, while visiting them as a child, Brian dissuaded her from handling the snakes, but told her, if she was moved to do so, she should use the same basket as the pastor, as those would be most likely to have been milked beforehand. What frightened her most about the experience was not the presence of the snakes, but what she perceived as the out of control fervor of those handling them.

Her expertise has brought her in contact with the congregation in Duluth called the Apostolic Awakening Fellowship, which sometimes uses “serpents” in their worship services. Her visits with them are always in an official capacity, and when dealing with them, she frequently has to hold her tongue, given the church’s outspoken views against homosexuals. Despite this, she has found the pastor, a middle-aged black woman who calls herself Mother Avis, sincere in her interest in properly housing and handling the creatures, and her desire to not harm them in the practice of their faith. Only senior congregants with the proper training are allowed to interact with the snakes, and they are kept a safe distance from others in the worship services. After learning the pleasant young woman from the Forestry Service, who sometimes repeats the things people say, is also a singer in a band, Mother Avis mentions the possibility of them performing at the church. Not certain Echo’s music would fit with the church’s stated mission, Charlotte leaves a copy of one of their albums for Mother Avis to review, and the topic is never again raised when Charlotte is visiting.

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