Reptile Reparations

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My mom grew up not far from here, and her early days flew by as she raced around the brook and crumbling mill in the hollow where she was born. Spending her days with two older brothers traipsing over moss covered boulders and dirt lined trails, she became well acquainted with snakes: garter, milk and timber rattlers. Meanwhile, a few miles away in Suffield my dad was growing up on a farm, and it was not unusual to have a milk snake sunning near the pig pen or a garter snake making its way along the stoop. So, it was pretty logical that when they married they would become a reptile forward family raising a slew of boys and one girl who was basically a boy; there was no turning back.

While I was still in the baby tender, my mom had transformed the screened in porch into a reptarium. The grocer who lived next door had a ready supply of gallon jars. My parents placed these on their sides, and we punched holes in the tops and filled them with vegetation. These housed our collection of garter and milk snakes, praying mantises and toads. My mom allowed us to buy some lizards at the pet store, and they were given free range of her spider plants and her drapes. Usually we would have a batch of baby possums or rabbits that we were nursing back to health in a wooden barrel, and we always had a galvanized tub with painted turtles out on the patio. The pet raccoon, after an evening of shenanigans, would be curled up asleep on the sofa in the family room. I am sure my mom wished the four of us were doing the same.

I was drawn to the garter snakes and spent much of my childhood with one wrapped around my wrist or slithering up my arm. I still love them and seek them out on the trail and in the yard. They are the most common snake in these parts, adapted for varied habitats. Like any reptile, they are cold blooded and must bask in the sun to get energy. They feed on worms and insects and are excellent swimmers. When threatened they give off an unpleasant musk odor but are happiest retreating and being left to do their reptile thing. They hibernate from October until April, often in large groups. When they emerge from their slumber, if you are lucky, you can witness their mass mating and eye-catching mating ball which sounds racy and exciting and leads to the live birth of baby snakes in a few weeks. The female garter can give birth to 20 to 40 adorable baby snakes who are independent right away. What’s not to love about that?

Photo by Joan Heffernan
A garter snake slithers out from under a rock. They are quite harmless.

But not everybody shares this love of snakes, and growing up, we had a family of intellectuals with three girls that lived in the saddle shop near us. Every day we raced our bikes by their house on the sidewalk, and we couldn’t help but notice the inviting mail slot they had in lieu of a traditional mailbox. One day I decided to deposit several young garter snakes through their mail slot before racing away. I doubt this was a good decision for the snakes or the family. The snakes probably did not relish living on Persian carpets and slithering under highboys. And the family would probably rather practice their cellos in peace or read some sonnet without catching a glimpse of a reptile out of the corner of their eye. Decisions made on the fly are not often the best ones. But that’s the way it goes. I’d like to think that the snakes made it out of the saddle shop through some hole in the basement, and that the intellectuals were so absorbed in bettering themselves that they never caught a glimpse of the snakes. I’ll never know, and I have given up on the family of intellectuals, but I still try my darnedest to make snake reparations anytime one slithers across my path.

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