After my recent post about spiders, and how I’m struggling to tolerate them, it might come as a surprise that I (unlike my husband) am deeply fond of snakes. Phobia—and love—know no logic.
The other day I was out for a walk with one of my kids when we came across a Western Terrestrial Garter Snake in the middle of the (dirt) road. It was stretched out full length, which was all of about 18 inches, basking in the hot sun. (They grow to about three feet, so this was a youngster.)
We should have let sleeping snakes lie, but instead, with a deft move, my nimble offspring had it in hand. Then, seeing my eager expression, he passed it to me. I tenderly carried it all the way home.
At first, it curled around my fingers, seeking escape. Eventually, however, the warmth of my hands lulled it into a state of complacency, and it coiled contentedly, sending its tongue out every so often to check on its surroundings.
My plan was to release it in my garden, where it would eat bugs and hopefully baby mice. (We have a ton of mice, attracted to the chicken feed and birdseed in our yard.) First, however, I wanted photos. We brought it inside, placed it in a large plastic bowl with lid, and I grabbed my camera.
The photo session went well. I put the snake back in the bowl, attached the lid (with a small airspace on one side), and went downstairs to say good-bye to my kids. Then I went back upstairs to collect the snake and set it free.
The bowl was empty.
A quick text exchange established the fact that no one else had taken the snake outside. And a quick search of my office was unfruitful. Somewhere, somehow, we had a garter snake loose in our house.
At this point, I decided to learn a bit more about garter snakes.
While most garter snakes prefer a riparian habitat, the ones we have here in Colorado aren’t so particular. That’s a good thing, since water is scarce in our dry climate. Garter snakes spend the winter curled up with lots of other garter snakes, in a large underground den.
When they emerge in the spring, it’s time to mate. First, they dab on a bit of perfume—pheromones that attract the opposite sex. Then they go on a diet. For several weeks, they don’t eat, allowing any food already in their digestive system to finish digestion. And then comes the orgy. As many as 25 snakes may form a “mating ball”—mostly males surrounding a single female!
When it’s all over, the males head off to smoke a cigarette, while the female wants a snack and some peace and quiet. The fertilized eggs are retained in her body until the young hatch, and she gives birth to live young. Brood sizes averages around 10 – 15 babies, but may be much larger. It’s a good thing all those youngsters don’t need their parents to raise them!
As carnivores, they eat anything they can catch—from slug and grasshoppers to caterpillars and, as I mentioned above, mice . While they also eat “good guys” such as lizards, spiders and earthworms, I’m happy to have them around the garden.
I was shocked to learn that they’re poisonous! Garter snakes? Turns out that yes, they have a mild neurotoxin, but their fangs are located far back in their mouth, where they can’t reach us big humans. They poison their prey slowly, by chewing on them. The one I’d carried for a mile, cupped in my hands, had been totally nonaggressive. We can consider them perfectly safe.
That was reassuring, as we still had no idea where the snake was when we went to bed.
I’m glad to say that our story has a happy ending. The next morning I was walking past our guest room when something brown and striped slithered out from under the door. Without hesitation, I scooped up the snake and immediately carried it outside. I don’t know who was more relieved as it glided under the groundcover by our patio door. I hope it has a long and happy life there.