Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
More than two months after being reunited with her pet snake, the woman who lost a three-foot boa on the Red Line says she has no intention of reimbursing the MBTA for the cost of disinfecting the train.
The T sent Melissa Moorhouse a letter Feb. 14 seeking $650 for the "unanticipated clean-up costs" to rid the subway of any germs that Penelope, a Dumeril's boa, might have left behind. The Allston woman disregarded the letter, prompting the T to send a follow-up late last week again requesting payment.
Moorhouse said today that she cannot afford to pay the bill and would not pay it even if she could, feeling disrespected by the MBTA.
"I'm in no position to pay for that . . . and if the T officials had given me any respect or listened to me in the first place, this wouldn't have happened," said Moorhouse, who lives on disability payments, and whose husband works in a warehouse. She said the transit authority did not take her seriously when she reported the missing snake, and that the non-venomous Penelope posed no threat to riders.
"It's far more likely that Penelope would have gotten sick from being on that train for a month than anything harmful coming from her onto that train," she said.
After Moorhouse reported Penelope missing during a southbound trip Jan. 6, the T held her train for a few minutes at JFK/UMass to check her car, then waited five stops for the Braintree turnaround before sending inspectors on a more thorough sweep of the six-car train. Though the boa was not discovered, a T spokesman reassured the public that the train was snake-free.
Moorhouse said T officials that day "asked me what drugs I was on and if I was hallucinating," and that the T subsequently rebuffed her calls asking to search the train herself.
To the T's surprise, Penelope reemerged Feb. 3, glimpsed by a passenger on a morning trip. After removing the train from service, it took the T another 10 hours to coax Penelope into a box with the help of a Red Line motorperson who is also a snake owner.
Two weeks later, Moorhouse received a letter from the T's treasurer-collector, Wesley Wallace.
"While I am pleased that you were reunited with your pet snake, your violation of the MBTA's pet policy . . . resulted in unanticipated clean-up costs," wrote Wallace, citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning that children and those with weak immune systems avoid contact with reptiles. "To rid the subway car of any traces of germs such as salmonella, which may have been left by your snake, MBTA maintenance crews had to scrub and disinfect the Red Line car in which your snake was found."
Moorhouse disputed the salmonella threat. "That's for reptiles that lay eggs. Boas give live birth," she said, adding that cooks who handle raw chicken pose more of a threat on public transportation.
The T's pet policy does not expressly prohibit snakes, though it allows them and other non-service pets only at off-peak hours. Dogs are supposed to be well-behaved and properly leashed, while small domestic animals must be carried in lap-size containers and kept out of the way of exits, according to T policy.
Moorhouse said she usually totes Penelope in a plush pouch -- "almost like a pillowcase that is tight on top" -- but instead hugged the snake close to her skin that day to keep her warm in frigid weather. She did not immediately notice when Penelope slithered away.
"I specifically sat away from everybody else, and I concealed her, because I really didn't want to make anybody unnecessarily uncomfortable," she said. Subsequently, she has kept Penelope in the tote while riding the T.
Moorhouse drew widespread criticism after losing her snake, and Frank A. Smith III, a lawyer who writes a "Paws & The Law" column for The Pet Gazette, a local publication, admonished her in this month's edition. But she also received support, and said she was contacted by eight snake owners who were unable to properly care for their own pets. She took in two -- another boa and a ball python -- on a trial basis and kept the python, naming it Hank.
Both snakes are thriving, she said, and the three-year-old Penelope seems more playful and more adventurous now than before she went missing.
"I'm not a careless pet owner or some kind of villain because I lost track of my snake on a train. I wish it hadn't happened and I'm so thankful to have her back," Moorhouse said. Her own snake's high-profile disappearance was followed by the March 26 escape of a poisonous Egyptian cobra at the Bronx Zoo, found five days later. "That's a professional herpetologist caring for a potentially deadly snake that got away from them in their own setting. This is something that snakes do, and now I know to be more careful."
T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency expects Moorhouse to pay and will refer the matter to a collection agency if she fails to do so.
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