Snake!

Black Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) Taken by Christal Hilley at Serpent Mound, Peebles, OH

“Snake!” was something I used to shout in fear whenever I saw one. Now when I shout it, it means, “Hon, bring the camera quick!”

During my youth, I recall that most people’s ill-conceived philosophy about snakes was, “The only good snake is a dead snake.” For my parents, this idea should have been the 11th Commandment and vast monetary rewards should be given to those who killed and lessened the snake population.

Naturally, being a child, this uneducated fear they exhibited spilled over onto me, making me believe that any hidden snake in the wild was just waiting for its opportunity to strike and bite me the moment I happened to walk past it. I’m not certain if this misunderstanding and misinformation about all snakes being evil was predominate where I grew up in the Bible Belt, but people readily assumed the worst about the legless creatures, readily killing them with whatever sharp object or gun (yes, I’ve seen people use shotguns to kill the unarmed [pun intended] creatures) they had handy. But most snakes are timid and quite the opposite of the vivid picture folks have painted about them.

Of course, it didn’t help matters for me the one day I was looking for the nest of black ants beneath thick honeysuckle at the side of the dirt road. With a shovel in hand and a quart Mason jar, I was trying to find the entrance to their home, so I could dig up the ants to make an ant farm. While my attention was solely upon the ants, something rubbed against my ankle and slithered across my tennis shoe. The black snake certainly captured my immediate attention. I released a blood-curdling scream, worthy of any horror movie director’s satisfaction, and my feet were moving before I even thought to run. I ran up the dirt road to the house. By the time I got to the backyard, my oldest brother, father, and mother were standing outside.

My body shook. I was breathing so hard that I nearly hyperventilated. My heart thundered in my chest, and I became lightheaded. The fear was that severe for me. They each asked what was wrong. I told them about the snake. My oldest brother, Chris, grabbed the hoe and said, “Come on.”

When we got to where I had dropped the shovel, I pointed to where the snake had been, but now the snake was gone. I was still trembling with fear, looking around my feet and worried about where it might pop up next. Finally, Chris found it and pointed. “There it is.”

“Kill it,” I said.

“It’s only a black snake,” he replied. Unlike my parents, Chris liked snakes and lizards and calmly explained that it was harmless and couldn’t hurt me, so why kill it? So, we let it go.

Black Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) Taken by Christal Hilley at Serpent Mound, Peebles, OH

Over the next few years I remember my father killing a lot more snakes. One was a garter snake that bit him while he was weeding around an oak tree. For a garter, it was quite long, probably 3-4 feet in length. He took a hoe, dragged it to a small fire where he was burning out an old stump, and tossed it into the flames. I didn’t even see a scratch on his hand where he showed me it had bitten him. A while later he mentioned how he was feeling sick.

Another incident that prompted my fear of snakes was the time I was pushing a lawnmower in our ditch. Behind me came a loud hissing sound. I turned to find a snake following my steps as I mowed. I pushed the mower faster, almost running, and the snake chased me. Yes, chased! Finally, not knowing what else to do, I turned the mower toward the snake. It spun back and went the opposite direction as I chased it. Eventually, I caught it with the mower. A friend later told me that it was probably a nonpoisonous coachwhip snake, which are notorious for playing chase. However, the information wasn’t too reassuring. You see, I thought all snakes had fangs, but only the poisonous ones do.

Black Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) Taken by Christal Hilley at Serpent Mound, Peebles, OH

My perceptions of snakes didn’t alter for many years. It wasn’t until my son and daughter were in grade school and we went to the snake show with them that I finally saw snakes in a different light. This woman, who had been exhibiting snakes with her husband until his death, had also done the shows when I had been at the same school years earlier. One by one, she’d bring out a white cloth bag and pull out the snake from inside. She’d tell us the species and so forth. But then, with an assistant, she took another bag and set an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake on a table at the center of the gymnasium floor.

The snake immediately began rattling, arching into the famous S-strike pose. She was quick to point out that although the snake was venomous, it was as afraid of us as we were of it. All the while it rattled and looked poised to strike, the snake was actually scooting away from her on the table. It didn’t want to attack. Instead, it wanted to get away. She said that rattlers use the noise as a warning to predators and for others to back off. The majority of people who are bitten by rattlers are those trying to kill them. Generally, if you leave them alone once you’ve startled one, they will retreat. Accidentally stepping on one is a different matter.

With this knowledge, a new perspective about snakes dawned upon me. A few months later we were at a pet store in Huntsville, Alabama. The owner had a breeding pair of California King Snakes for sale along with two 30 gallon tanks already set up. The price was cheap, so we bought them and took them home. We were already raising mice and rats for the local pet stores, so we didn’t need to worry about stocking food for them. The longer we kept the snakes and observed them, the better we understood them. Eventually, we bought two juvenile corn snakes for our kids.

Serpent Mound, Peebles, Ohio. Taken by Christal Hilley

My mother, who remained terrified of snakes until her death, visited once and even though they were inside glass tanks, she wouldn’t get too close to them. One time my father came for a rare visit, saw the snakes, and trying to make himself look tough in front of our kids, he said, “You remember all those black snakes I used to catch and put under the house?”

As he finished the statement, I pulled one of the tiny corn snakes from its plastic cage (the snake was six inches long) and replied, “No, but I remember the dozens you killed.”

When I pulled out the little snake, he practically jumped back three feet, which killed his boastful lie. He had never caught any snakes, not even little green ones.

The lot behind our house where we currently live had grass almost waist high. This past week the guy who cuts the grass told me that he had been worried he’d see snakes while mowing. I told him that all you need to know is what the poisonous ones look like and avoid them. The others you don’t need to even worry about, and the vibrations of mowers generally scares them away.

The Serpent Mount at Peebles, OH. Taken by Christal Hilley

A couple of weeks ago, we returned to the Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio. I found a black rat snake sunning itself near the parking lot, so my wife took pictures of it. What a convenient coincidence to find a snake at the Serpent Mound. The interesting thing about this particular snake is how it behaved when we came closer. It meandered to us with keen curiosity and even raised itself slightly to look at us before deciding to slither a different direction.

I understand that most people fear or hate snakes, but imagine what the rat and mouse population would be like if snakes were killed off. They are misunderstood and more timid than most people think. They have a rightful place in the ecosystem and are more beneficial than any preconceived misconception we viewed them with. Should you happen upon one, calmly take a step back, or alter your route. They will retreat.

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