I was biking along the Georgian Trail this past weekend and twice nearly came to grief when I narrowly missed running over a garter snake slithering across the path almost directly under my wheels. There is something about the way a snake moves that is both beautiful and repulsive at the same time. Their speed can be unnerving though in both of these encounters it was probably what saved them. I clutched desperately at the brakes and went into a spastic sort of front wheel wobble as I skirted past the first one. The second was even closer. I was convinced that a collision was inevitable and my shoulders hunched reflexively as I pictured what would happen. Something that small wasn’t likely to survive the encounter. I don’t much like snakes but that didn’t mean I wanted to coast right over it like an unexpected speed bump. I was hugely relieved when it slipped past and disappeared in the tall grass edging the trail with only an inch or so to spare.
Garter snakes are harmless enough. I grew up believing that they didn’t have teeth and so, of course, that’s what I told my children when they mentioned seeing one in Grandma Livingston’s garden. My daughter, Lauren, would have been around five years old at the time and she and her brother, Jason, who was seven, decided they would try to capture it. No doubt they had visions of producing it at the dinner table for maximum effect. It was bound to be worth a shriek or two.
They set out for the garden and began to hunt through the rows of vegetables for their unsuspecting prey. It looked like an enterprise that would keep them occupied for the afternoon so I left them to it and went to work in another part of the yard. When they finally discovered the garter snake sunning itself between the peas and carrots they discovered it wasn’t going to be as easy to grab as they’d expected. It was fast, much faster than they were. There was a bit of a scramble and Jason got a foot on its tail effectively pinning it in place. The snake thrashed about frantically trying to free itself. "Grab it around the neck," he urged, waving an arm at his younger sister. Without a second thought she reached out to do just that.
That’s when we discovered that garter snakes do indeed have teeth. Lauren’s startled shout caused Jason to jerk his foot back and the snake took advantage of the moment to beat a hasty retreat. I looked over to see the two of them with their heads together examining Lauren’s hand. She finally came running to me, sporting two tiny puncture marks on the end of her finger. It actually drew blood.
“You said they didn’t bite,” Jason accused. Lauren looked ready to cry.
“Well,” I hedged. “If someone stepped on your foot so you couldn’t get away and then tried to grab you around the neck, you’d bite them too. You scared that poor snake half to death and he was pretty desperate to get away.”
That was a point they were willing to concede. You have to respect an animal’s instinct to fight back when it’s trapped. There was no further snake hunting that afternoon. In fact, the garter snakes of the world have had nothing to fear from the Livingston’s since that day…unless of course they are trying to cross a bike path in front of one of us.