When Len and Heather Ramirez step into their work shed in the morning, they're greeted by the deafening racket of a pile of startled rattlesnakes, which they keep in a glass tank by the door.
"You never forget that sound," Len Ramirez said, peering over the top of the locked tank to watch eight rattlesnakes slither around, their rattles shaking and their scales emitting a soft, creepy scratching sound as they rub over each other.
"It sounds like sandpaper," Heather Ramirez said, grinning.
The Ramirezes say they operate the only licensed, bonded and insured snake removal business in Northern California, based out of their Auburn home.
They enjoy their work more than many might think.
The couple is called out every day - usually several times a day - by terrified residents who stumble upon the deadly reptiles while working in their yards. Many people accidentally let rattlers into their homes by leaving their doors open on a warm day.
When the calls come in, the Ramirezes grab their long snake tongs and get to work.
"It's just a blast," Heather Ramirez said on a recent afternoon at her home, keeping her bright blue eyes on a freshly-caught four-foot rattlesnake slithering across her lawn for demonstration purposes. "There was one call in the wine country where Len removed 25 snakes. The more snakes, the more exciting the job is. It's all about the hunt and the adrenaline rush."
The couple has never killed or injured a snake, they say. They think rattlesnakes are the most misunderstood animals around - and also the most beautiful.
"We relocate every snake high in the Sierra in remote areas," Len Ramirez said. "We need snakes around to eat rodents, which carry disease."
Len Ramirez admits he is superstitious: He thinks discussing the times he's been bitten by rattlesnakes will "jinx" him. He just says it's happened a few times, and he leaves it at that.
The Ramirezes' work tools are not complicated: They use mirrors to light up dark places where snakes like to hide, tongs to grab the snake a third of the way down their bodies (grabbing a snake by its head can crush its delicate vertebrae) and large buckets where the snakes can cool their jets after capture.
Len Ramirez started catching snakes for friends in 1985 as "something fun to do," and the demand for his services quickly grew into a full-fledged business.
Heather Ramirez was studying for a degree in psychology when she met her husband.
His enthusiasm quickly rubbed off on her. She caught eight snakes on her first call, she said, and she was hooked. She is now working toward a degree in wildlife biology.
She sums up snake psychology simply:
"Snakes have no emotions," she said. "To them, you're either a predator or on the menu. Their lives are about food, water, shade and breeding. Once youunderstand them, it makes it easier to work with them."
The most important thing they do in their job, the Ramirezes say, is educate the public about rattlesnakes. They're always debunking common rattlesnake myths such as: Rattlesnakes always rattle before they strike. Not true, Heather Ramirez said. They will rattle when they are nervous, but rattling is not always a precursor to striking.
Every rattlesnake has its own temperament, she said. For some, the slightest movement will agitate them, while others can be very close to humans and not be bothered.
Snakes are always shy, though, and will try to get away from humans, she said. They head for the shade, and they love corners and 90-degree angles, where they feel more protected.
"Snake wrangling," as the Ramirezes profession is called, has its perks. Celebrities who have never used their services - such as Monster Garage host Jesse James - have been photographed wearing the Ramirezes' trademark T-shirt, sold at www.ramirezrattlesnakeremoval.com.
The Ramirezes are also featured on the National Geographic Channel series "Animal Extractors." The British film crew spent several weeks with the couple last summer, and the series is aired repeatedly.
To contact Staff Writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4236.