The Allure of Snakes

Nonfiction

Image by Jan Kopřiva

     I was high on my dad’s shoulders, a five-year-old child being carried down a trail in British Columbia as dusk began to lend a special ambiance to the forest around us, lengthening shadows and bending light at bewitching angles. Without warning, the long lithe length of a Pacific rattlesnake moved across our path from right to left. My dad halted and, together, we watched as something wild and extraordinary briefly touched our lives before vanishing amidst vegetation. That moment made a singular impression. I was hooked on snakes.

     One of my uncles is a gentleman farmer. He loves playing on the land. Not that he hasn’t worked hard nurturing gardens, raising cattle, and growing crops; it’s just that he hasn’t required anything from the land in order to survive. He owned two properties in Alberta when I was growing up,

one near Edmonton, the other near Red Deer. Wetland areas on his farms were populated by frogs, min- nows, slugs, and leeches. No doubt these creatures, as well as rodent populations, attracted the red-sid- ed and plains garter snakes which were so easy to find on his farms.

     As a child, I was adept at catching them up. They often retaliated by expelling a malodorous secretion, but this wasn’t enough to turn me off. I admired their olive skin and bright stripes in orange, mustard, and red. The keels or ridges on the scales of these snakes gave them a novel texture. One afternoon, I cruelly tucked one into a pocket of my coat and carried it around for a while, feeling the unfamiliar bulge of its otherness against my thigh, a reminder that life is expressed in forms very different from our own. Eventually, I released the snake and stared, entranced, as it disappeared with uncanny speed, a ripple amongst ribbons of tall grass.

     University found me immersed in the study of zoology. Each summer, I worked at the Calgary Zoo. There, I had the immense privilege of exposure to a plethora of snake species. Two favor- ites were Rosie and Klinger, large red-tailed boa constrictors. I believe they had been pets until their owners realized how big they were going to get! Of the two, Klinger was the longest, at six feet. One day, I took him to visit a grade one classroom. Snakes are easy to convey from place to place in cloth bags. I had Klinger tucked in a substantial one with a drawstring round the top. In order to build suspense, I began with some cool snake trivia for the children seated on the floor in front of me prior to opening up the top of the bag. Everyone’s eyes were fastened on that bag and the giant bulge at the far end of it. Reaching in, I grasped a powerful coil and started easing Klinger gently out into the bright light of the classroom. His black, forked tongue began flicking, tasting and smelling this new environment. Dark saddles on his body were patterned with light spots, giving him a dappled appearance. I had to keep reaching into the bag for the rest of him. The children’s eyes grew wider and wider, rounder and rounder as more and more snake arrived for their viewing pleasure. At last, they simultaneously exhaled an “Ohhh....”. Oh, indeed. The “oh” of awe!

     One morning at the zoo found me standing over our garter snake enclosure as our female gave birth to miniatures of herself, each one expelled from her body in a translucent sac. The birthed garters danced and pushed inside their membranous envelopes until the sacs gave way, at which point they exited with fluid grace to explore their new surroundings, thin as pencils but infinitely more flexible! Total number of hatchlings? Thirty-six! Fecundity ensures survival for species that are eaten by raptors, mammals, and even other snakes.

     Kenyan sand boas, native to countries in East Africa, were also in the zoo’s collection. Short, heavy-set snakes with blunt noses and tiny bead-like eyes, these reptiles are the color of the sandy environments they inhabit but sport mahogany spots. Their skin is covered in miniscule scales which are smooth and soft. Most of the time our two snakes were beneath the sand of their enclosure. This meant that, to find them, we sifted the sand with our fingers. These snakes often reacted with extreme displeasure when found and sometimes tried to bite. Fortunately, sand boa bites are innocuous. Since these reptiles strike sideways, it is hard to predict when they will lash out. Most snakes pull back their heads preparatory to initiating a forward strike. Invariably, I jumped when one of them suddenly went for me!

     Rattlesnakes were amongst the reptiles we had, too. In captivity, rattlesnakes tend to be placid and even-tempered. Even in the wild, like the vast majority of snakes, they do not initiate aggres- sive encounters with people. When one of the zoo’s rattlers began showing signs of illness, lack of appetite and weight loss, our veterinarian needed a blood sample to assess the situation. I was invited to watch the procedure for taking blood from a venomous snake. The rattler was removed from its glass-walled aquarium via a snake hook, like a shepherd’s crook, but the hook end of this metal rod may be slid under a snake’s body allowing the snake to be lifted at a safe distance from the handler. Next, it was gently placed into a large, deep garbage bin in which a stiff plastic tube had been placed. The rattler, feeling exposed and vulnerable, moved swiftly into the tubing which was big enough for him to get inside, but too small in diameter for him to turn around in. Once he was far enough in, it was possible to grasp his body and the tube at one and the same time prior to taking him out of the bin in order to obtain a blood sample. In this way, injections of antibiotic could also be administered.

     When I began the journey of motherhood, I wanted my boys to know the joy of connecting with other living things. As a result, we spent much time in the outdoors. When my children were in elementary school, a junior high teacher we knew, someone who had a large and varied menagerie of animals who had been surrendered by owners or pet stores, asked us to come and examine her collection. This friend was planning on retirement, and her animals needed new homes. From a selection of four large corn snakes, my boys, eyes bright with wonder and excitement, chose one with black lines delineating red-colored saddle markings and one with scales the color of rapidly ripening oranges. We dubbed them Fritters and Dragon. My husband, not a snake aficionado, nonetheless built a beautiful enclosure for our new pets prior to them coming home to live with us.

     In the beginning, it seemed strange to think of myself as the owner of snakes. I had been inter- ested in these striking animals for such a long time, had worked with and studied them. Over the years, I had owned gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, and dogs, yet never any snakes or, for that matter, reptiles of any kind. Our boys loved the snakes. Their friends loved the snakes. My nieces loved the snakes. I loved the snakes. They became the object of a science fair project, and I regularly took them into classrooms to teach children and youth about these marvelous creatures. In short, they became emissaries for the whole of their kind. Some time ago, we lost Dragon to esophageal cancer, but Fritters, at twenty-eight and a half years of age, still periodically makes guest appearances, his Zen personality overcoming people’s initial trepidation over interaction with him.

     An aunt and uncle of mine have plains garter snakes on their organic produce farm in Saskatch- ewan. The generous compost pile sitting to the side of my aunt and uncle’s enormous vegetable garden is regularly frequented by these snakes. One time I came upon it when several large spec- imens were stretched out or curled up to bask on the compost’s comforting flanks, mustard and orange stripes bright in the sun. As I approached the compost pile, the snakes turned into supple rivers, flowing swiftly away amongst a rebellious chaos of leaves and stems. Their sinuous agility was cause for envy and celebration.

     One afternoon, in the vicinity of this same farm, I found the body of a snake that had been run over by a vehicle as it lay coiled upon the gravel surface of a rural road, no doubt basking. Its body was still coiled but parchment-thin, as if all the organs and muscles and bones that had sustained it had performed a vanishing act, leaving behind a mere shell. I felt a wave of sadness and made a resolution to drive country roads more slowly in the future.

     Calgary, the city I call home, has a number of natural areas that are fun to explore. Sometimes, I am fortunate enough to come across a snake shedding, thin and papery, textured and patterned. Once, I found a shedding that was blue in hue, beautiful and fragile, delicate and lacy. Crouch- ing, I touched it reverently with a finger. It got me to thinking about shedding my own skin, my old self.

     Today, I was up on Nose Hill, the largest municipal natural park in Canada, with our dog. Rounding a corner, I was delighted by the presence of a wandering garter snake about a foot in length. These snakes are grey-brown like the Earth, with pale amber stripes and a checkered back. The snake startled before weaving round rocks and pebbles, then abruptly halted. Its camouflage was perfect. If I hadn’t seen it earlier, I would have passed by without discerning its presence. What would it be like to blend into one’s surroundings like that, to be so utterly and completely integrated into the natural world?

     The caduceus is the staff carried by the god Mercury in Roman mythology, two snakes entwined around it, sometimes crowned by wings. Mercury is depicted with a winged helmet, winged feet (sometimes winged sandals), or both - apparently, these wings endow him with marvelous speed in the air. The thing is, I’m sure that the snakes wound round the caduceus don’t appreciate flying and are even more opposed to aerial acrobatics. No snake has ever had dreams of flying. Snakes delight in the solidity of the Earth. Limbless, they are as close to it as any creature can possibly be. They even hibernate within the confines of earthen caves and chambers in countries where cold comes in the form of Winter, as it does here in Canada. Snakes hide amongst leaves and sand, spread themselves on the warm surfaces of rocks, and even audaciously swim in the liquid bowls of Earth we call oceans. When you’re right down on the ground, you feel Earth’s vibrations, its pulse, its nerve center. Snakes don’t reason and fret; they hug the land beneath their bodies and trust in its “thereness.” Meanwhile, we study the stars and dream about leaving this small planet, dream of abandoning it for bigger and better things. Perhaps, we need to heed snakes, throw our- selves face down and feel what’s under us, rejoice in the mystery and beauty of being grounded.

Janice Rider’s background is in zoology, conservation, and education. I have three published plays for youth with Eldridge Plays and Musicals. Lately, I have been writing short stories and nonfiction pieces. I live in Calgary, Alberta near the mountains, and many of my most treasured times have been spent in the outdoors watching wildlife.