After spending weeks taming the overgrown garden of our new home in Ontario, I thought knew everything about it. Then a striped serpent rustled by. I leapt back, stifling a scream.
It slithered onto the deck and much to my consternation it started wiggling into our back wall. Whoa! Was it going to get stuck and end up dying inside the wall of our home? As it squeezed its three-foot length into the finger-sized hole, I had a split second decision to make: Yank it out by the tail or not? It wasn’t a poisonous snake – slim – nothing like the plump Massasauga Rattlesnake, Ontario’s only venomous snake. Still, I didn't want to get bitten.
I watched it disappear.
I ran over to consult our neighbour who works for the building industry. Why was there a hole in my wall and could I seal it up to stop the snake from going in? Linda said the hole was built-in for aeration. She laughed and assured me the snake couldn’t live in the wall. No need to worry.
My husband suggested blocking the hole with steel wool. However, we didn’t want to inadvertently seal the snake in. So we did nothing, hoping the snake would just leave. It didn’t.
Linda was wrong – It continued to slither in and out of the hole.
“This is also one of God’s creatures,” I reassured myself whenever I saw it.
Six years passed. It was no longer just the one snake. Snakes of all lengths traversed our yard. On sunny days they beat me to the deck to sunbathe. Even though I knew they were harmless, it jolted me to see them there. They weren’t exactly a problem as they always politely disappeared and left the deck to me.
We – my husband, our two boys, and I – proved we could live with these serpents. However, visitors squirmed when we mentioned them. I resorted to keeping the creatures a secret. But what if one showed up at the wrong time, like when my mother-in-law was visiting? My husband was sure she’d have a heart attack.
“Let’s call the trappers,” I finally said.
“Why?” My husband replied.
“I checked the internet. We’ve got garter snakes. A female can have fifty live babies. They’ve been here at least six years. Do the math.”
“We could have thousands!”
“I see three or four each time I go out on a warm day. They’re definitely multiplying.”
“Any way of dealing with them ourselves?”
“Ah, a cat will catch them. A dog can scare snakes away.”
Well, we didn’t have a cat or dog.
“I don’t want to kill them,” I said, shuddering.
“How about trapping and releasing them ourselves?”
“We could try,” I said.
This led to more googling. I saw alarming YouTube videos of wall-climbing snakes. In the American South, some got into attics. Then, I came across the “snake house of horror,” an Idaho house built over a snake den. There were so many snakes the ground outside moved, and the sound of snakes sliding inside the walls kept the new owners awake at night. After three months they fled “satan’s lair.”
That did it. Now I knew why our snakes had to go. What if we had to sell our home? Would snakes sunning on the deck bust a deal, or cause our property value to plummet? Maybe our house would become like “satan’s lair” – unsellable.
When I asked for help to build the trap and catch the snakes my husband claimed he had to go to work and my older son negotiated an alternate task. I resorted to bribing my ten-year-old son − $10 per snake. Thank God, Scott’s eyes lit up.
Our trap-and-release design had to work without our needing to touch the snakes, I decided. Sticky glue ones were out of the question. Of the designs I googled, the funnel trap seemed the simplest to construct and use. Snakes venture into the box trap through the wide end of the funnel, and they are too befuddled to find their way out through the tiny end.
The top half of a sawed-off pop bottle served as our funnel. Scott cut a hole in the side of a large cardboard box and pushed the funnel halfway through, keeping the funnel’s small end inside the box. That was all there was to making our snake trap, besides taping up the box and taping the funnel in place.
The next morning, we pressed the trap’s wide funnel mouth over the snake hole and waited. The suspicious snakes only played peek-a-boo. Through the clear plastic of the funnel, they spotted our movements six feet away where we were watching from the back door, and none dared come out.
Then Scott yelled, “One’s coming out!” Where he pointed to was not the usual hole, but another one in the same wall. How many other holes could they escape from?
I grabbed a container to catch the emerging snake which quickly retreated back in the wall. Leaving the bin below the second hole, Scott and I sat on the deck and waited. Eventually, they came oozing out, one by one, like striped Crest toothpaste squeezed from the tube. As soon as a snake dropped in, I slammed the lid on.
Those we saw slithering on our deck we chased into another awaiting bin below the deck. Acting fast, none escaped. I found myself panting, as scared and exhilarated as a first-time sky-diver.
Scott and I transferred the captured snakes to our tall recycling bin. At one point, five snakes were in there, all attempting to get out, repeatedly trying to stand on the tips of their tails and teetering before falling over. Mesmerized by their movements, I felt at once fascinated and repelled.
An overpowering musty odour made me gag and I was forced to close the bin. Like skunks, some garter snakes have a gland to produce a stink to ward off predators, another reason to get rid of them. After relocating them in the woods, Scott helped to wash the bin using the garden hose, a broom, and lots of liquid soap. Fortunately the stink went away, leaving only the smell of Dawn.
On the third day, our trap finally caught one. I’d been warned about not using masking tape to construct the trap. The reason became clear: Trashing around to free itself, the snake instead got more and more bound by the tape I’d used.
Not daring to touch it, I used a mop handle to help it. How could masking tape stick so poorly to the box and funnel and yet be like super glue to the snake? I sweated – my instinct was to run, not get up close for the ten minutes it took to free it. It was all my fault for using the tape, Scott reminded me.
The poor snake endured the tugging and pulling ordeal silently. It never struck at me or hissed. I felt sorry for it. My entire experience with these gentle shy garter snakes was that they only wanted to be free and run away. I hadn’t expected to like them, but in a way I did.
Over three days, we trapped and released seven snakes to the wild, and then there were no more. I congratulated myself. I could finally step out into the garden without first checking left and right.
“The snakes were so nice,” Scott said. “Did we really have to send them away? Are they going to be okay?” His caring remark came weeks later.
“Do you miss them?”
Our garden had become ordinary, no longer the potent Garden of Eden. I understood. “You know, I’m surprised,” I said, hugging him. “I miss them too.”
Adrienne Zoe was born in the Sabah, a state of Malaysia on the Island of Borneo, but is now a resident of Waterloo, Ontario. She is currently writing a memoir of what is was like growing up in Borneo, and maintains a Facebook writer’s page here. She is a fine art photographer who exhibits year-round. Visit her photography website here for information on her photography and shows, and follow her photography journey on Facebook here.
See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Barrie, Bracebridge, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, St. John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.