Wild Ideas: Something slithery this way comes

Last week I was sitting on the couch in my living room, working on my laptop. I raised my head to look out the window across from where I was sitting, about six feet away, and found a huge snake staring back at me.

Could the black rat snake that ended up in Pam Owen’s living room last week, shown here back outside near a chimney, be the same one that tried to get inside in 2013 (below)?
Could the black rat snake that ended up in Pam Owen’s living room last week, shown here back outside near a chimney, be the same one that tried to get inside in 2013 (below)? Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Almost five feet long, the snake was an eastern ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis, formerly known as the black ratsnake). It is the only snake that can exceed six feet in length found in Virginia, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society, and is nonvenomous.

The snake lay quite casually with its front half on the windowsill, wedged in between the window and one of my favorite pieces of pottery. The rest was curled around a poinsettia on the table and lying across some computer equipment next to it. The snake must have come in through the nearby deck door, which I’d left open.

Pam Owen's 2013 visitor.
Pam Owen’s 2013 visitor. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

I was about to grab for my camera to take a photo, but it was on the chair next to the table and I didn’t want to spook the snake and have it end up in some inaccessible nook in the house. To get it safely out of the house, I knew I’d have to grab the snake and jerk it clear of the breakables on the windowsill and table.

As a kid, I’d picked up snakes a lot barehanded, I hadn’t taken on a snake of this size in years, and my reflexes were not what they used to be. I slowly walked over to look for a pair of leather work gloves in a basket about 10 feet away. I could only find the right-hand one, but that at least would protect the hand I’d use to grab the front end of the snake.

When I returned to the snake, it apparently realized the jig was up, started to back off the table. Its head quickly disappeared behind the pottery, then reappeared, heading toward the floor. Thinking I’d lose any chance of catching the snake, I grabbed for its neck, just behind the head.

Eastern ratsnakes, while not venomous, usually avoid humans, but, if cornered can be quite feisty and will bite, as I found out several times as a kid. I’ve actually seen them come close to standing on their tails ready to take on whatever was threatening them.

And because eastern ratsnakes are great climbers, generally in pursuit of rodents or birds, they can show up in amazing places. I once had one fall from a stable rafter onto a horse I was saddling, and I’ve seen them climb up walls by wedging themselves between a door jamb and a windowsill. At a house I rented previously, a large eastern ratsnake regularly spent summer mornings draped over an azalea bush next to my front-porch steps, basking in the sun. (For more tales about my encounters with with these snakes, see my July 8, 2013 column about another large one — perhaps the same one — that almost came in through the deck door.)

With the snake at hand, I wasn’t quick enough and ended up gripping the snake’s neck too far down from its head. I tried to grab its body with my left hand while adjusting my grip with the right, but the snake whipped around and bit me at the base of my left thumb before I could secure the hold.

While black rat snakes can deliver a startling bite, like this one on Pam Owen’s hand, any pain and marks usually quickly subside.
While black rat snakes can deliver a startling bite, like this one on Pam Owen’s hand, any pain and marks usually quickly subside. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Of the many creatures I’ve been bitten by over the years, I have to say I far prefer the bite of a ratsnake to most, including a host of invertebrates that can leave me itching and scratching, and even in pain, for weeks. Not for the first time in my life I now had a nice crescent of needle-like pricks with blood trickling out of them, but the blood and slight pain stopped quickly. (Even the mark was gone in a couple of days.)

Ignoring the bite, I concentrated on moving my right hand up closer to the snake’s head, so I could prevent being bitten again. When I had my hand in the right place, I jerked the snake up and away from the breakables on the table, knocking over only the poinsettia, and finally managed to grab the lower part of the snake with my left hand, securing it. In a last-ditch defensive effort to gain its freedom, the snake released some musk from its rear end, which was a lot worse than the bite.

I escorted the snake to the deck, leaned over the railing and unceremoniously dropped the snake on the ground. It quickly disappeared into the little stand of trees and vines a few feet away.

Although I like having ratsnakes around, primarily to control copperhead and rodent populations, I hoped the snake would stay away after its rough treatment. But the next day, walking up my porch steps, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see what had to be the same snake. It was now wedged into a gap between the chimney and the wall of the house, and a vertical groove in the siding. It was apparently trying to make its way up to my attic, which likely still smelled of the rodents that had taken up residence there last winter.

My landlord had secured the vent and a hole a woodrat had made up there a few years back. However, knowing how good ratsnakes are at finding their way in, often through amazingly small holes, I wanted this one to move along to other quarters. But first I wanted to get that photo I missed getting the day before.

I carefully went inside, trying not to startle the snake, which was staring at me, and grabbed my camera. But, by the time I got back to the porch, the snake had moved completely behind the chimney, and I could barely see it. After sitting on the porch for quite a while, hoping the snake would emerge but only seeing its head as it peaked out to see if the coast was clear, I finally gave up. I haven’t seen it again — yet.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”


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