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NATURALIST’S AFFINITY

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Each January, Pat Dahl makes the same New Year's resolution: To stop bringing home spiders and slithery snakes.

But she cannot help herself.Dahl, 44, has a compulsive love for the call of the wild - resulting in scores of fidgety animal house guests that hang from doorknobs, skitter under couches and creep across bedroom carpets in the dark of night.

Her often rattled husband has opened his sock drawer to come face to face with an equally startled king snake. And the couple's two teenage daughters have found live lizards and scorpions in the refrigerator, and frozen snakes in the freezer.

But Dahl only flashes a sweet, knowing smile when she thinks of the llama that ran through the living room of her two-story suburban house and the crocodile and alligator in the back yard. She feels as natural with wildlife as with anything that walks on two legs.

Pat Dahl understands animals, knows their habits and foibles. The self-taught naturalist and animal handler frequently takes in abandoned exotic pets until homes can be found for them. And during the past decade, she has run her own outreach program, putting once-untouchable creatures into the hands and hearts of adults and children alike.

With an old Chevy Suburban truck loaded with cages, pelts and pamphlets, Dahl has conducted show-and-tell animal sessions throughout San Diego County, going to prisons, juvenile halls, hospitals and classrooms, as well as talking to utility crews and garden clubs.

Often lecturing free of charge, she has spoken of the beauty, grace and environmental value of all wild things, from wolves to alligators to honeybees. But her special love is the scaly, fork-tongued and creepy varieties that most people fear and loathe.

The Snake Lady, they call her. Lizard Lips. Spider Woman.

During numerous demonstrations, she has been bitten scores of times by nervous animals - yet her message remains simple: People do not have to kill things they do not understand.

"These are creatures who don't have voices to speak," Dahl said. "They can't save their own lives by standing up and explaining to a startled homeowner with a hammer in his hand why it is they do things, why they hiss, slither and growl. That's what I do. I speak for them."

Dahl is a former Miss California contestant and successful model who once made her living posing with creatures dead and alive. But she says she long ago rejected such exploitation of animals - and of herself.

Orphaned at birth and raised by various sharecropper families in and around Florida's Everglades and the Okefenokee Swamp, the Kentucky native says she spent her early years as a curious barefoot child who developed an attraction to the most dangerous - but in her eyes, exquisite and misjudged - of creatures.

Years later, Dahl studied biology in college and started an architectural landscaping business, where she mastered the peculiarities of the varied Southern California wildlife.

She came to know snakes as armless, voiceless, legless loners who bite only as a last defense. And the haunting splendor of spiders' multi-eyed gaze, she says, makes them something to behold.

"When I look at spiders, the first thing I see is the beauty of the eyes and face and the wondrous texture of their red-tinted fur," she said. "Likewise, when you hold a snake up into the sun, you can see their scales glitter with the colors of the rainbow."

Modern culture, she finds, has lost its appreciation for that wild beauty.

"But I haven't," Dahl said. "I'm really still that swamp child who wanted to touch and understand everything nature had to offer."

Although Dahl admits to some insecurity over her lack of the advanced degrees held by some wildlife scientists, her audiences say there is no substitute for her passion.

"If Mother Nature came to the planet in human form, she would be Pat Dahl," said Barbara Moran, a filmmaker who has worked with Dahl on a children's video on lizards and other reptiles.

"She's beautiful. She's complicated. She's funny. And she has the ability to change people's lives and attitudes about nature, to make them look at things in a way they have never done before."

But like her animals, Dahl is often misunderstood.

"People get caught up in her label as the Snake Lady or that she's such a pretty woman, a cute kook," Moran said. "But that can't discount what she has achieved - bringing animals to people."

Over the years, Dahl has done question-and-answer sessions on radio and television and has written a wildlife column for a Rancho Bernardo, Calif., newspaper.

Mostly, though, the message of Dahl's work with wild animals has gotten around by word of mouth - neighbor to neighbor, across back-yard fences and telephone lines.

She is frequently called by skittish residents - often in the middle of the night - to remove a snake from the back-yard grass, pluck a stuck possum from a chimney or shoo a skunk from a schoolhouse.

Dahl has accompanied government wildlife officials on nighttime desert jaunts in search of poachers, helping agents identify animals, and has sadly watched the local snake population dwindle as a result of poaching.

Around Poway, Dahl serves in what she finds her most disturbing community role: helping animal control workers and police humanely kill the dying coyote, possum or skunk struck down along a road or highway.

The solution - often snapping the animal's neck to stop its suffering - nearly always shakes her spirit. She recalled the coyote who had been struck near a school bus stop.

"Killing an animal like that is such a difficult thing," she said. "You take the head in your hands while those beautiful yellow eyes, those golden orbs, are looking right up at you.

"But you know the animal is terrified and that it is suffering. And so you turn your head, because you can't bear to look, and you quickly snap its neck. It's the saddest thing I'll ever have to do."

Dahl would rather focus her efforts to ensure that wildlife has a place to run free.

Not far from her Poway home, she recently fought for creation of the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve, a 400-acre virgin stretch of woods and scrubland that some wanted to bulldoze for a housing development.

While Dahl has permits for many of the endangered species she keeps - such as desert tortoises and birds of prey - she has not always escaped complaints from neighbors or city officials.

She received a letter from Poway's animal compliance office after neighbors complained about the alligator she kept in her back yard - a creature named Gatorface who later died and is buried there.

City officials also contacted Dahl after receiving reports of a woman walking with a llama in the area. And they came calling the time she was seen running down the streets, exercising a mountain lion on a leash.

But for the most part, she said, family, friends, neighbors and city officials have become resigned to her doing her thing.

Dahl once slept for several nights with a seven-foot Burmese python that had been repeatedly burned with cigarettes by its former owner, using her own body warmth to relieve the snake's state of shock.

And then there was Iggy, the terminally ill iguana, for whom Dahl recently conducted a bedside vigil.

"I know it sounds corny," said friend Barbara Moran. "But here was this ugly little creature who had been through so many lectures with Pat. She felt she owed something to that animal.

"So she sat in a chair, wrapped it in a blanket and rocked with it, so it didn't have to die alone."