Snakes in the Garden


It’s cool to be frightened of snakes. It’s like being nervous about bushfires or trees falling on your house or running out of water—the fear keeps us alert and aware of our environment and if you live in Australia, the fears are well founded. Venomous snakes are a very real part of the place we call home. How we deal with fear is one of the important ways we define ourselves as humans and when those fears go nuclear or start messing with our joy of life, we need to stop and look at what’s going on.

Quite a few of my mates are keen on the traditional method of dealing with snake-fear and keep a shotgun for that purpose. Just having the gun around makes them feel better. It was their brag stories—about the big tiger they got with the 410 or the copperhead they dismembered with the shovel—that got me revved up enough to do a professional snake-handler’s course and I learned some things.

Snakes aren’t aggressive.

Think about it for a minute; are we part of their food chain?  If they come into our houses, it’s not with the intention of attacking us. They eat frogs and lizards and mice and nestlings and if your garden is gentle on the earth, you’ll find snake food everywhere. Snake food is the sign of a healthy garden, so snakes are probably the sign of a healthy garden, too. They love it when we pile up rocks and make ponds. Like us, they love mulch, to hide under and hunt through. The woodshed is like a live-in supermarket for snakes.

They are defensive creatures.

And here’s why; they are two centimetres tall. Some of us (well, the less vertically challenged specimens, like Dr Barry for example) are ONE HUNDRED times taller than that. Could you imagine being confronted by a creature two hundred metres tall? I don’t know about you, but if a two hundred metre tall monster cornered me, the first thing I’d do is run and hide, and that’s how a snake usually deals with human contact. If there’s nowhere to hide and no place to run then I’d make myself as big as I could, make as much noise as my body could muster and use every thing I had to defend myself. Snakes flatten themselves and hiss and raise their heads off the ground and some strike with sharp pointy teeth. The teeth—and venom—didn’t evolve as weapons; they evolved to grip and kill their prey as quickly as possible so they didn’t get smashed to pieces getting a meal. The teeth are—metaphorically—like digging sticks that can also be wielded as clubs.

Being scared of people, snakes rarely set up camp where we’re milling about. Normally, when you see a snake in the garden, it’s just passing through, looking for a snack or avoiding the neighbour’s mower. Or dog. Or cat. My mates that kill everything that looks even marginally like a garden hose tell me it’s to protect their pets or protect their kids. They’d better get busy because both the pets and the kids are more in danger of dying from the sting of a European honey bee than they are from snake bite. The people who get bitten are usually male, often drunk and almost always messing with or trying to kill the thing.

Last spring, the wrens were going berserk in the passion fruit vine that grows on the dunny, going crazy in the special ‘chat-chat-chat-chat-chat’ way they do when there’s a snake around. I watched them and eventually spotted the glossy tiger snake that was giving them grief. They sometimes climb small trees and shrubs to raid nests. I went inside to get the camera and the kids. We crept outside and I almost got a picture before the snake spotted us and crashed off into the bush. We all squealed.

A few weeks later, I spotted a copperhead in the veggie garden eating a skink. He had his mouth full and I crept up, with my heart banging in my neck, and got the photo. I’ve since learned that copperheads are the benevolent priests of the dangerous snakes in our area. If you’re indecent enough to stand on one and they strike at you, chances are they’ll do it with their mouth closed. A red-bellied black snake is more cantankerous than a copperhead and can flatten out and hiss like a beast but they’d still much rather run. Slide. Whatever. Tiger snakes can feel cornered in the middle of an empty footy oval. And brown snakes, on a hot day, are like professional wrestlers—picture a shaved, tattooed head, a few stray or absent teeth and a face cramped into a perpetual scowl. Not necessarily looking for a fight, but not the sort of creature you’d want to arm-wrestle drunk.

So, I did the snake-handling course and the next time a snake appeared at home, I was interstate for work. A tiger snake, trapped in the corner where the back fence meets the chook pen. Robyn heard it hissing in the half-dark as she went out to lock up the chooks. She screamed—she has more dignity than to squeal in those sorts of situations—and ran inside. Correct response.

Snakes are deaf. They have no ears so squeal and scream all you like. It won’t disturb them. And they don’t sense the vibration through their bellies so stomping through the grass won’t make them slither off either, unless they see you moving. When you’re thinking snakes, think Jurassic Park; the T-Rex can’t see you when you’re not moving. And on the warm nights they get around on smell and tasting the air so take a torch when you’re closing the chooks in.

Hayley from the wildlife shelter came to Robyn’s rescue. Put a bag down and the snake obligingly slipped inside to be released down by the creek.

I think it’ll be a while before my friends go running for the digital camera when they see a snake, perhaps a generation or two, but only a few generations ago my ancestors were guilty of far greater crimes of ignorance.

Are the snakes living in my garden or am I living in theirs?