Snakes in the grass

A friend posted a photo on Facebook of a snake she’d found in her yard. She didn’t know exactly what it was but I quickly identified it as

A ball of mating garter snakes.
A ball of mating garter snakes.

a common garter snake. Garter snakes are something I have some personal experience with.

In my youth in the 1950s I and my friends always assembled a zoo in the summer. We kept frogs, snakes, turtles and whatever we came across while running around people’s back yards or the creek. Our menagerie always included several garter snakes and at least one black rat snake.

Very early I learned that most snakes are non-poisonous and harmless. Don’t know how many times I’ve been bitten by snakes but it is not big thing. The non-poisonous snakes I’ve been bitten by had very small teeth that barely broke the skin. I’ve had little splinters that hurt worse.

My best garter snake story took place while I was teaching junior high at South Salem. The town’s cemetery adjoined the school and about every spring I take my classes on a walk through the tombstones and point out the graves of historical persons, etc. During one of these walks we came across a small hillside that was simply alive with garter snakes. It was a writhing, twisting ball of snakes which I later learned was their mating habit. When the females, which are larger than the males, come out of hibernation they are put upon by great numbers of horny males wanting to share their DNA.

After observing the snakes for a while it was time for lunch.  After lunch I had a free period while my students were at recess. About half an hour after the lunch period was over and all students were back in their rooms I heard my name being loudly and angrily shouted from the second floor. It was the sixth grade teacher demanding my presence after discovering that my students had sneaked back into the cemetery during recess and gathered up several dozen garter snakes and sold them to her students. There were garter snakes slithering all around her classroom floor and she was not at all willing to view this as an opportunity for a lesson in natural science.

I had to find the culprits in my class, have them scurry down to the sixth grade room, refund the money, and return the snakes to the slithering ball from which they were snatched.  For several days following that I was not warmly received in the teacher’s lounge. But over the years that became a favorite story that got told anytime that teacher and myself were together.

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