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A sanctuary for snakes

A large snake climbing into its cage.
Viola, a very old Peruvian red tail boa, climbs into her cage.

Inside a 13- by 15-foot space in Dr. Nickol Finch’s backyard, 32 snakes slither.

The ball pythons — Jerry, Cyndi, Huey and Lita, to name a few — are named after ‘80s rockers.

For the sand boas — Bo, Daisy, Luke and Jessie — it’s the Dukes of Hazzard.

The structure, just 20 feet from Dr. Finch’s front door, is one half of Snake Haus — the only nonprofit animal sanctuary in Washington and Idaho known for specializing in snakes.

Fully insulated and equipped with power, the sanctuary, and Dr. Finch (’01), an exotics veterinarian at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, are a lifeline for the snakes.

“These animals wouldn’t have anywhere else to go,” Dr. Finch said.

Many of the animals require ongoing medical treatment, were acquired from hoarding situations, or come from closed or unhealthy breeding operations. While some will be rehomed, many will likely live at the sanctuary for the rest of their lives due to their size or health.

Closeup of a large snake.
Dr. Mayes pictured with Lilith, a purple albino mainland reticulated python.

Each animal’s enclosure was custom built by Dr. Finch. The snakes are fed and cared for by Dr. Finch. Their cages are cleaned by Dr. Finch, and, excluding some donated quail for the snakes and a few donated enclosures, everything has been paid for by Dr. Finch.

Inside a 2000-square-foot machine shop transformed into one of the largest veterinarian-managed snake sanctuaries in the state, it’s a similar story for WSU alumna and veterinarian Dr. Sara Mayes (‘09).

Dr. Mayes, who started Snake Haus in 2017 with her husband, Mirko, runs the larger half of Snake Haus, outside of Snohomish, Wash.

The serpent sanctuary achieved federal nonprofit and public charity status in January 2019, the same year Dr. Finch expanded the sanctuary to Idaho.

Dr. Mayes, who befriended Dr. Finch while at WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital pursuing her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, said there are currently more than 60 snakes at the Snohomish location.

“We were in the 70s all of last year,” she said.

Inside the Snake Haus West facility, located on Dr. Mayes’ property not far from her home, Dr. Mayes cares for some of the largest snakes in the world, including anacondas, Burmese pythons and red tail boas.

The largest of them all, Valac, is an 18-foot-long, 100-pound reticulated python.

Dr. Finch said many snake owners often underestimate just how large their reptile will get.

And the larger the snake, the worse the rehoming odds.

“Large snakes require more space than most people have in their homes; Dogs and cats are much easier to rehome,” Dr. Mayes said.

Dr. Finch and Dr. Mayes said it is critical people do research before they buy a pet, and breeders need to be more responsible and selective when breeding animals.

“Many people think they should breed their snakes and sell them. Unfortunately, there are not enough homes out there for the number of animals being produced by breeders,” Dr. Mayes said. “This is no different than puppy mills and feral cats that are over bred and not cared for. The only difference is people don’t realize it’s a problem.”

Dr. Mayes said nothing will change until the general public views the serpents as animals that deserve safety and protection.

Until then, Dr. Finch and Dr. Mayes will continue to spend their off days building custom enclosures and finding creative ways to stack them to save space.

If they can find enough room in one of their two locations, they’ll consider any snake that is sick, injured, abandoned, or too large for an average home. The sanctuary doesn’t accept venomous snakes.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Finch said. “It seems like that’s just me; I’ve always rescued animals.”

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