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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"There are No 'Bad' Snakes"

Welcome to Desert Creatures Great and Small's first blog posting. This all started because my posts and pictures of wild critters to Facebook were getting out of hand, and folks were unfriending me because I tend to post pictures that people don't want to see right before bed.  Ok, this is not quite true, but I do have the 'bug' to share what I do every day with you all. If you are reading this, you and I may share this love of desert creatures great and small. I hope you enjoy it.

I am lucky to get to work as a Park Ranger in the beautiful Sonoran Desert. My typical day is, well, anything but typical... and that's just the way I like it.  Every day is a new adventure-- you never know what kind of amazing, weird, or beautiful creature you might be lucky enough to see, out in the Park.  Through this blog, I hope to give you a glimpse into my world. Maybe you found my page because you are fascinated by desert creatures, like I am, or maybe you have a morbid fascination with snakes and other creepy crawlies. Whatever brought you here, welcome.


In the desert, snakes start emerging in large numbers from their underground dens in late February and March. This March, we discovered that several rattlesnakes decided that under the Park Visitor Center would be a great place to overwinter. Mark (another staff member), our supervisor and I gently removed six western diamondbacks from the crawlspace over the course of two days, as we 'discovered' them, and relocated them far from the center.  Later, Mark and I talked about the fact that we had actually 'invited' the snakes to den there, by providing them with a dark, protected 'underground' lair. I realized that we were moving them only because it was the 'expected' thing to do...and that moving the snakes was only for the public's perception-- not because we were actually concerned that people or snakes were in any danger. We do, after all, live in the desert.


When I ask friends in the park ranger/zoo/aquarium field what first got them interested in wild animals, they usually respond that they had memorable direct experiences when they were a child. Some grew up wading in tidepools near their childhood home, while some experienced nature on family vacations. For me, it was catching thin, slippery garter snakes  and admiring glistening canvases of garden spider webs in our family's zucchini patch.  For show and tell, I once brought in a few of my sleek black reptilian friends to school, and it didn't seem strange to me at all. You could say I consider my personal interactions with snakes to be positive ones.


In college, I interned at the Western North Carolina Nature Center, where part of my job was to care for the Center's education snakes and encourage visitors to interact with them. On one particular day, I was greeting visitors while holding a beautifully-patterned 4-foot corn snake. Some people reacted with smiles and touched the orange and black snake gently, but many recoiled in fear and kept their distance from me. It was frustrating to me that some people had such a visceral reaction at seeing any snake, based on their previous experience with all (or one?) snakes, I imagine possibly from childhood. Toward the end of the day, I became sad that it seemed more people had negative reactions than positive, or even neutral about snakes. The last visitors through the door that day were a mother carrying her very young daughter. I steeled myself for a negative reaction from the parent or possibly both. I was shocked when that didn't happen. The mother walked excitedly up to me, introduced her daughter to the 'snake' with a smile and pointed at what I was holding. Her daughter, too young to speak yet, smiled, bent down toward the snake, and before I could react, kissed the snake on the head! Needless to say, that ended my day on a surprisingly positive note.

Fast forward to this week. I was using one of our Park's education animals, 'Elvis', in an interpretive program. Elvis is a beautifully 'oreo-cookie' banded California kingsnake. I explained that kingsnakes are 'ophiophagus' or 'snake eaters', and often eat rattlesnakes. A mom spoke up and 'translated' for her preschooler. 'This is a good snake...good snake', she cooed.  It made me think about how we teach children about the world around them.  Why is a kingsnake considered 'good' because it eats rattlesnakes, or a corn snake because it is non-venomous? A kingsnake is neither good nor bad. It just is. If we label an animal 'bad' or 'good', is it fair to base this only on our personal past interactions (or potential future interactions)?  I challenge us all to shift our self-centered focus, to propose that everything in the desert, scaly or slimy, great and small, 'bad' or 'good', is an integral piece in the great puzzle we call the wild world of nature.  


A gorgeous 'pink' morph speckled rattlesnake.  Good or Bad? You decide...





 Removing rattlers from beneath the visitor center...

One of 6...


'Snakes in a Bucket'
Releasing the ratllers into the desert




A new home for our ''Visitor Center Snakes'




Thank you for reading! 'See' you next Monday, when I'll share the story of an orphaned desert tortoise!


-Ranger Amy