One musty hot afternoon, Joni Hafley’s dog Cooper let out several frantic yelps.
It wasn’t the heat. Cooper had another reason: a black snake tangled and stuck in the deer netting at the edge of the yard caught the dog’s attention.
For Hafley, a York County resident, it was a disaster in the making. But rather than call animal control, she called Tim Christensen — her neighbor who knows his snakes.
“I actually called Tim from work,” Hafley said later. “It was so hot. He [the snake] was doomed. That would have been so nasty.”
It’s a good call because Christensen, a biological scientist for the U.S. Air Force at Fort Eustis in Newport News, is always happy to help.
He is not the only person in York County who can identify snakes. But when he’s asked, it gives him an opportunity to put in a good word for the slithering creatures, who often get a bad rap, he says.
“Snakes are not malevolent, brainless, tubes, Christensen said. “They have personality. People think because they are snakes they can’t be good. They are very full of personality.”
Sure they are. But if anyone knows, he’s the expert.
Christensen, who is 57, is a biological scientist, works at the Conservation Branch, at the Joint Base Langley-Eustis at Fort Eustis.
There he oversees the natural resources management and entomology/integrated pest management programs — including the wildlife, habitats, insects, forestry and wetlands.
It covers a 7900-acres swath of the area’s natural forest. He’s served the military base for 23 years.
The wildlife area is teeming with frogs, snakes and other herpetofauna — wild reptiles and amphibians — ripe for identifying and gathering specimens.
For someone with a bachelor’s degree in biology, and three master’s in entomology, community health and management, it’s as close to a dream job as anyone can have.
When he’s not at work he’s teaching classes for the Virginia Master Naturalist, at schools, Christopher Wren Association at College of William & Mary, or Earth Day events — or anywhere someone asks.
Christensen also enjoys taking trips to a rain forest somewhere to study snakes.
On one such jaunt to Ecuador, a few years ago, he was with a nonprofit group documenting herpetofauna. It’s the kind of adventure that really gets his juices going, he said.
“That is like a vacation,” he said.
Christensen, who has two pet snakes of his own — an Albino Corn snake and a rat snake –will be the first to tell everyone that the only venomous snakes in Virginia at least, are a Northern Copperhead, Cottonmouth, or the Timber rattlesnakes.
Other snakes common to Virginia and York County, such as a juvenile Eastern Rat Snake are not venomous.
He adds most snakes, venomous or otherwise, are not aggressive animals he said, but they will take a defense stance if anything crosses its path.
Chistensen’s best advice — just walk away.
“If you see a snake, it’s best to simply enjoy viewing [or] photographing from a safe distance that keeps both the person and snake safe,” he said. “When one is finished, simply walk around or away from the snake.”
Christensen encourages parents to teach their children the value of snakes as components of ecosystems and to give these organisms respect as opposed to killing them out of fear.
As far a Christensen’s neighbor Hafely is concerned, Christensen is all charm.
“The snake tried to crawl through the holes and then it tried to back out, and then it got all tangled up,” he said.
Seeing an Eastern Rat Snake like the one caught in his neighbor’s netting is common in this area.
They can grow up to 6-feet long and have a girth of the size of a medium cucumber, he said.
“They are actually fairly docile,” Christensen said.
The rescue had a happy ending.
“Tim has educated this entire neighborhood,” Hafley said. “He’s a real treasure.”