Confessions of a snake-a-holic Why I love snakes (and so should you) BY DAVID E. JENSEN
f you ask the average person for an opinion about snakes, the result will range from unbridled excitement to utter revulsion. As a confirmed, self-diagnosed snake addict, I fall into the first category. I have loved snakes since I was a kid, and the kid within me still thrills at the prospect of finding or catching a snake. Teaching people about snakes and being a snake ambassador have always been second nature to me, and I knew early on that saving snakes was a cause I believed in. Long before Americans knew who Steve Irwin was, I was driving remote roads in Utah’s west desert in the middle of the night, catching snakes that had gotten too comfortable warming their bellies on lonely asphalt and moving them away from the carnage of infrequent but deadly car traffic, mostly on the road that cuts through Skull Valley and leads to the military base at Dugway. In the languid warmth that rises from the pavement after dark, the road gives back the heat it stole during the day, and snakes that come across this alien surface at night will often pause and linger there. It was the mid-’70s, and I was a teenaged driver with a newly minted license. I found it convenient to
put my kid brother Gary and his best friend Keith on the hood of my orange ’68 Chevy as I drove slowly along desolate ribbons of blacktop in the summer darkness. Dangling their legs in front of the grill, they could jump off and instantly grab any snake that appeared in my headlight beams. To my great satisfaction, I discovered that by simply tapping the brake pedal, I could launch my brother and his friend off the hood and onto the roadway anytime I wanted. This potential kept them alert.
Any snake in Utah that doesn’t have a rattle is harmless. Almost nowhere in the world does identification get any easier than this. We usually saw gopher snakes, Mormon racers, or the elusive desert-striped whip snake—all harmless species—but occasionally providence would place a rattler in our path. This was always cause
for excitement. We’d put the snakes in pillowcases borrowed from my mother’s linen closet, tie the open end securely, and drive them closer to the foothills and away from danger. Too often we’d see snakes that had already been run over, sometimes deliberately, since many of them were on the shoulder of the road, and I had to wonder about the type of person who would swerve to hit a snake at 60 miles an hour. Is their contempt for snakes so great that they are willing to risk their own lives to kill one, and if so, why? There are approximately 2,000 snake species throughout the world, and 31 of them live in Utah. Of those, only seven are venomous and they are all rattlesnakes. Any snake in Utah that doesn’t have a rattle is harmless. Almost nowhere in the world does identification get any easier than this. The other 24 species include the rubber boa (a true boa similar to the boa constrictor of South America, only smaller), three species of garter snake, two king snakes, one milk snake, the Great Basin gopher snake, and more than a dozen other innocuous, reclusive, nocturnal or otherwise seldom-seen serpents that inhabit
the state from border to border and mountain top to desert valley. When I remove a rattlesnake from someone’s yard, it provides an excellent opportunity to educate them about the intrinsic value of snakes in the environment and their direct benefit to humans as a free source of rodent control. Hawks and eagles eat mice and rats, but only the adult animals, whereas snakes go into burrows and consume the babies, effectively eliminating hundreds of thousands of future rodents and the diseases they can carry. The act of physically rescuing snakes and simply talking to people about them can have the same result. A woman I work with told me that she was driving a narrow dirt road with her husband when they saw a large snake, probably a gopher snake, basking in the midmorning sun. From her description, the snake stretched from one side of the road to the other, but people who dislike snakes often overestimate their length. The lethargic reptile was as limp and inanimate as a rope and completely oblivious to their presence. My friend confessed that there had been times when they had thoughtlessly driven over snakes in the past, but she saw this one and
CATALYST Magazine June 2013 issue