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Requiem for a Black Snake

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A follow-up to "Looking Into an Owl." Amazingly, I had two wrenching roadkill experiences in the same day. Tough stuff. Here's what happened that afternoon. At least I was out of my pajamas for this one:

 I spent too much of today trying to understand the un-understandable. Like why someone in a white van would deliberately run over a beautiful black rat snake on my road, my chapel, my place of communion, when I would have been thrilled just to see one crossing. I knew the minute I saw the snake it was mortally injured.

But I stopped, to see if I could help.

 The poor creature was writhing away, slowly choking up its last meal, which turned out to be probably five meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus). It brought up three, an adult and two babies, but I could see there was at least another vole or two still in there.

It wasn't easy to identify the prey, slimed as it was, but I could see the incisors were yellow, not red, and rodenty in form, so that ruled out the only other like-sized short-tailed mammal it could have been, Blarina brevicaudata, the short-tailed shrew. Nope, it's a meadow vole.

And two babies, which probably wasn't an accident--it had probably surprised a whole family, grabbed the babies and then taken down the mother. The mother came out first, so she was taken last.

Now, any thinking farmer with a hayfield would be more than happy to have a black rat snake cleaning out the voles, but people who run over snakes on purpose don't think that way. Or at all. They don't know or care how the snake fits in the ecosystem; they don't know or care that it is a thing of great grace and beauty; all they know is they hate snakes because they know nothing about them; they fancy the snake is a danger to them, and they kill what they hate.

All without thinking or caring.

On my road. On my watch. And there was nothing I could do but stay with this poor beautiful suffering creature until it was finally still.

Chet Baker would not come closer than five feet. He was concerned for me, but he couldn't make himself draw any nearer. So he investigated the crime scene very thoroughly. Good boy.

 Then he turned for the car, but when he saw that I wasn't moving he came back to offer what solace he could. This is his Deeply Concerned face.

Within minutes the greenbottle flies were there, looking to lay their eggs, perhaps. I can't be sure, but this might be Lucilia sericata.  A beautiful name for a stunning fly.

I am sorry, Snake, but there are so many more thoughtless people than kind ones in this mean old world. I stroked its soft skin but it was already gone, gone to a meadow far away, to bask on a road without meanness or cruelty.

Which should be my road, this road that I love so well, but isn't.


How sad! I learned about the value of black snakes almost 30 years ago from a youngun:

Living in a mobile home, one hot summer day, I opened the cupboard door below the kitchen sink to find a black snake curled up in a drip pan -- EEEK!, what to do what to do, snake in a trailer! I called local animal control and asked if anyone there dealt with snakes and they said they actually had a volunteer who specialized in snakes... they would send the person over. Soon there was a knock on my door, and I opened it expecting to see a big burly guy with a 12-ft. pole and a burlap bag; instead I was facing a 12-yr-old girl with a stick and a grocery bag, who said "I'm here for your snake." She quickly got the snake and then gave me a mini-lesson on the beauty and value of black snakes... a lecture I've never forgotten.

I've never cried for a snake until now. Thank you for such a beautifully written story.

I like snakes, but as Julie Stone said, I've never actually cried for one before.


The Black Snake
by Mary Oliver

When the black snake
flashed onto the morning road,
and the truck could not swerve--
death, that is how it happens.

Now he lies looped and useless
as an old bicycle tire.
I stop the car
and carry him into the bushes.

He is as cool and gleaming
as a braided whip, he is as beautiful and quiet
as a dead brother.
I leave him under the leaves

and drive on, thinking
about death: its suddenness,
its terrible weight,
its certain coming. Yet under

reason burns a brighter fire, which the bones
have always preferred.
It is the story of endless good fortune.
It says to oblivion: not me!

It is the light at the center of every cell.
It is what sent the snake coiling and flowing forward
happily all spring through the green leaves before
he came to the road.

So sad. I cried as I read your story. I cannot believe the ignorance in this world.

We love snakes are are delighted when we spot a black racer in our backyard. They are always welcome here!

A little story of mine with a happier ending - One morning I was opening up my library when I noticed a tail underneath the edge of the door. I thought at first it was just a brown anole, but then realized upon further inspection that it was a snake up in a small hollow underneath the bottom of the door. I knew it could not stay there so I tapped on the bottom panel hoping to scare it out before patrons started to arrive. Well, I did manage to scare it out...right INTO the library! Oh, this was not good. Thankfully, it did not go far. It was not happy and struck at me as I tried to put a box over it. I looked around for a broom to use to coax it out the door, but the maintenance closet was locked, so I had to call security. I told them the situation and specifically said if they were going to come over and kill it, not to bother coming and I would deal with it myself. They said they would be right over. Two officers arrived with a broom. I asked again if they planned on killing it. It was a beautiful corn snake and was not venomous and I would not allow them to kill it. They assured me they were just going to chase it out with the broom, which is exactly what they did. It slithered off into the flower beds outside the library. Every time I open that door I think about the snake and I am glad I was there that day to help it get back home safely.


Two months ago, my husband and I relocated a black rat snake after it ate all the lizards around the house. The way in which we trapped and moved that snake was comical but in the end, I sat in the back seat of the 4-Runner with the snake next to me until we found the perfect place for a snake with a belly full of lizards, one mile away.

I'm with you on this one! I love snakes, and try to "preach" their value in the ecosystem. Whenever I come across one on the road, and I'm able, I stop and encourage it to move on off the road, so the next person who comes along, who perhaps doesn't like snakes, won't purposefully run over it. I do that for turtles too!

Thank you for your touching stories!

How horrible!
We have a large black rat snake in the crawl space under our house..and never a mouse to be seen.

How sad. I always feel bad when I see any animal laying dead by the side of the road, but at least, I tell myself, its troubles are over. I would be terribly distraught to find a creature suffering and dying.

How do you know the snake was deliberately run over? Did you witness the white van's occupant(s) reaction to the impact?

I can't be sure the killing was deliberate. But it was a 4' black rat snake on a well-lit white sand/gravel surface, and I saw it the second I crested the hill, with ample time to stop. You would have to be blind not to see it. I suppose there's the possibility that someone thought it was a stick. You'll have to forgive my siege mentality; I pick up so much disgusting litter on this lovely road. I find tombstones in the little churchyard toppled over, and it takes a lot of effort to topple a tombstone. People see a bobcat and instead of marveling make plans to kill it, protected or not. Running over a snake on purpose just seems to fit, unfortunately. It's a painfully beautiful world we live in, and it's just tragic that everyone can't treasure it as we do.

Ugh. Heartbreaking. But what a beautifully written tribute.

Snakes and spiders are so misunderstood. Rats too. :)
Some folks are even afraid of trees -

Thank you for writing a lovely tribute in spite of such an ugly event...oh, this upsets me so...I drove behind someone who deliberately swerved to run over a turtle once...and it was just horrible...I don't know what is the matter with people. So sorry this happened to you and your road and your world...and the poor snake!

A bloody question mark dries on your gravel road ... and the answer is ... ignorance.

Hence, the mission of Zick the Florida Kingsnake ...

(since there is no dumbass vaccine for the parents who teach this hate)

... to boldly go and charm snake-a-phobic school children until they surrender to her charms and grow up a little kinder, a little less hateful, and a little more likely to ... swerve.

What a sad story for a beautiful creature. I'd like to think that the driver just wasn't paying attention, but that is the whole problem with our society - trapped inside our own self-centered bubble.

Posted by Dana Bollin September 27, 2011 at 1:08 PM

And if you have not seen Zick the Kingsnake on, well, you must, because I have never been so charmed to be the namesake of anything. Not that it has happened much at all, but still. A little girl Florida kingsnake!

Floridacracker, it took you to see the question mark. I think I was too upset when I took the photo to see it myself. Thank you. Keep lighting that little light, willya?

Everyone, thank you for your wonderful snake stories. Such great stuff. You give me so much.

Julie, I just had to post another comment. I read one of your posts about rescuing box turtles from the road and that same day on my way to work there was a turtle in road. I helped him cross, so he was safe. Today, I read your post about the snake. As I drove to work, what did I see heading into the road? A very long, black snake! It happened so quickly and there were cars behind me, so I could not stop but was able to swerve and miss hitting it. I looked in my review mirror and prayed the lady towing the horse trailer behind me would miss the snake too. Thankfully she did not hit it and I saw the snake turn around and shoot back off the road into the weeds. I looked on my way home and did not see a dead snake, so I guess it did not attempt to make another crossing. I was so happy! I just thought I'd share this odd coincidence (and my snake story with a happier ending) with you.

We've just had our front sidewalk was crumbling at the seams. The stonemasons who came were showing off a bit the first day, saying how quickly they would finish the job 'cause they were so strong and could break up this old walk in no time. Sure enough, one guy bent down and picked off a broken chunk of step (alright, it was well past needing to be replaced). What should appear underneath but a young garter snake, waiting for a bit of sun to warm the step before she started her day. Boy, did those stonemasons squeal and leap around! I walked over and picked her up, held her a bit, and put her in a patch of sun around the corner. They were amazed how "brave" I was. Since I am not able to impress my growing kids with my superhero skills as much anymore, I humbly acknowledged their praises.....

Wayne, PA

Nice story, Carlene. Thanks for sharing it.

Heather, yeah! This brought another memory swimming to the surface, of a Sears garage door repairman who commented after replacing our opener, "I killed your big black snake for ya."

He did not get quite the grateful reaction he was looking for. He got a tirade about white-footed mouse sh-t in my car manifold, blowing into my face every time I turned on the heating and cooling fan. He also got a call to his supervisor for his presumption in assuming I *wanted* him to kill my big snake. He got no tip. He got the bum's rush.

Honestly, snakes bring out the absolute worst in some people.

As a kid in Pennsylvania I was awakened one night to my mother screaming my sister's name at the top of her lungs. Sis and I both had a fascination for the little garter snakes in the field across the street but sis carried it just a little too far by putting 10 or so garter snakes in a shoebox in the living room. During the night a few had escaped to the warmth of my parents' bed! Sis was encouraged to return them to their natural habitat.

In Texas, where I lived for 34 years, the most obvious snake hatred was reserved for the rattlesnake. I never could understand why. Rattlesnakes just want to be out of the way of humans. I encountered them many times while backpacking in Big Bend. Even if I came upon a rattlesnake two feet away (how could you miss that signature rattle) I would stop dead still and back up very slowly giving the rattler time to slither off the path. My dog Maybelle was trained to do the same. Backing up that is, not slithering.

I don't know what purpose a rattlesnake serves but I'm sure it rarely gets treated with respect. And that's one snake that deserves a great deal of what Aretha Franklin would call R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It doesn't deserve to be killed just because it's alive.

I accidentally ran over the tail of a black snake one time. Hadn't noticed it in time to miss it completely. The snake coiled up and I turned around and went back but by then it was slithering off into the grass. Another time I saw a black rat snake in the road and stopped. Luckily it was a quiet suburban street. I was mulling what to do when a man came along on a bicycle. After I had photographed the snake he used his bicycle tire to move the snake to a yard.

I also have tears in my eyes reading this. So many people have been taught to fear and hate snakes--as the wife of a man who is so afraid of snakes that he will chase one down with the lawnmower, I've learned to keep my mouth shut when I see one. "My snakes" are welcome to all the rodents they can catch!!!

Feathers, it sounds like time for your husband to read this post. I am not kidding. Maybe it will awaken something heretofore left sleeping.

Where my business used to be there was a huge rat snake that crossed my path one day. Over 5 ft in length. I recognized it as a friendly snake and let him or her go on about their business. I hate to see people destroy snakes just because they are snakes. It took my a while to be of this mind and now I leave them be.

I'm one of the ones wiping tears from my eyes, too, over this snake's untimely demise. I relocated a small snake a few years ago, probably a gofer snake, found coiled next to our bed and against the wall. I thought he was a rope-like belt of mine, but as I reached down and touched it, its cool smoothness told me otherwise. I let out a laugh and called my husband in to see our new visitor. The snake never moved, being cold and sleepy on our tile floor in this darkening room. We got the dustpan and broom and scooped him up and placed him outside next to our fence under some bushes in our front yard. He was a beauty and I just felt so pleased to have gotten to experience him, including a light touch of his marvelous skin.

Ah, Cowango, you're one in a million. How many people would reach down, touch a snake, realize it was not a belt, then laugh? How lovely to see so many singular people here, sharing stories and snake-love.

Sad. Passed a roadkilled adult bald eagle on St. Rt. 23 south of Killdeer Plains yesterday. I would certainly like to think it wasn't done intentionally. We probably should have stopped but didn't as we were still dressed up post-funeral. A sad day all around.

This story strikes a chord with me. I once ran over a garter snake on a deserted rural road, mistaking it for a crack in the pavement until the microsecond before the tire went over it. I immediately pulled over and went back to find it horribly wounded. It died in my hands. I'll never forget the feel of its scales shuddering to a halt.

However, there was a redemption of sorts this past summer. On my way home from the wildlife rehab centre I work at, I found a garter snake in the middle of the road that had been dealt a glancing blow to the head, leaving it with a swollen face and bleeding into both eyes, making them opaque and bright red. I gathered it into a cloth shopping bag and headed straight back to the rehab centre where we nursed it back to health over six weeks before releasing it.

Found your article via another blog. Great message and I concur, beautifully written.

What a brilliant idea!!! Because of a design flaw in my Toyota, I host mice in my car. They hate the mothball hanging in my engine compartment, but so do I. A snake would be just the thing. thanks.

Oh my. Somehow I missed this blog. How sad this is. How angry I am. I think what pisses me off the most (sorry about the language) is that an individual act of cruelty like this will be found an over again wherever you care to look, and magnified a million times because we need a quarry, or a pipeline, or some gorgeous lumber from old growth trees. And who gives a damn about the snakes, or birds, or fish. Well, you sure do. And I do. God, I'm mad.

Snakes are so reviled and misunderstood. On our lake where we have a colony of nesting cormorants I hear over and over "What good is a cormorant?" It's as if these creatures have no value if they don't benefit those people directly.

One of my most shameful memories is having shot a beautiful 5-foot Diamondback who was miles from any habitation and just laying in the sun minding its own business.

It was delicious, but thinking about it over the next few days, it changed my entire attitude toward hunting in general. That was 35 years ago, and I haven't hunted since. Gave the belt away, too.

Very sad, snakes are wonderful, and this would upset me too - however, you said, "....there was nothing I could do but stay with this poor beautiful suffering creature until it was finally still". I don't understand that - why didn't you put the poor thing out of its misery.

I don't know how many dying animals you've sat with, Anonymous. As a rehabilitator, I've stayed with a lot of them. Dying isn't instantaneous. It takes awhile. The snake was dying when I got there. Nothing I could have done would have hastened that or made it better. Usually intervening at such a delicate time only traumatizes the animal, intensifying its suffering. I chose to be still and present beside it and let it finish its life. But I am still laying for the people in the white van.

Touching story Julie. I've witnessed cars doing this and it's just what you said - people hate what they don't know.
A couple years ago I was traveling a remote road when I approached a stopped vehicle in the middle of the road. As I slowed and eventually stopped behind the car a very large Canebrake Rattlesnake slowly and safely crossed the road. It was a large, beautiful snake and a lifer for me!! The car could have very easily ran over the snake but it didn't. Canebrakes are endangered here and I was excited to tell my story afterwords. Unfortunately my excitement soon dissipated as many of my friends questioned why I didn't run over the snake. Very disappointing...

Wow, I'm feeling some weird synchronicity--I found my way here while Googling to see what kind of spider I have decorating my kitchen window. I accidentally knocked her into the grass while trying to get a better look at her. I came in the house but felt so guilty and was so worried that she wouldn't make her way safely back up to the web that I went back out with a spoon and a glass jar and scooped her up and put her back in the web. She zipped up to the little webby "hut" she'd made on the window frame and tucked herself inside. She'll pop back out when it gets dark.

So, yeah. I understand the grief over the senseless killing of a "scary" creature. May the people who ran over your beautiful snake be infested with field mice and voles in some sort of karmic payback.

Dear Julie, I just came upon your blog and this post. What a poignant and heartbreaking story you told. I dread finding a snake in the situation you encountered. A supervisor at the hospital where I work as a wildlife rehabilitator had to take matters into her own hands with a suffering snake who'd also been run over, and I cried on and off for a day after hearing her tale.

I understand why you are quick to lay the blame on a careless or purposeful driver. I've witnessed so much human malice in my time out in the field, it's difficult not to lay those motives on a scene like this, where it appears someone could have easily avoided the snake. A few years ago, we rescued a desert tortoise that was large enough for anyone to see. But no one was stopping. It happens far too often.

Thoughtful drivers slow down for any anomaly on the road, especially in areas where a crossing like this can occur. I've seen people almost plow into flocks of birds with the expectation that they will fly out of the way. Or perhaps, without any expectation, just not caring in the least. There's a certain sense of entitlement I think humans have while driving or walking amidst our fellow earthlings -- as Dana suggested, a self-centeredness.

It brings me much sorrow to see some of these things in my daily life. But today, the sorrow is assuaged a bit for reading about someone like you who cared this much for a creature so often, too often maligned. Thank you!

Ingrid, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Just today I was stopped for a pack of turkey vultures cleaning up a possum on the road, and this guy in a pickup comes barreling over a hill and plows right into the middle of them at high speed. Did he think that vultures can lift into the air like pigeons? The wing of one bird brushed his windshield. I hope he thought about how that vulture might feel on his lap, because that's what he's going to get, driving like that and assuming everything's going to just get out of his way. It really is infuriating to see how little regard many people have for their codenizens. Especially ones that work the janitorial shift. Perhaps he'd rather run his clean shiny truck through a dead possum than give them the time and respect and space to do their good work.

Julie, I'm not sure I'll ever get used to the minimal regard afforded our codenizens, as you describe it. The screwy thing is that so many times, it would actually be just as easy to do the "right" thing. Uh, as in, not plowing into a group of vultures. Thanks for your beautiful blog and for your attention to these matters. I appreciate your writings, photos and various sentiments.

I do not like snakes, but I know that they have a purpose and I do not kill them. If I know where they are I avoid them. I have 2 snakes that I have to contend with on a daily basis( if you name them they live longer) brownie a little brown racer in the raspberries and shadow a teal and black garden snake in a large flowerbed in my front yard. I was weeding out early this spring half way through weeding I had a LITTLE black garden snake slither over my hand - end of weeding that flowerbed. We have a truce I try to know were they are in the beds and they try not to give me heart failure.
A person does not have to kill everything they come across, just make wider paths.

Posted by Anonymous August 19, 2014 at 1:21 PM

Aw, that's so sad! At least you were able to(hopefully) comfort it in it's last moment

Posted by Anonymous April 27, 2016 at 10:20 AM
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