I have a deep respect, but not really fear, of snakes. I know some of them can make me very sick, or even kill me, but most of the ones I am likely to encounter in my garden or near my home are harmless. That is why I am troubled by the reaction of many who immediately want to kill any snake they see. So when I walked out my front door this morning and saw two of my cats sitting astride a 12″ rough earth snake, I did not panic. Instead, I googled the appearance for my area (there are some excellent snake identification sites available online) and relaxed.
When I was a kid and we had just moved from the Baltimore suburbs to a country estate surrounded by old fields, woods and a graveyard, we found a beautiful snake near our house and called Mom to come and see. She went bezerk! She got a broom, which was the first thing she could grab, and she whacked it to death. Turns out, even without knowing what she was doing, she was right. That snake was later identified as a copperhead – not a pleasant encounter for anyone, man or beast (and we had a couple of dogs and kittens at the time).
Forward to my move to North Carolina, an antique house that had been neglected by its aging previous owner and whose grass outside stood at a healthy foot when I moved in. My stalwart male cat, Rusty (Trusty Rusty), who thought he had died and gone to heaven in this rural setting, explored the yard to his delight. One day, when we were about 6 days into the move, I saw him engaged in a battle with something near the house. I thought it was a mouse or vole and did not pay much attention. I went into my office, the window of which overlooks the same area, and almost fainted when a 3 foot rat snake waved to me from the ledge outside. I immediately contracted to have the grounds mowed and cleaned up. And since a rat snake is harmless and actually kills copperheads, I didn’t do anything else about it.
But, and this is the lesson, my cat Rusty got deathly ill a couple of days later. From a snake bite, said the vet. Why? Because even non-venomous snakes carry horrible bacteria in their mouths and can inflict a virulent bite that, left unattended, can quickly become septic. With a few days in the hospital, he recovered, but he definitely used up at least one of his lives in that encounter. We were lucky. And so, my dear gardening friends, know your snakes, treat them with respect and let the nice ones live, but should you wind up with a bite — get medical attention immediately.
Also, if you have chickens, even a “harmless” rat snake can be life threatening to them if they are big enough. So that is why you need to keep your yard and garden trimmed, and keep your coop raised off the ground and be watchful!