Snakes are a part of Appalachian rural life. Many people, in fact, are comfortable with a rat snake or king snake taking up residence in a barn, shed or rockpile. An unexpected encounter with a six-foot black rat snake might be disturbing, but after a while you learn to appreciate and be neighborly toward your reptile groundskeeper.
My late wife and I became fond of a large female rat snake that lived in our barn. We named her Gertie, do not ask me why. The snake did just what her name implied: hunted, captured and consumed mice and rats that raided our corn bin, chewed holes in feed bags, even gnawed through wire insulation.
Somewhere under the floor, undisturbed in the dark and dusty shadows, she made a nest every year. Soon, we would be high-stepping in panic, surprised by small versions of the mother snake slithering across the ground when we least expected it.
When I moved back to Tennessee, the new owners of my farm inherited Gertie. They looked rather nervous when I explained how harmless and how tame she was. I did not handle her much because of the nasty smell of her musk, but often she had to be picked up and relocated to a safe place when farm equipment was in operation.
My new house included only a small amount of acreage. I no longer raise cattle, poultry or row crops. But I have inherited a black rat snake from the former owners. Gertie II is even larger than her north Appalachian cousin. She lurks between a rock garden I built and a retaining wall, doing a credible job of keeping the rodent population in check.
Karen, my wife, is experienced with snakes. Her family raised boas and other reptiles. So, she is not afraid of serpents except when they surprise her as Gertie II did when she took the dog out for a walk one afternoon.
“The black snake was stretched out across the sidewalk, and the dog absolutely refused to go forward,” she said. “That snake is huge!”
The little dog has not forgotten. If the snake is lolling in the flower beds bordering the sidewalk, he takes the long way around. Unlike our farm dogs of the past that cornered and killed snakes if you did not intervene, Moose is terrified of Gertie II.
Moose is 20 pounds of curly hair with a bearded face and short legs. He can jump straight up almost to my eye level and is very muscular and athletic. He is also active and busy, especially when outside. But he has not forgotten the snake.
Any sudden touch, even a gust of wind or blown leaf, causes him to jump straight up. He thinks Gertie II is attacking. We commiserate with him, but it is comical to see the small dog crossing the yard in a series of vertical springboard leaps when he steps on a twig or a tall weed nudges his back leg. The poor little fellow is constantly on the lookout for snakes that aren’t there.
His predecessors, Mason (the best dog in the world) and Gracie, the rat terrier, were veteran snake herders. Did not matter what species or how mean, snakes could not be tolerated, and they had developed a system of dealing with them.
Mason, the big shepherd, would face down the reptile, leaping in and feinting to focus its attention, while the diminutive terrier leaped at its tail, trying to get a grip and pull backwards. Of course, I did not want them to kill a “good” snake, one that preyed on varmints; neither did I want to risk them battling with a copperhead or cottonmouth.
This required me to intervene. Beneficial snakes went into a burlap sack for release off the farm. The dangerous snakes, unfortunately, had to be terminated. For hours after a snake battle, Mason and Gracie proudly strutted. They had done their job. Protected the farmstead. The strange thing is that they tolerated Gertie.
Not Moose. Gertie II has made him a nervous wreck. He is mostly a brave little fellow, but not when it comes to a black rat snake in the flower beds.
Gertie II will shed soon, and I know the exact place. I’ve found her discarded skin in the shed, dangling from the ceiling where bent nails hold shovels and rakes. Moose needs to master his fear of this snake, and the way to do it is to allow him to “corner” the snake skin in a controlled environment and, hopefully, realize the big black rat snake is not hunting him and wants to avoid confrontation.
Karen and I have discussed this plan because Moose now will not use the bathroom in the yard if he smells Gertie II. We wouldd hate to have to relocate her. Just as bad, our dog acts like a Mexican jumping bean whenever he is outdoors. He presents this odd behavior even when being walked at the park.
“What type of dog is that?” a lady asked me recently after witnessing Moose pogo down the walking path like a cartoon animal.
“He is a springing snake terrier,” I replied.
“Oh, I’ve heard of those.”