Snakes in the State Capitol

There are always jokes this time of year about all the unsavory characters coming through the State Capitol, as legislators and lobbyists come together to wrangle over what bills will eventually become law. But this year, those same people are sharing space with snakes — real snakes, presumably water snakes migrating from nearby Capitol Lake.

The exact number of snakes found in the building hasn’t been pinned down. The official word from the people who run the building’s operations is that there have been four or five confirmed snake sightings dating back to late April.

But a quick survey of the people who guard the doors or the people who clean the floors and take out the garbage, and the problem appears to be much more widespread. They estimate there have been more than a dozen snakes found in the building going back to early spring.

So far, it appears the snakes have left the Senate side of the building alone. On the House side, however, snakes have been found in a section of the building known as “Alario Hall” curled up in closets, slithering across the carpet in basement-level committee rooms and coiled up in the corner of a downstairs bathroom.

The issue of snakes inside the State Capitol hasn’t been well-publicized within the building. Some legislators said they’ve been briefed about the situation, while others were outright puzzled when asked about it.

A handful had to be convinced they were being questioned about actual reptiles and not their colleagues.

“We’re talking about real snakes; not the two-legged kind?” state Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, asked Thursday.

State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, had a similar reaction.

“Are we talking about snakes that slither or the kind of snakes with last names,” he asked. “If we’re here working amongst snakes, I guess I need to find out if this is biblical or not.”

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said she usually doesn’t think about a possible snake infestation when she’s working, but those thoughts tend to creep in as each day winds down.

“It’s definitely something I think about when I’m walking to my car at night,” she said.

State Rep. Karen St. Germain avoided a close call with a snake earlier this month. A security guard cleared a baby snake — about 10 inches long — out of a meeting room about an hour before the Democrat was about to call the House Transportation Committee to order.

“I live in Pierre Part, so we have a lot of snakes, but the most worrisome part was not knowing what kind of snake it was,” St. Germain said. “I was very happy to learn that a sergeant at arms cleared it out of the room because I would’ve screamed.”

While the recent snake sightings have caused some uneasiness among legislators, they generally work in the building for only a few months out of the year.

For the people who work in the building year-round, snakes, or the idea of snakes, hiding in dark corners, underneath desks or coming out of air vents is something they’ve had to learn to live with.

Clarence “Smoke” Russ, the House sergeant at arms, said he’s only seen “one little baby snake” so far this year.

“We got him and removed him from the premises,” Russ said. “I have to say that I’m on the lookout for more but, quite frankly, I think the stories have been embellished.”

Chris Frink, director of the House Democratic Caucus, remembers a period two years ago when a number of snakes was found in the basement of the State Capitol.

“It caused a good bit of angst among the people in the building,” he said.

In response, Frink organized a campaign where small anti-snake signs were taped to the bottom of doors, at “snake level” throughout the House basement.

Like the legend of the saint driving the snakes out of Ireland, Frink calls himself “the St. Patrick of the State Capitol.”

That was until late last month when he walked into the supply closet in his office and encountered a snake there.

“I can admit to being a little unnerved by the experience. ... My theory is that this place is full of insects, so there’s plenty for them to eat. All the snakes I’ve seen or heard about have been small.”

At least two of the snakes caught inside the building were photographed before they were removed.

Jeff Boundy, a biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries identified one as a diamondback water snake and the other as a yellow bellied water snake — both non-venomous.

Boundy said “it’s inherent in the brains” of water snakes to move around and disperse from where they were born to look for food in new bodies of water.

Unlike rat snakes and other snakes known to climb up walls, the water snakes around the State Capitol generally look for low ground, which, Boundy said, likely explains how the snakes found themselves in the lower-level of the State Capitol.

“They’re probably just heading downhill looking for water ...” Boundy said. “They’re probably getting in underneath doors.”

Boundy said the snake sightings are more of a nuisance than a hazard. In his 17 years studying snakes in the area of town around the State Capitol, Boundy said he’s cataloged more than 450 snakes, none of which was poisonous.

Longtime state legislator and Senate President John Alario, R,-Westwego, reflected this week on the snakes being found in the part of the building named after him.

“Snakes in Alario Hall,” he asked. “I can assure you, they’re not related.”

On the peculiarity of the snakes only finding their way to the House side of the building, Alario was matter of fact.

“I guess the Senate is probably more of a quality place,” he said.