ABOUT A WEEK AGO, I was taking the dog for her usual morning walk, passing as always over a bridge that crosses a small brook. On one side of the bridge the road crews have installed a safety barrier, and there is a lot of rock there—great snake habitat. As we were passing the end of the safety barrier, I noticed an abrupt movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see that a large garter snake (about the size of my thumb at its widest point) was coiled up at the edge of the road. To my surprise, the snake had its mouth open and kept striking in my direction. It didn’t come anywhere near reaching me – I was at least a foot too far away – but it kept striking anyway. Mind you, neither the dog nor I had done anything to disturb the snake other than walk past it. I found the snake's behavior very odd because, despite having grown up in Texas, home of the diamondback rattler, I’ve never seen a snake be aggressive toward a human being.
Before I spread any panic about these beneficial creatures, let me hasten to remind everyone that garter snakes aren't poisonous. Precisely because they don't have venom with which to cripple prey, they do have strong jaws (but no teeth), and some people think their bites are painful. (Other people say the bites don't hurt at all.) Some people develop a rash after being bitten by a garter snake, presumably a reaction to the snake's saliva. But garter snakes are (to quote a favorite line from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) mostly harmless.
After telling my snake-encounter story to an e-list of naturalists I belong to, I learned that garter snakes are actually pretty feisty as snakes go. They are aggressive hunters, eating a wide range of foods, including slugs and other garden pests. In addition, at least some garter snakes are willing to be quite aggressive in self-defense, striking at humans if they think they have been cornered. One person on my naturalists' list had been bitten and another knew someone who had been bitten. But in both cases the human had done something to make the snake feel threatened: One had disturbed a nest, while the other was trying to pick the snake up. "I deserved" it, was the latter's comment. She reported "a bit of pain" but otherwise no ill effects.
I wasn't sure whether to tell my own story here, because I don't like to feed the prejudices that may lead people to kill snakes and other beneficial creatures. But I decided to go ahead after reading, on the very interesting Bug Girl's Blog, that July 16 was World Snake Day. The coincidence was too good to pass up.
Rather than stay quiet about my feisty friend, I decided to tell the story and use it to make a couple of points that are important for wildlife-friendly gardeners.
The first is that most wild animals would prefer to avoid close encounters with humans if they can. Note, for example, that the snake I encountered on the road made no attempt to get any closer to me, though it easily could have. Striking in my direction was intended as a warning, not an attack.
The other, which follows from the first, is that it is important to treat wild animals with respect. Keep your distance; watch but don't touch. Unless of course you know what you're doing, as did the naturalist who tried to pick that snake up--but then be prepared for the consequences, as she was, if you make a mistake.
And finally, the risks faced in encounters with wildlife are usually pretty small. I've been bitten twice by supposedly domesticated dogs (evidently, my rear end bears a striking resemblance to a frisbee), but I've never been bitten by any wild animal. So I'm often amused, when I'm not saddened, that many people are frightened of snakes, bats, spiders, bees, and other common garden friends--yet those same people may not shy away from their own or neighbors' dogs. (I have nothing against dogs; in fact, I have two. What I find striking is the inconsistency.)
If there are animals in your area that are capable of doing real damage, by all means learn how to avoid them and, for times when you can't avoid them, how to not incur unwelcome attention. But keep in mind that the joy of watching wildlife is generally far greater than the risk.
I enjoy watching garter snakes, for example, and plan to continue doing so. If you want to attract these beautiful creatures to your garden, provide shelter for them. (Since they eat almost anything, it's habitat that they need.) Shrubbery and tall grass will do, but I've found that they especially like rock piles or wood piles. They also like to warm themselves on sidewalks, stepping stones, or large rocks if these are placed in sun. To provide habitat in the vegetable garden, so they can eat garden pests, try putting an old door on top of a few 2x4s, so that it is just an inch or two above the ground. To avoid killing snakes with a lawn mower, walk the area before mowing and chase them away. Mowing early, before the sun is up, may also help to spare them from those mower blades.
There are many websites with good information on the natural history of garter snakes. A search on "Thamnophis sirtalis" will turn them up. Or you can try the one belonging to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife.