REXBURG, Idaho — They slithered behind the walls at night and released foul-smelling musk into the drinking water. And they were so numerous that Ben Sessions once killed 42 in a single day.
Shortly after buying their dream home, Sessions and his wife discovered it was infested with thousands of garter snakes. For the next three months, their growing family lived as if in a horror movie. More than a year after they abandoned the property, the home briefly went back on the market, and they fear it could someday attract another unsuspecting buyer.
The five-bedroom house stands on nearly two pastoral acres in rural Idaho, about 125 miles southwest of Yellowstone National Park. Priced at less than $180,000, it seemed like a steal.
But the young couple soon learned they would be sharing the home with reptiles at least two feet long that had crawled into seemingly every crevice.
While setting up a chicken coop, Sessions lifted a piece of sheet metal and was startled to see a pair of snakes slither away. A few days later, he found more and soon started to collect dozens in buckets. At times, there were so many in the yard that the grass seemed to move.
If he rapped a stick against the roof overhang, he could hear dozens scatter, their scales sliding against the aluminum. After he removed some panels of siding, dozens of snakes popped out. When he made his way through the crawl space to investigate further, he found snakes everywhere.
That’s when he realized his family was probably living atop a garter snake den where the nonpoisonous reptiles congregate in the fall and winter.
Sessions quickly developed a daily snake-fighting routine. Before his pregnant wife and two small boys got out of bed, he would do a “morning sweep” through the house to make sure none of the snakes had gotten inside. One day, his wife screamed from the laundry room, where she had almost stepped on one. He rushed in to find that she had jumped onto a counter.
“I was terrified she was going to miscarry,” he said.
When they bought the house, the Sessions signed a document that noted the snake infestation. They said they had been assured by their real estate agent that the snakes were just a story invented by the previous owners to leave their mortgage behind.
They soon learned that nearly everyone else in this tiny college town knew the snakes were real.
“I felt bad,” said Dustin Chambers, a neighbor. “By the time we knew someone had bought it, they were already moving in. It was too late.”
Among locals, the property is known simply as the “snake house,” he added.
The pests were impossible to escape no matter the hour of the day.
At night, the Sessions would lie awake and listen to slithering inside the walls. During the day, the family often had to eat out because their well water smelled like the musk released by the snakes as a warning to predators.
But because of the paperwork they had signed, the couple had little recourse when they decided to flee the home. They filed for bankruptcy, and the bank foreclosed on the house.
The Sessions left in December 2009, the day after their daughter was born and just three months after moving in.
“We’re not going to pay for a house full of snakes,” Sessions said.
His wife, Amber, said she felt like their family was starting to fall apart.
“It was just so stressful,” she said. “It felt like we were living in Satan’s lair. That’s the only way to really explain it.”
Several months ago, the house briefly went back on the market.
Now owned by JP Morgan Chase, it was listed at $114,900 in December, according to Zillow.com, a real estate data firm. That price fell to $109,200 in January.
Then, the Animal Planet network featured the Sessions’ story in its “Infested” series.
The listing was removed, and it has stayed off the market while Chase decides what to do with it.
A Rexburg real estate company that was hired to sell the house referred all questions to a Chase spokeswoman in Seattle.
Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot did not return repeated phone calls from The Associated Press. But she told a business columnist for Dow Jones Newswires that the bank had contracted to have the snakes trapped and released elsewhere.
Sessions said that he has been diagnosed with snake-related post-traumatic stress disorder and that the house should be condemned.
“It’s not right to continue to sell this home,” Sessions said. He and his wife said they still have nightmares and have not recovered financially.
The home was probably built on top of a winter snake den or hibernaculum, where snakes gather in large numbers to hibernate, said Rob Cavallaro, a wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
In the spring and summer, the reptiles fan out across the wilds of southeastern Idaho to feed and breed. But as the days get shorter and cooler, they return to the den in search of warmth.
In 2007, another couple named Neal and Denise Ard sued the couple who sold them the home and the real estate agent who negotiated the $189,900 deal. The complaint was dismissed a year later.
Since the Sessions moved out, other people have looked at the house. One day, when a real estate agent was showing the property, a farmer who lives down the road stopped by to warn them, Chambers said.
“Now, if anybody sees anybody, they kind of will let them know,” he said. “Just so that somebody else doesn’t get caught in the same trap.”