The Basic Philosophy of Reptilian Stewardship
One of the perennial philosophical questions is: why did the chicken cross the road? The same can be asked of snakes. Why do they do it? Hundreds of acres of shrub and woods to the right of the road, hundreds to the left, and where is the snake? Right in the middle of the road. Just lying there. Maybe contemplating a primary philosophical saw of the reptile world: why do humans insist on driving where snakes like to lie?
This time of the year, I’m pressed into service in one of my alter-avocations: snake herder. Just yesterday, driving up the mountain, I suddenly slammed on the brakes, shoved the car into park, wrenched the emergency brake on and ignited the emergency flashers, then leapt from the car, much to the amazement of my passenger. What at first I had thought was a long strip of rope or rubber was, I realized as the car straddled it, a California racer, lying absolutely straight as a string in the middle of my lane. I ran back to rescue it from itself and its own lethal proclivities, only to find that it had vanished.
“Snake,” I said, as I climbed back into the car. My passenger had remained remarkably calm while being abandoned by his driver in the middle of the road, because he is also my husband and accustomed to such displays of the snake herder’s passion. Because there’s one thing for sure: I’m not going to leave a snake in the middle of the road, to be flattened into a runnel of lead by some passing redneck moron in his big truck. It’s another thing worthy of philosophical contemplation: why people think it’s fun or maybe a contribution to the safety of humankind in general, to kill animals that turn up in the path of their vehicles. I brake for butterflies. Swerve to avoid doves collecting crop stones by the side of the road. And I stop and herd snakes to safety.
Snake Herding Techniques
Once, on my morning walk, I encountered no less than three Coral-bellied Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus pulchellus) within a few hundred yards of one another. They were all newly-hatched babies, apparently, about as big as a lead pencil, and all were stalled in the middle of our dirt road. I’m no Saint Francis. It does no good to preach to them regarding their own safety. So I have developed a variety of techniques for moving snakes along, some of which the snakes find extremely irritating, but all of which are both harmless and effective.
In the case of the coral and black ring-necked babies, I simply touched the end of their tails, which set them into frantic forward motion that eventually moved them into the weeds at the side of the road—although we did some nice, zigzagging dance steps to get them there. My neighbor, also out for a walk, encountered me in the process of making random darting movements while bent double at the waist, stamping my foot down to prevent lateral escape and muttering encouragement: “No! Not that way! This way! That’s good, that’s good…”
“Snake herding,” I said, when I spotted her staring.
She nodded her understanding. “Ah!” she said, circled me and my charge widely, and kept on walking.
It’s a little trickier to motivate a viper. When it comes to fangs and poison, even the dedicated snake herder has pause for thought. Sometimes a stick will do, and sometimes just my proximity will move them along, since they are by nature shy creatures, despite their fearsome reputation.
Depth Psychological Aspects of Reptile Tending: Herding an Archetype
My favorite snake herding story, though, has to do with another passion of mine, depth psychology. Again, I was driving, and thought I had run over a snake that was lying invisibly in a swale in the road. I sprang from the car to find that the big rattlesnake had made it into the weeds by the side of the road. Unsure if I had hit it or not, I bent down and asked it, “Are you okay?”
In response, it reared itself about eighteen inches off the ground and glared at me with obsidian eyes, its mouth sightly agape and its forked black tongue darting, clearly affronted.
I raised my hands in a warding-off gesture and said, “Okay, okay. I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you in the road. I’m so glad you’re not hurt.” The snake continued its angry stare as I backed away, got in my car and drove on.
There was a profound silence from my passenger in the backseat, until finally he said, “Well, now I’ve seen everything.” My passenger was James Hillman, father of archetypal psychology, and I’m quite sure he never expected to be waylaid by an indignant reptile, or to discover that there are those among us who are herders of archetypal forces. That’s me: Suzan Still, Snake Herder Extraordinaire!