In Praise of Snakes


friendly garter snake


This morning I was up by the garage watering my herb patch when I met one of my friends, a small shy garter snake. Because I keep fresh water in a dish for him and for his relatives, and perhaps for other reasons, these snakes have befriended me. They appear when I do slithering out of subterranean hiding places and circle around with forked tongues extended apparently “reading” me  – or that’s how I interpret their actions. It is impossible not to note that their intentions are always friendly. If their water dish is empty, when I fill it the littlest one who is always waiting (except on rainy days) dips in for a drink. This morning a large three foot long garter snake –my biggest – arrived almost immediately afterwards and the baby slipped away. Henry didn’t seem thirsty, just curious, as he spiraled through the herb garden like a fat striped serpentine ribbon. I have made it a practice to have conversations with these snakes if they stay around; or at least monologues. I bend down as low as I can so that we are communing closer to eye level, sometimes I sit on the ground. I am particularly drawn to a snake’s extraordinary eyes.


My snakes know that I am very appreciative of the job they do during the warmer months. They keep the garage free of rodents, and in the winter they cluster in huge bunches in my woodpile to sleep. There is a southern window that they all gather in during spring days in order to warm up. I deliberately leave a space for them to sunbathe in that window. Shedding snakeskins decorate many logs in my woodpile and presently I have one that is draped over the window like a feathery rope. I am not sure what that snake was doing while shedding his winter coat!


Few people share my enthusiasm for snakes or my belief that we have formed a relationship that has endured over many years. Routinely, I am accused of the usual – anthropomorphizing – projecting my caring feelings onto cold blooded animals that are incapable of emotion – the ultimate dismissal of one person’s experience that I have come to resent, mostly because I know better.


Recently, the discipline of Neuroscience has come to my aid. Neurobiology and Neuropsychology are disciplines that study the nervous system and the brain from different perspectives and now these interdisciplinary sciences are extending their research to include non – human species (although how they continue to separate the brain from the body remains an enigma to me – the nervous system extends throughout the body – it doesn’t simply exist in the brain).


Startling information is emerging. One of the most critical pieces from my point of view, is that this cutting edge science is dismantling the hierarchy of intelligence – the one I learned in school that privileges human intelligence over that of any other living being – surely everyone recalls the pyramid – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish – all in descending order. Of course, humans were considered the most developed of all beings. Currently it is believed that octopus match humans in intelligence.


When five Neuroscientists published in the prestigious and conservative sceintific journal Nature  in 2012 (the declaration of consciousness) that numerous studies of the brain revealed that all non human animals had the same structures as humans to develop consciousness/self awareness, this remarkable information went unnoticed, probably because according animals with intelligence and feelings would force us to begin to make other choices regarding how they are being treated.


Scientists and psychologists are currently working together to help us understand that emotional intelligence is actually more keenly developed in animals than in humans. Emotional intelligence is predicated on an individual’s ability to be self aware, to “read” an individual’s intentions accurately (empathy), to manage strong positive or negative emotions with restraint, and to integrate these abilities in order to make informed decisions based on the situation at hand. Animals have to be able to use all these facets of emotional intelligence to navigate their worlds in order to survive. Humans, unfortunately, do not.


Let’s first use the example of my garter snake who circles my feet. His sensitive tongue registers the heat in my body (superinfrared thermal detection ability) but he wouldn’t be circling me so calmly if he couldn’t read my intentions towards him accurately. That he feels some kind of emotional empathetic connection seems obvious; he chooses my company. When another larger snake enters the picture, he simply slips away; Aggression of any sort isn’t an issue. Animals know how to control their feelings and act appropriately.


Timber rattlesnakes have been studies extensively and it is now known that they have social ties that include kin recognition, group defense and parental care. Littermates actively choose each other’s company, a behavior I have witnessed with garter snakes in my garage. Intentional gatherings include denning, and communal nest sites, and snakes that touch each other with their tails. One rattlesnake, a soon to be mother, was attached to another young snake that was not her son and actively threw herself in his way to stop him from being exposed to a predator. Another diamondback traveled a long way three times to be with a former mate who was ill during the dead of winter. More heartrending, a male sidewinder was observed embracing a dead female who had been killed by a car. Another rattlesnake that was being studied in the wild had a long – term relationship with a scientist.  Yet, when her babies were born she barred the way to them from her ‘friend’ by stretching herself across his path to stop him from reaching her young (she could have bitten him instead). Some rattlesnakes help care for young belonging to sister snakes. Male rattlers use stacking as a form of male guarding. To protect a female a male will coil over the top of a female to disguise her presence. Some snakes form bonding pairs. One curious observation is that snakes form female to female, female to juvenile, and juvenile to juvenile friendships but no male friendships seem to exist although hostility/aggression between males is not present.  In ‘combat’ dances between males, which are expressions of male dominance there is always a winner and a loser but no damaging or lethal violence is ever exercised. Scientists are quick to note that individual differences exist but that these social behaviors do occur with some regularity with all snakes that have been studied. It is important to note that snakes are frightened of humans and try to avoid them. Just try to catch a snake – its almost impossible – they move so fast. When rattlesnakes rattle their tails they are demonstrating their fear of us, not their intention to strike.


Snakes that are re- located rarely survive. Like many other wild animals they are wedded to a particular place, and when removed will attempt to return.


I am struck by the fact that my garter snakes all seem to inhabit a very small area. My cabin is situated just down the hill from the garage and I have never see one of these snakes around the garden or house in all these years.


In closing, snakes share traits associated with other social mammalian species: they are long lived, late sexual bloomers, cluster in groups at watering holes and elsewhere, spend their lives in wed to a particular place or territory, and show mothering personalities.


Should you attempt to befriend a snake you might be pleasantly surprised!