by Tony Tucci
Two kinds of snakes, similar in size and actions, are on the crawl in southwest Travis County, and have some residents confused about which is friend and which is foe.
The diamondback rattlesnake (above left) is a menace whose bite can cause illness or even death. The rat snake (above right), similar in color, size and certain mannerisms, will bite when cornered, but its bite is not poisonous.
Residents have noticed an increase in snake encounters, finding them on their yards, in their gardens, under their hedges and even in their garages. The reason for the increased activity this time of year is twofold, said Andy Gluesenkamp, herpetologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Snakes are more active in the spring and early summer when they are seeking mates and new sources of food and water. And humans are more active as they weed their gardens and pick up debris.
Gluesenkamp said the two snakes actually are not that similar, but can be mistaken for each other at first glance. This is particularly true since the rat snake often mimics the behavior of a rattlesnake, such as vibrating its tail against dry leaves to sound like the rattler’s warning.
The late John Henry Faulk, legendary Austin entertainer, used to tell the story about going to the hen house to gather eggs, but when he reached into the nest above his head, there was a big rat snake. John Henry said he jumped back, hit the ground, got up and ran crying to his mother.
“Why John Henry, that was just a rat snake. He wouldn’t hurt you.”
“No,” John Henry said, rubbing his backside, “but it could scare you so bad you’d hurt yourself.”
Gluesenkamp cautioned against killing the snakes, since they help control the rodent population and otherwise contribute to the balance of Nature. He said residents should use a broom to guide the snake into a box and then take it to a rural area and release it. He said the snake would not return since snakes don’t travel very far.
A Shady Hollow resident, Paul DeBarro, returned home the other day, rolled down his garage door, and a large rat snake dropped to the floor and slithered into an empty box that lined the garage wall.
DeBarro called the sheriff’s office. Two deputies responding quickly, said, “We don’t handle snake calls,” and left Paul and Mary Jane DeBarro alone with their snake.
When snakes are afoot, Shady Hollow West residents have learned to call on neighbors nicknamed the Snake Busters. The couple asked to remain anonymous. They have rubber boots to protect them from bites, and a snake grabber to trap the snake’s head. Most of all, they have no fear.
Working in tandem, the Snake Busters captured the snake, stretched him out to measure 54 inches, and placed him in a plastic drum. Then they took him to a wooded area and released him to enjoy a more rural environment.
Roger Wade, public information officer for the sheriff’s department, said deputies are told not to handle snakes but to make sure residents are safe. He said he doesn’t know of any public agency that will respond to snake reports. He suggested that if a snake gets into a home, or presents a threat to occupants, residents should call an exterminator.
Gluesenkamp said there is one group that might help with a wayward snake, the Texas Wildlife Rescue Association. Several attempts to reach this group by the Gazette went unanswered.
The Austin Wildlife Center said it would take snakes if they’re brought in, but does not answer calls. However, the center knew of one man who will remove troublesome snakes, Tim Cole, a man who has turned a boyhood passion into a lifetime business. Cole’s phone number is 512-837-6253 and his web site is austinreptileservice.net.
Cole said it’s true the snakes have been more active this year, and attributes it to a long, cool spring. “When temperatures are below 90 degrees, snakes remain active during the day,” he said.
Cole said the best thing a caller can do is keep an eye on the snake until Cole arrives. “Finding the snake is the hard part; catching it is easy,” he said. If the snake is non-venomous, Cole will try to convince the homeowner to let it go and consider it a friend, “It will keep the rattlesnakes and rats away.” He sends the rattlesnakes to the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, where it is used in research on venom.
Cole will be presenting a program on snakes at the Ladybird Wildflower Center Thursday (July 10) from 5 to 9 p.m. For those who can’t make it, Cole’s website is a font of information.