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Snakes Alive
by Damian Fagan

Snakes have gotten a bad rap ever since that apple episode in the Garden of Eden. Even St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, drove the proverbial pagan snakes from Ireland. Whereas a desert bighorn or sleeping kit fox might send folk scurrying for their cameras, a snake sighting usually sends people in search of a shovel.

One summer when I worked as a Park Ranger in Arches National Park, I lived in an old trailer at the campground entrance. This was our “residence” although people walked into our “home” uninvited all the time. Expected but not exactly encouraged, visitors would show up at all hours of the day – but it was the really late night visits that drove me crazy.

A fairly common late night complaint had to do with rattlesnakes in the men’s bathroom. Not that they were taking too long, but that the snakes were coiled up near the doorway, refusing to grant entry to those in need. “You’ve got to get them out of there,” people complained. I agreed, often for the snake’s safety more than the visitor’s comfort level. I’d learned about vigilante visitors the hard way – two halves of a snake do not make a whole.

I would grab a shovel and a flashlight and walk up to the restroom. The midget-faded rattlesnakes that occur in this area are pretty mellow, so sometimes all I had to do was prop open the restroom door and give the snake a gentle nudge with the shovel. Other times, I might scoop up the coiled serpent while its tail buzzed a greeting like a Bronx cheer. Once outside, the snakes slithered off to safety, but rarely did the visitors reenter the restroom.

Other times it would be gopher snakes that had the visitors “concerned.” Much larger than the midget-fadeds, these snakes have black blotches on their backs and lack the triangular-shaped head of a pit viper. Though lacking a “rattle” at the tip of their tail, gopher snakes do their best rattlesnake imitation when confronted with danger. They coil up, raise and flatten their head, vibrate their tail, and strike a rattlesnake pose.

Once again, a gentle prod from a shovel or lifting one up like cooked spaghetti often encouraged the snakes to depart. Of course, these were prime opportunities to chat with folks about the natural history of these snakes and to praise their benefits as mousers, rattlesnake foes and prey for hawks.

Only once have I observed a red-tailed hawk flying with a gopher snake clutched in its talons. The bird was moving too fast for me to tell if the snake was dead or alive; I presumed that the snake had been dispatched. I’m sure the hawk’s nestlings would have reacted like the restroom visitors when a live snake was dropped into their nest.

Garters and Whipsnakes
Two other non-venomous snakes that occur in Canyon Country are the western terrestrial garter snake and the striped whipsnake. I’ve seen the garter snake in riparian habitats – wetlands, canyon bottoms, wet meadows, or near the river.

These snakes are excellent swimmers. The whipsnakes, named for their sleek body, are more arboreal than the other snakes. They climb up into shrubs and tamarisk limbs to hunt or escape from predators. I’ve only seen a few of these snakes in over 25 years of hiking in the desert.

Once I stumbled upon one in action trying to devour a Clark’s spiny lizard. The lizard was far too large for the snake, but the snake must have felt optimistic. Unfortunately for the snake, the lizard bolted to freedom after a brief struggle.

So next time you happen onto a snake, take a moment to consider your options. Your chances of being zapped by lightning are far greater than being bitten by a venomous snake. My vote would be to go for the camera, but forgo the close-up lens.



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