I can’t believe I’m writing a blog post about snakes but I am. I realize I’ve probably already lost a few readers with the above picture, or maybe with just the title but I applaud those of you who are still reading on.
I’ve never considered myself a snake lover by any means. In all honesty, I have a healthy fear of them and have never, EVER had any desire to own one as a pet. I’ve always trembled inside when I see animal shows where the exhibitor wraps a constrictor snake around their neck (the key word being CONSTRICTOR here). I ask myself why anyone would do that? Though I might be a little bit fearful of snakes, I try to respect and appreciate them and the valuable role they play in our ecosystem.
It seems that a few of my blog posts lately have been inspired by my frequent walks in the neighborhood in my quest to lose weight. I guess this one is no exception. So I’ll get right to the story that prompted me to write this post.
I was out walking last week, when one of the little neighborhood girls came running up to me and excitedly told me that there had been a black snake in our yard down by the street a few days previously. She said she and her little playmates had been “freaked out” by the snake. By her description, I told her it was more than likely a harmless rat snake (also called chicken snakes around here due to the fact that they like to eat chicken eggs and other bird eggs). I told her if left alone, that snakes won’t bother you and usually a snake is more scared of you than you are of it. She then told me that upon seeing the snake, that one of the other little girls ran and got her daddy who promptly came and killed the snake. I felt my whole body sink at the mention of that poor snake’s demise. Had they come and knocked on my door, I would have gladly relocated the snake. Chicken snakes are good at keeping the mouse and vole population down and they will even eat the venomous snakes like Copperheads. I’ve heard they will even take care of moles in your yard. And Lord knows we could sure use help with the moles around here.
Have you ever heard the saying that “the only good snake is a dead snake?” I have, many times, and I bet you have too. Maybe you’ve even said it. I’ve known people who have told me that they will purposely swerve their car to hit and kill a snake if they see one crossing the road. For some reason, these people are under the impression that no snake is beneficial and that when they see a snake, that it must be killed. And so they go around killing every single snake they see. This sort of angers me. I think this fear of snakes is a learned behavior. Snakes get a bad rap in the media if you think about it. They’re almost always depicted as the bad guys. I totally understand that people don’t want poisonous snakes in their yard or around their children and I’m certainly not advocating that everyone should love snakes or even like them. I just wish people would educate themselves a little more when it comes to snakes and stop killing every snake just because it’s a snake. I’m convinced more people are probably bitten by snakes when attempting to kill them because they corner them and force the snake to become aggressive and defend itself. Had they just left the snake alone, it very likely would have gladly gone on its merry way and not bothered a thing.
Can you imagine people’s anger if you went around saying, “The only good dog is a dead dog?” Well, a lot of people have a fear of dogs, but they don’t go around killing every one they see. We have to be rational when it comes to dealing with our fears.
In veterinary school, we took a Comparative Animal Medicine course which covered exotic animal medicine—avian species, laboratory and zoo animals and reptiles. It covered the animals most likely seen in practice. You know, animals like hamsters and gerbils, chinchillas, guinea pigs, rabbits, mice, rats, ferrets, birds, snakes, turtles, Iguanas, etc. As you can imagine, there’s SO many that not much time can be allotted to each type of animal. In some ways, that’s where I’m always a little envious of medical students versus veterinary students. In medical school you have human— male and female—to learn about. In veterinary school, you have, well, you get my point. I felt the knowledge I gained in exotic animal medicine in veterinary school was very limited. There just was NOT enough time to learn all we needed to know about all the many different exotic animals. Most veterinary school curriculums are 4 years in length and I’m convinced they could expand them to ten years and it still wouldn’t be enough. In our clinical year, we had an exotic animal rotation which was two weeks long. TWO WEEKS! That was it. In that rotation, we saw the clients who brought exotic animals into the small animal clinic, treated the hospitalized exotics, and spent time going around with the zoo vet treating animals at the Knoxville Zoo. I learned a lot but not near as much as I would have liked.
And there was this one really bad “event” that happened with a snake in vet school during a reptile lab that I must admit made my fear of snakes increase tenfold. The vet school I attended had this reptile room with various snakes that were used to teach the students the proper techniques used in handling snakes. In this room was a ginormous python. I’m guessing it was about 5 1/2 to 6 feet long and its body was as big around as my calf (calf as in the part of your leg below your knee, not calf as in baby cow). This snake had always shown the gentleness of a lamb, or so we were told. We had to attend a student lab where we spent the day learning different things about snakes and how to handle them. In the student lab just prior to mine there was a student who was a friend of mine and who had Ophidiophobia which is the fear of snakes. During this lab, the exotic animal resident lifted the python out of its enclosure to demonstrate some proper handling techniques of large snakes. It was immediately after lunch and I don’t know if the snake smelled food on her breath or what (we were told this was the most likely reason for this snake’s behavior), but suddenly and violently, the ginormous python struck. Right in the vet’s face. It’s mouth was open wide and it had latched on to her lips, face and chin. The vet resident remained calm and cool as a cucumber but the students were horrified and didn’t quite know just what to do. The one student with the snake phobia screamed, went running from the room, got out in the hall, where she slid down the wall to the floor in a near faint. Thankfully, another exotic animal resident just happened to be coming down the hall, heard the commotion, and went running into the room. He literally had to slowly and carefully pry this python from the veterinarian’s face. Yes, snakes do have teeth and yes, she had pinpoint puncture marks where the snake had bitten her. When it came time for the next lab group (which was my group), I can tell you that the python was not bothered, not used in any handling demonstrations, and no student was forced to handle any snake they didn’t want to. And after hearing the story of what happened in the lab just prior to ours, none of the students in my group were feeling very enthusiastic about doing much snake handling. But we overcame our fear and handled the smaller snakes but you can bet we left the ginormous python alone. As for the student with the snake phobia, I’m not sure she was ever the same. Just kidding. She recovered and was fine.
The owner of the veterinary practice I went to work for after graduation, didn’t really like to see the exotics that came in, so those appointments were passed to me. I actually really enjoyed seeing exotics but my one complaint was that in a standard veterinary practice, you just don’t see enough of them to get really competent at treating them (or maybe the word is confident). One veterinarian, who was new to our clinic, refused to see snakes. He let it be known that he just didn’t like them. One day, a walk-in client came in at lunch time with a box that obviously contained a snake. I don’t know if it was a snake he had found in the yard that he wanted identified or if it was his own personal pet snake with a medical issue. He asked our receptionist if any of our vets knew anything about snakes. This new veterinarian was the only one in that day. So the receptionist went to the small window that was between the waiting room and the main exam room and proceeded to ask this veterinarian who didn’t like snakes if he knew anything about snakes. The veterinarian, thinking someone was on the phone asking and not knowing the client was standing right around the corner at the desk with a snake in a box, jokingly said in his very loud and prominent voice, “I KNOW HOW TO CUT THEIR HEADS OFF!” The client, at hearing this, took his box, smiled, and politely told the receptionist he would just try another clinic. Oops. Yeah, it was bad.
I remember the first snake I treated out of veterinary school was a very sick boa constrictor named Jethro. It was feeding time, and the owner had put two rats in Jethro’s aquarium, who attacked Jethro. This is a fairly common occurrence with snakes who are fed live-prey, especially if more than one rodent is placed in the enclosure. These rats had ganged up and preyed upon Jethro instead of Jethro preying upon them and had about eaten him alive. Rodent incisors are sharp and inflict painful razor-like bites. Poor Jethro had bite wounds from his head to his tail (some of them large).
After examining this snake, I wasn’t so sure he would survive his ordeal. Jethro was in bad shape. He was lethargic, painful, and would not eat. He was dehydrated and his wounds were smelly and infected. I gave Jethro fluids for his dehydration and started him on antibiotic injections. Snakes have a slow metabolic rate and so he received an antibiotic injection every 3 days for about 2 weeks. I began soaking him (and his wounds) in a dilute betadine (iodine) solution for 15-20 minutes each day. After he was dried off, I applied a neosporin-like ointment to his wounds. I gave him vitamin B-complex and B-12 injections and Vitamin A injections. I instructed his owner on good nursing care and ways in which he could change his feeding practices. Jethro was a good patient and surprisingly, over the weeks that I treated him, I found myself with some pretty strong feelings of compassion for this badly injured snake. I so wanted him to survive. I felt some of the unhealthy fears I had about snakes just start melting away. You might even say I got a little attached to this snake. His wounds, though slow in healing, did finally heal. His dehydration was corrected and his scaly skin started to get a healthy shine to it. He became more active. I knew we were out of the woods when Jethro’s owner told me he was enthusiastically eating again. I guess you could say that treating Jethro and interacting with him changed the way I looked at snakes.
The fact that we are scared of snakes doesn’t give us the right to kill them. By doing so, we’re removing a valuable part of the ecosystem. What it boils down to is people’s ignorance about snakes and education. And education is greatly needed where snakes are concerned.