I have friends from outside Texas who ask me regularly “Why do you stay there?” The general impression of Texas is that it’s a hostile, horrible place full of dangerous wildlife, most of which is human. The more specific impression is that Texas is just like Australia, only instead of drop bears descending from trees, we have armadillos that jump up for home games of “Ow, My Balls!” Several years back, on a trip to Banff, Alberta, the Czarina and I stopped by a tourist center and talked with several Canadian national park rangers, and all they wanted to talk about was the number of venomous snakes in Texas. “I couldn’t live there. Between the rattlesnakes and the alligators…”
My response was “Dude, you live in a province where all of the garbage dumpsters are armor-plated to fend off GRIZZLIES. And even we Americans know how dangerous pikas can be. Bloodthirsty little monsters.”
No, I stay here because of the unorthodox beauty. The sort of beauty, for instance, that presented itself on a side lot of the Day Job. Say hello to Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri, better known as the Texas rat snake.
Texas rat snakes get their common name for obvious reasons. Yes, they’re from Texas, as well as Louisiana and Arkansas. They’re also obviously snakes. The “rat” part, though, comes from their eating habits. While rat snakes of all types won’t turn down birds and various small mammals, their diet consists mostly of rodents, all of which are constricted instead of being dispatched with venom. As such, they tend to hunt on the edges of farms and grain fields for rats and mice, often moving inside barns and stalls while seeking prey. Our local indigenous rats, along with the introduced Norway rat, also have a thing for hiding out alongside human dwellings, and where they go, so do the rat snakes. More often than not, the snakes slither down rat burrows, chow down on the rats, and then claim the burrow as a hiding area.
After hearing stories from co-workers about the giant snake inhabiting one outdoor courtyard, I’d hoped to spot it one of these days, but it was my boss who saw it while looking down off a balcony normally used by the smokers at work. Knowing the number of ophidiophobes on site, we figured that the best thing we could do was move it away from the building so as to prevent any misunderstandings between reptile and human, but otherwise leave it alone. After all, neither of us want the rats around. Since I’m probably one of the only people on site who knows anything about reptile handling, I came in for a closer look, identified it as a rat snake as opposed to any of our rather rare venomous snakes, and held it long enough for identification. I wasn’t absolutely sure, but based on experiences with indigenous king snakes, I suspected this one was gravid and looking for a place to lay eggs, so we called it “her” in the interim.
This wasn’t the first time I’d come across Texas rat snakes, or even ones as big as this one. The area around the Day Job is loaded with various winter and summer wheat fields, with the unfortunate side effect that snakes hunting for rodents get hit with all sorts of horrible pesticides. Most of the time, the snake is dying or at least extremely disoriented because of the spraying, so it was a singular honor to examine one in excellent health. Oh, and she was. In fact, she was point-blank cantankerous until she settled in and realized that I wasn’t a threat.
As for the much-hyped bad attitude of this species, that’s a matter of attitude. Having kept snakes at one time or another since I was three, I’ve handled everything from garter snakes to water moccasins (once, and I don’t recommend it without safety gear), and Texas rat snakes are nowhere near as cranky as water snakes or black racers. I’ve personally kept a beautiful bull snake and an equally beautiful speckled king snake (named “Madcoil” by the request of a then-girlfriend who was heavily into the comic Elfquest back when we were in high school) that did their best to kill me before I could pick them up, and this one wasn’t anywhere near as bad as that. Even so, she managed to get in one quick tag on me before I secured her head, and it was such a soft bite that I didn’t even realized she’d touched me until I noted the blood.
Aside from biting, Texas rat snakes don’t have much in the way of defense. Like the aforementioned bull and speckled king snakes, they vibrate their tails when started or threatened, sounding like a rattlesnake’s rattles if in leaves. (Again, they’re nothing like black racers: hatchling black racers not only vibrate their tails, but they have markings nearly indistinguishable from those of pygmy rattlesnakes.) That doesn’t do a whole lot against their natural enemies, which include hawks, coyotes, and the occasional ambitious housecat. When in hand, she first tried to strike at my face, and then calmed down when she realized that I wasn’t going to take a bite out of her. Snakes aren’t particularly intelligent compared to other reptiles, and they’re really just mouths and stomachs with a mobility system, but the rat and king snakes are smart enough to understand when a human isn’t a threat.
In the end, it was fun, but my boss and I moved this snake out and let her climb a tree far enough away from the front of the building that nobody would come across her when leaving work for the day. She’ll probably be back, but seeing as how she’s been around for this long, I don’t begrudge her this a bit. With luck, she should get in another decade of basking on tree limbs and snagging rats and mourning doves, and I don’t begrudge her that at all, either.