Before I encountered Gabby, I didn’t like snakes. It might be more accurate to say that I hated and feared them. My attitude was not unique; indeed, I think that it is a repugnance shared by most of humanity. Thinking about this makes me wonder whether our aversion dates back to Eve’s encounter in the Garden of Eden; or perhaps, there is something about the secretive slithering snake that triggers an innate human hatred. I like to believe that my reaction was rational, telling myself that it was founded on the simple acknowledgement that some snakes are poisonous.
It all began one balmy evening with a full moon flooding our garden in eerie beauty, and Dan, my husband, and I stood together admiring the serenity and loveliness of the night. Then, Dan decided to pop into our garden to adjust one of our solar-powered night lights. He wanted it to better highlight our pond feature. Instead of doing what he intended he immediately came back to the house to get me. I joined him. The night was beautiful and carried the aroma of jasmine. I paused to enjoy the moment, but Dan was hyped up and urged me down to our small concrete patio. That is when I also saw the snake. It was about three feet long and, in a gruesome way, attractive with a distinctive pattern on its body. Curiously, it was almost inert and made only a slight movement when Dan tickled it with a stick. The sight overwhelmed me with irrational fear and loathing. I turned to look at Dan as he aimed his ubiquitous mobile phone and took a picture.
“Look at its segmented tail. It’s a rattler.” I said. I shook with fear thinking how it could easily turn and strike with a venomous bite. “You have to kill it!”
By now both our hearts raced, and Adrenalin flowed. I regret to report that Dan took a gardening spade and slaughtered that snake by pinning its head to the concrete. It struggled for a while. When we deemed it to be dead Dan scooped up its body with his spade and tossed it in a long-arced projectile into the greenbelt behind our house for the ants to finish off.
Now that the crime was over, we felt a tinge of remorse about our destruction of life and retreated to our home office. We Googled the image. We discovered that it seemed that we had murdered a harmless garter snake not a rattler. We felt guilty and tried to rationalize that the two species have similar markings. We read on that garter snakes are beneficial to humans as they kill rats and mice. This knowledge triggered an “ah ha” from us as we recalled a reduction in the rat menace which plagued our garden shed. We also observed that there were fewer frogs croaking their mating songs at night after rain. To lessen our shame, we told ourselves that the next time we would be less hasty and more tolerant.
Fate tempted us for two days later we spotted a much larger, similarly-marked, snake who quickly glided into our garden shed and disappeared down a drainage pipe. A few moments later she put her head out and looked around. Our Googled authority told us that female garters are larger than males, and average about three feet. Our female, who we instantly named Gabby, was even longer. I’ve observed that most people over-estimate the length of the snakes they encounter and assume this to be a human frailty in direct response to fear. However, in Gabby’s case, I do not exaggerate, she was a giant snake at four to five feet in length. As we first saw her in early May, I assumed that she had just been impregnated, probably by her recently murdered spouse. I speculated that he was sluggish that night after a session with Gabby. I consoled myself with the speculation that he died happy.
Garter snakes, and incidentally, rattlers are ovoviviparous. This means that their eggs hatch internally, and they give birth to as many as 98 babies. I read that pregnant snakes are hungry so, a day later, when I dug up a fat bug chrysalis instead of ejecting it into the greenbelt, I placed it in front of Gabby’s drainage pipe. When I returned to put my spade away the chrysalis was gone. The following day I went through the same routine with a similar result. The next time that I went to the shed to retrieve a spade Gabby poked her head out of her drainage pipe. She looked at me as if asking for her food. I quickly went into the garden and dug up a couple of earth worms in our compost pile. When I returned, there was Gabby expectantly semi-emerged from her home. She took the worms from me with a swift strike.
Over time, Gabby and I struck up a friendship. I’d feed her morsels from my gardening exploits, and she became increasingly friendly until she took to accompanying me into the garden so that she could recover her spoils as they were unearthed. Our garden has stone strewn paths, which appeared to annoy Gabby so one day she slithered up into my wheelbarrow and rode to our destination. I wasn’t exactly pleased by this development as I generally load the wheelbarrow with tools and garden refuse. By now, Gabby was even larger and sported a rattler-like tail just like her murdered spouse. Seeing it gave me a sense of justification for our nocturnal killing, for surely it was a reasonable mistake. Every day Gabby became more one of our family and less garden snake.
One day when we had heavy rains, I worried about her home in the drainage pipe and delivered an abandoned dog basket complete with blanket to the shed. Gabby examined it with her mouth open to better use her vomeronasal organ. The smell must have pleased her for she thanked me by twisting her long body around mine before slinking into the basket and curling up in the folds of the blanket.
Unfortunately, Gabby gradually became discontented with her garden role and began to follow me to the house. She attempted to enter by stealthily moving between my feet when I opened the door. I turned and chided her, “NO” even though I know that snakes have limited hearing. On the first few occasions, she accepted my instruction, but one hot summer day when we had torrential rains in the form of a blown-out stalled hurricane Gabby came to the glass patio door and rapped on it with her head. The noise of the rain and the storm made noises difficult to decode, but I thought that she made a noise like the rattle of old bones. I did not open the door.
Summer was coming on when Gabby encountered the man who came to read the gas meter. He knocked on my door,
“Lady, you have a huge snake out there. It looks like a rattler. I can’t read your meter.” The man was trembling.
“Oh, no Gabby is NOT a rattler,” I said “she is a harmless, and beneficial, garter snake.”
“I don’t know,” said the man as he shuffled from one foot to the other, “I just can’t read a meter with that THING lurking around. It’s just not proper!”
I realized that the situation was getting out of control, and worried that Gabby might not integrate well with visiting grand-children. I decided that, although we had something special in our relationship, it had to end. “After all,” I told myself, “Gabby is only a small-brained snake.” So, I lured her into my car and drove five miles out of town to an entry into the Barton Creek Greenbelt where I dumped her. I told her that it was for her own good, and that she was better off out here where no-one would mistake her for a rattler and put her life in danger.
Five days later Gabby reappeared. This was serious, for she appeared hurt and angry. She reared her body up outside our glass garden door and rattled her tail. I was terrified and called the local animal rescue group who, due to Gabby’s great size agreed to “adopt” her for one of their displays. When they arrived, they confirmed that Gabby was a poisonous rattler not a harmless garter snake. I did not watch the capture.
A week or so passed and I went to visit her in her new surroundings. She seemed lethargic and looked mournfully at me though the glass. She died a few days later.