Sophomore Jaye Fire sits cross-legged on the floor of her loft with two glass snake tanks behind her, each with a pool of water and a small dome. Dharma, Fire’s four-and-a-half-foot long boa constrictor — the length of a fourth-grader — is wrapped around her neck, forming a long, scaly scarf. She lifts Dharma up to her chin as if to give her a kiss.
“She’s a good girl. Aren’t you Dharma?” she coos with a laugh.
Bodhi, her one-eyed Ball Python, is making his way through a PVC pipe on the floor, which functions as a makeshift snake toy. “Hi Bo Bo, wanna come over?” Bodhi eagerly slithers onto her knee, clinging to it for security.
These snakes are her everything. These snakes are her best friends.
After a trip to Mission Petmart to get food for her sister’s gecko a year ago, Fire felt an immediate connection with Dharma. Her mom, who has a fear of snakes, refused to keep the snake in her home, so Fire called her dad begging to keep it at his house, saying she wouldn’t leave the store without her.
“The instant I held her I completely fell in love with her,” Fire said. “We’ve been inseparable ever since. She kind’ve treats me as her mom. Anytime she’s ever been scared of anything she immediately starts looking for me and tries to find me.”
However, Fire’s relationship with her snakes is more than just a friendship. Dharma and Bodhi help to calm her down when she is stressed or having a panic attack. Fire was diagnosed with anxiety two years ago and is often struck with these attacks while at school. She’ll begin to hyperventilate and break into a sheer panic, pulling off her hoodie so that it doesn’t restrict her breathing. Although medication is her primary form of treatment, her family had a therapy dog in training for her. But now, Fire’s snakes have eliminated the need for the dog.
Anytime she feels her anxiety coming on, whether it’s a stressful day in chemistry or a chaotic moment at home with her autistic brother and ADHD sister, Fire will run up to her bedroom and get her snakes out of their tanks, placing them on her checkered blue bedsheets. She can spend hours on her bed just holding Dharma and Bodhi and building playsets for them with furniture to slither around in.
“Ever since I’ve gotten snakes, my anxiety has gotten so much better,” Fire said. “They’re so relaxed, and they make you feel safe being around them. It’s like magic.”
This connection is one that has taken a year of handling and care to build up. Dharma used to not let Fire even touch her tail, but now she sticks her tongue out onto Fire’s cheek to give her a kiss, even letting Fire peck her on the nose in exchange. Because of this, Fire was surprised when hearing from other snake-keepers that they don’t belie
ve that this type of connection is possible nor do they take the time to create an emotional bond.
“Snakes are like any other animal,” Fire said. “They can recognize you, they learn your scent and they get to know different things about you.”
Bodhi is proof of this, showing that with enough attention and care, an animal can become emotionally attached to a person. After holding him at a pet shop, the snake lashed out at Fire and bit her. An employee told Fire and her family that the snake was labeled as “aggressive” and was scheduled to be euthanized, so Fire became his savior and decided to buy him.
The instant she brought him home, Bodhi began exploring her bedroom and sticking his tongue out, a sign of happiness, similar to a dog wagging its tail. It took months to adapt Bodhi to his new conditions, but they’re now to the point where he’ll come to her for safety. He has yet to lash out or bite her again.
Fire’s connection with Dharma and Bodhi has also helped people like her friends, parents, siblings and strangers get over their fear of snakes. Fire often goes out into Corinth Square with Dharma placed over her shoulders, where shop owners know them both by name.
Dharma will give kids kisses on the nose, let Fire show them her teeth and hold her face when they’re scared. According to Fire, reactions range from “Oh my God can I hold her?!” to “Get that disgusting thing away from m
e,” but it’s once people give her snake a chance that they begin to fall in love with Dharma.
“Everyone I’ve ever left her with has wanted a snake 10 minutes later. She’s like a long scaly dog,” Fire said. “She loves people. She won’t let me put her back in her cage because she just wants to be out all the time.”
Once Fire’s father, Brad Fire, got to know Bodhi and Dharma, he fell in love with them, and now even has a dream of someday owning a 16-foot Burmese python. Her snakes also have this effect on Fire’s friends, like sophomore Sydney Robbinson.
“I was terrified of them when I first met them,” Robbinson said. “[Dharma] is the first snake I’ve actually held without being scared.”
According to Fire, when people who have never touched a snake in their life hold her, they say they can sense that Dharma wants to be back with Fire. But even when Dharma is handed over to a stranger to hold, she always makes her way back to Fire’s shoulders.
“We have a really weird close bond,” Fire said. “She’s my best friend. Dharma is my best friend.”