“Dear Dad, Thanks for chopping the head off the snake. I love you.”
If snakes give you nightmares, better just stop reading right now. Never mind, you probably can’t help yourself. It’s like unexpectedly coming across a gigantic bug. You can’t hardly stand to look at it, but you also can’t stand to not take a look, either.
First of all, many thanks to the little fox snake sitting on our basement steps recently as my daughter went downstairs to get some dog food. Without you, you darn snake, I might not have snakes on my mind.
In the last few years, I’ve had entirely more contact with snakes that I’ve ever wanted. Growing up, my childhood was blissfully snake free. I knew we had rattlesnakes in SE Minnesota, but I only ever saw them behind aquarium glass at Whitewater State Park. And even with the glass between us, I still wondered if maybe the snake could somehow get out. I can recall only two other snake sightings in my entire childhood out in the country, and those snakes weren’t rattlers.
Where we now live Minnesota, there was a bounty paid for rattlesnakes many years ago. The numbers declined sharply and now the timber rattlesnake is listed as a threatened species. In Montana, by contrast, the western rattlesnake is alive, well, and quite bountiful.
My first run-in with a rattlesnake happened the summer of 2003, shortly after we moved to our trailer house on my husband’s grandparents’ farm in Broadview, Montana. I sat out on the front steps one evening, just after our five nieces and nephews left our house after a visit to play in our yard. As I sat there on that quiet night, I heard the sprinkler running by our house… but hey, wait a minute…we don’t have a sprinkler.
There, less than 10 feet from the front steps, right where some of my favorite kiddos played moments before, was a rattlesnake busily shaking its tail. I don’t remember the specific method my husband, Jarred, used to get rid of it, but I believe it involved a shovel, some chopping motion, and then a garbage can.
Rattlesnakes around the Broadview, MT area are a common sight. While I was teaching at the school there, the elementary teachers one day nervously came in from the playground reporting that they’d found a baby rattler on the playground. Locals there say the babies are particularly dangerous because when they bite, they don’t hold back, and will use their full supply of venom when they strike. I believe our janitor at school had a small, slithery extra duty that day in addition to sweeping the floors.
As for me, I had several more encounters with rattlesnakes while we lived in our trailer. Every summer we’d find at least one rattlesnake, and some years three or four, right by our house. Standard practice is grabbing the nearest hoe or shovel: they are not a threatened species in MT. My brother-in-law, a Montana native, wisely advises, “How do you know when a rattlesnake is dead? When the shovel breaks.” I can’t say I personally ever had the guts to kill a rattlesnake with a shovel, but I did squish one with a strategically placed Buick tire once or twice.
When we moved out of our trailer house in the country, I excitedly hoped we’d see far less snakes living in our new little log house on the edge of town. As “luck” would have it, that didn’t exactly happen. Playing outside one day on the side of the house, we found a rattlesnake just off our front steps. Just as we saw it, my then three-year-old daughter came around the house.
Nothing made my heart sink more than seeing my daughter no more than 15 feet from me, with a rattlesnake in the middle between us. Fearing that my little girl would get scared of the snake and instinctively run toward me, and inadvertently run closer to the snake, I screamed her name and yelled at her to stop. It’s a tough balance to convey urgency, but not panic, when every fiber in me is terrified because my daughter is within striking distance of a venomous snake.
Luckily, she did as she was told, and her dad came to the rescue and killed the rattlesnake. He then dumped the snake in the garbage can. It continued to involuntarily coil and twist its body around for long enough afterward that I had to go inside because I couldn’t stand hearing the sound of a dead snake’s body twisting around in the garbage. The thought still makes me cringe.
Rattlesnake snakes often travel in breeding pairs, and just a few days after the near run-in with our daughter, we found another rattler by the back steps. Jarred added it to our collection in the garbage can. We just really didn’t have any room for that kind of wildlife in our yard with two toddlers out and about.
Just this spring while unpacking, I came across a Father’s Day card from that year, a card I’d completely forgotten about. On the card was a special message to Dad that I transcribed for our daughter, “Dear Dad, Thanks for chopping the head off the snake. I love you.”
Now that’s a card that not every dad gets on his special day from his little girl.
I’d like to say that this is the extent of my snake tales to tell, unfortunately, it is not. While snakes completely freak me out, it is sort of therapeutic writing snake tales, much like describing a bad dream to someone makes the dream not so scary. I actually don’t have room in this week’s column to tell my um, “favorite” snake tale. That story will have to wait until another time, which probably makes you either say “Ooooh!” or “Eeeeew!” depending on your feelings about animals with no legs. I’ll give you a teaser line though: Bull snakes can climb walls!
Which brings me back to the present, when my now six-year-old girl discovered a little coiled snake sitting on the steps as she came back up from the basement. An internet search led me to the “Snakes and Lizards of Minnesota” pamphlet available online from the Department of Natural Resources. There I learned by looking at photos, and reading utterly helpful but not terribly comforting information about snakes, that our home visitor was likely the Western Fox Snake. Mystery solved.
Unfortunately, I kept reading and found this entirely unsettling tidbit, “This snake is frequently encountered in people’s homes, especially homes with stone foundations.” Care to venture a guess on what our foundation is made of? I really do not enjoy snakes, and I would prefer ignorance on the issue, thinking that this snake just made a horrible mistake, not a preferential habitat selection at our house.
Jarred scooped up the little guy in a plastic garbage bag and he relocated it behind his shop. It obviously wasn’t a rattler, and if it wants to catch some mice, we aren’t going to get in its way. We aren’t just indiscriminate snake killers, for the record.
Just the same, it is a snake, and apparently the kind that likes houses. Sometimes I hate the internet and the information it so easily provides. I just didn’t want to know that.