The other morning, on my way out to run some errands, I stepped off my front porch and almost landed on a large brown, red and copper colored snake.
One summer when I was a boy of about nine or ten, my dad shot and killed a copperhead that had come onto our property. These are venomous snakes and don’t mix well in an environment where young children are romping and playing. So, dad, no hunter for sure, dispatched it with his old single shot .22.
He buried the snake’s head after he chopped it off. My cousins and I, who were as close to the whole procedure as he would allow us to get, were fascinated. My dad said that a snake can continue to bite, even if dead, until the head is severed. The head must be buried because it contains the venomous fangs.
The rest of the long body he put in a galvanized washtub where it continued to wiggle and squirm. Accepted wisdom had it that a snake did not completely die until the sun went down.
The next day, a neighbor spread the animal’s remains on our picnic table and skinned it while we looked on in wide-eyed wonder. He later mounted the skin on a board and it hung in our cottage for years.
This series of events so unnerved me that for the rest of the summer, I would not go in the outhouse for fear that a snake would be down the hole and strike my behind. I would pretend to enter but would take care of my business al fresco where I could see what was on the ground.
My mother and aunt would regale us with tales of children who had strayed, been bitten, and died. I recall one tale of a young girl who was picking blueberries from a bush and was struck in the face by a copperhead. Supposedly, she died almost immediately because the venom went straight to her brain.
It should not be a surprise that I was very frightened of snakes for most of my childhood years, but somehow I got over it.
I found myself looking at the creature near my porch with dispassionate appreciation for the beauty of its colors and markings. Lying nearby, was a rolled-up wad of paper which I picked up, unrumpled, and saw it was the agenda for the recent Califon Borough Council meeting. This puzzled me: perhaps the snake had an interest in community affairs and was checking to see if any anti-serpent legislation was pending; maybe snakes used crumpled up paper to build their nests....but how do they wad it up?
I could tell from the shape of its head that it was not a venomous snake and definitely not a copperhead or rattler, the two poisonous serpents in New Jersey. I suspected it was what is locally known as a water snake, a species I have often seen around streams and ponds in the area.
Whatever it was , it had to be dealt with and not just chased off; and it had to be done before my wife got home. In fact, she had left the house via the same route just ten minutes before me and the fact that I wasn’t loudly summoned meant the snake was not there at the time….or so I thought.
I am Kathie’s interface with the natural world. It is in my spousal agreement that disposal of mice, bugs, snakes, weeds and poison ivy are in my bailiwick.
We have had garter snakes aplenty in our yard, but this was by far the largest serpent to make an appearance. It was about 3 feet long and thick across the middle.
A visit to the NJ Department of Wildlife website confirmed that it was a northern water snake. The posting cautioned that it can be aggressive and its defense consists of biting, spitting and defecation. The posting ends by suggesting that “it is best observed at a distance.”
Had this been a venomous snake, I would have called the police or an animal removal expert that I know in the area.
However, I decided I could cope with a little spitting, biting and defecating. After all, I had raised two kids.
I went to the garage to arm myself for the struggle. I considered snagging it on the rake and dropping it into a bag for transport to another location, but thought this posed a risk of hurting the animal.
Finally, armed with a pool skimmer, ice chest and broom, I sallied forth.
The plan was to get the snake into the skimmer by gently prodding it with the broom. I would then deposit it in the ice chest and move it to the swamp just outside of town.
When I touched it with the broom it responded by biting and attacking it. I was glad that it decided the broom was its antagonist and not me. The skimmer thing wasn’t working because I couldn’t get it under the snakes body. My adversary, meanwhile, gave up the fight and decided to beat feet, if it had had any. As it slithered across the yard, I finally turned the ice chest on its side directly in its path, guided the snake with the broom, and, lo and behold, it scooted right in. I slammed the lid down and five minutes later it was in its new home, safe and sound.
When Kathie got home she wondered if I had seen the snake by the porch. I asked if it had been there when she had left. She said it had and that she had stamped her foot and thrown the wadded up paper at it in an effort to scare it off.This usually works with me if I am sitting in her chair, but had no effect on the reptile. Still, it took grit to do what she did.