When my husband and I moved over the pass from North Bend to Malaga, I had an established fear of snakes. In my defense, I come from a long line of snake detractors. My grandma kept strategically placed hoes throughout her prized garden. If a snake had the audacity to enter her lush oasis she would grab the nearest hoe and go after it like a pneumatic log splitter until a pile of 2″ writhing segments of snake lay at her feet. She saved the rattles as trophies.
My dad inherited Grandma’s amazing ability to dispatch a snake 15 seconds flat. He despised snakes so much that when my brother, who had yet to learn to adjust his pranks to his audience, walked into the kitchen dangling a baby garter snake between his forefinger and thumb, Dad promptly threw both the block of cheese AND the knife he was using in the general direction of the enemy (I’m not sure if the enemy was my brother or the snake, but together they made a good target). Luckily, my brother had learned to duck fast.
Up until recently I still harbored a solid fear of snakes. Their silent slithering gave me the heebs and they were too hairless, too cool, and too dry to make a respectable pet. Plus, call me crazy, but I am a little wary of anything that can deliver a venomous bite several hours after its head has been cut off.
When we were visiting our property in Malaga before moving here, my dog (of questionable intelligence) was running through the sage and was super stoked to find a fun, moving stick to play with. It was a rattlesnake. She ended up enjoying a few expensive nights at the vet which did nothing to improve my attitude toward the venomous vipers.
When we started building on our property and were living in an RV inside our shop, I officially became a merciless (if temporary) snake murderer. So many snakes! It felt like they were circling the shop and coming in for the kill. Literally. They were actually coming IN the shop — with a rather pissy demeanor, I might add. I was convinced that we had built on top of a den of rattlesnakes and they were livid. Incidentally, searching “rattlesnake den under the house” on YouTube did nothing to ease my mind. Be ye not so stupid!
My first kill occurred when I was playing outside with my three-year-old son and my cat came screeching by at Mach 5. I figured the only thing that would make our laid back cat move that fast was a snake. I walked over to the shipping container and there it was, one of the largest rattlesnakes I’d seen in person to date emerging from under the container. The Mama Bear in me took over and I hustled back to the shop, grabbed the BB gun, high-stepped it back to the shipping container (my son right behind me with his wooden toy rifle) and started blasting the snake at point blank range. It looked like swiss cheese by the time I was done with it.
When I confessed to the murder, some people high-fived me but others insisted that the snakes wouldn’t harm us. However, in the same breath, they would often remark that the behavior we were seeing wasn’t usual. Not exactly comforting, but it led me to research our local snakes.
In the meantime our other cat picked a fight with a rattlesnake attempting to come into the shop one night, another rattlesnake aggressively held its ground in front of my car door and I couldn’t get in, and one surprised us on a dark night, rattling at us from under the patio furniture we had, until that exciting moment, been sitting in. Pew! Pew, pew! (that’s the sound of me shooting them) I actually only killed a couple of rattlesnakes total. But deep down, I wasn’t comfortable with it. The guilt was eating at me.
Luckily, unintended exposure therapy mixed with a strong shot of education stopped me from becoming a serial killer.
The cats kept bringing rubber boas into the shop and I was forced to catch and evict them. Rubber boas are the most docile snake you’ll ever come across and really should be offered up as a starter snake. Their snub nose and drab color make them look like a large worm, and their temperament is similar. The Yellow-bellied Racers were much more of a challenge since they lived up to their name — I’m not sure how the cats were able to catch them. Also, they are climbers which I have still not come to terms with. But I rescued every single one that showed up in and around the shop, carrying them to safety entwined on a rake, or sometimes scooped up in a snow shovel.
The bullsnake has taken over as the most common snake we see on our property (the first few years it was all rattlesnakes). We usually find them hanging out on our driveway, absorbing the warmth of the gravel. I used to be wary of them but now I can easily identify them from afar and have no cause for alarm.
The longer we lived on the property, the fewer snakes we saw. We were all learning to give each other a wide berth. And the more exposure I had to the snakes, the more my curiosity overpowered my fear.
It helped that my cousin’s husband, Ian, is a dedicated herper (someone who searches for and studies reptiles). He is an absolute wealth of information and for years he’s patiently answered my questions via email and helped me identify the snakes I come across. Ian’s passion for snakes is contagious. A couple of years ago, after Ian and Beth stopped by for a visit and we discussed snakes at length, I announced that I was ready to give snakes a chance.
A week later, I received snake tongs in the mail from them.
Snake tongs make it possible to control a snake without ever having to a lay a hand on it. A long pole creates a safe distance from the head of the creature, acting as a second arm to lift or drag it away while keeping the snake out of striking distance. Controllable jaws at the end of the grabber will keep a firm, yet gentle grasp of the body, making it possible to lift the snake up with ease. I felt the pride of having graduated, and the tongs were my diploma.
Once we had the snake tongs, my husband, son and I were absurdly excited when we came across a rattlesnake at the base of one of our apricot trees. In a flurry of motion and excited shouts, we locked up the pets, grabbed the snake tongs and headed out as a team to rescue our first snake. I knew my attitude had drastically changed when I fretted that the tongs weren’t holding the snake comfortably. Since when did I care about a rattlesnake’s comfort?
I had my husband grab a branch to support the rest of its body (we’ll never graduate to actually touching them). We walked the rattlesnake to the edge of the property and let it free. I’m sure it was back within a few hours, but we felt like we were doing our part to keep the rattlesnake and ourselves safe. I gave myself an extraordinary amount of back pats for not taking a hoe or BB gun to the snake.
Why shouldn’t we kill all the snakes and then burn the world to the ground just to be sure they’re dead? Snakes help keep populations of mice and small mammals in check, while in turn are preyed upon by hawks and other predators. But the biggest threat they face is people (especially hoe-wielding, BB gun owners) and development. Rattlesnakes do not prey on humans; therefore they will not likely bite a human unless they feel threatened. Only two deaths have been reported in Washington since 1979 — and none since 1999. But every year, an average of 15 people in the state run afoul of Northern Pacific rattlesnakes, according to the Washington Poison Center. Stay alert and give them a wide berth so you’re not one of the 15.
Fortunately, my career as a snake murderer was short-lived. Once I replaced misguided beliefs with knowledge, my fear was replaced with respect. Now, I hop out of the car to shoo them off the driveway, I talk to them and try to make sure they look handsome/pretty (honestly, I can’t accurately differentiate between male and female) in my photos, and I actively seek them out. Apparently, I’ve come to like the creepy little buggers and look forward to seeing them every spring.
Educational/identification link for local snakes: https://wdfw.wa.gov/living/snakes.html
Ian Garrison’s YouTube channel (cool videos): https://www.youtube.com/user/technoendo/videos
What to do for a snake bite: https://www.cprseattle.com/blog/venomous-snakes-in-washington-what-are-the-chances-you-ll-meet-one