Farmer Perspective on Gophersnakes

by Karell Reader, Luz Del Valle Farm

Photo: Phil and Karell Reader, owners of Luz Del Valle Farm

Part of the Wild Neighbors Spotlight on Gophersnakes

Snakes get a bad rap.  It is not really clear why these lovely creatures create such a fearful response in so many people.  It is true that many snake species are noted for their predatory ways and awesome hunting and self-defense weapons, but, honestly, they are not the evil, aggressive creatures that they are often made out to be.  It could be that their Biblical association with the downfall of mankind or their association with the suicide of Cleopatra or one of any number of other human tales has shaded their reputation. Frankly, snakes, for all their sleek, slithery ways are a friend to man. They are strongly tied to medicine and healing as portrayed by the caduceus symbol for medicine and they often represent the cycle of life when they circle and chase their tails. The truth is they are shy and prefer an existence isolated from man.

I was not always a snake advocate.  In fact, I was quite hostile to them in my youth.  I would ride my horse up the valley from my ranch carrying my .22 rifle. If I found a rattlesnake sunbathing peacefully in the road, I would shoot it from my horse and take pleasure in eliminating what I regarded as a harmful creature. I had acquired this perspective mostly from the fact that my dear friend’s adorable little dachshund, Hansie, would find the rattlesnake nests and dig them out, often receiving a painful and damaging bite on his nose that required a trip to the vet.

My transformation occurred in college when I lived in a student townhouse in San Luis Obispo with Susie the Snake Lady.

My transformation occurred in college when I lived in a student townhouse in San Luis Obispo with Susie the Snake Lady. Living with Sue was an experience to say the least. Susie spent half the year living going to college and half the year out on the road with a traveling circus. She was a sideshow performer with her large Python companion, Angel, and also a contortionist and magician’s assistant. 

Sue had a passion for snakes. All kinds of snakes. At any one time our townhouse housed two Gophersnakes, Bar P and Demon, a couple of Common Kingsnakes, Irving and Fred, some cute little tarantulas, a newt or two and a couple of dogs and a chicken (which also performed in the traveling circus by pecking the keys on a piano).  My dating during this time period was quite limited as not too many guys wanted to drop in for a visit.

Sue taught me a lot about snakes. Her major was Biology and I think she was looking toward a career as a herpetologist. The circus life gave her lots of opportunity to study animals as the circus had quite a menagerie, including a fairly fierce adult chimpanzee. She was well versed in animal knowledge, and we shared a love for horses. Our freezer was well stocked with road kills that she brought home to eventually taxidermy. 

Sue gave me one of her snakes, the Kingsnake I called Irving. He was a big snake and was determined to escape his roomy terrarium home. He would work for hours to get himself in a position where he could maneuver the screen lid off and let himself out. Mostly, he would get caught before he could get very far, but one cold winter day he headed for the utility room and crawled up into the drier.  Fortunately, we found him and lured him out before he came to any harm. It was harder when he figured out how to squeeze under the door to the cabinet that held the water heater and we had to try to get him out of there. Snakes are cold blooded, so sunshine and heat are desirable to them. They will go into a kind of stupor when they are too cold, so it is important that they are able to access a comfortable heat during the year.

Bar P, the Gophersnake named for where he was found on the Cal Poly SLO campus, was a gentle soul. He liked Sue and she would take him on outings to bars and frat parties. He was quite a hit wherever he went and Sue was careful that no one would hurt him. Besides drawing attention to her beautiful, captivating self, I think Sue liked to educate people and diminish their innate fear of snakes. Bar P was a kind and suitable ambassador.

Demon, on the other hand, was a very unhappy Gophersnake. He was fierce and would spend hours striking at his reflected image on the glass of his big snake enclosure.  He was not friendly at all and would coil and strike if you reached for him. It seemed he had only bad experiences with man and just wanted to be left alone, which he was as much as possible.

Some snakes, like Bar P, take to handling and will have no ill effects when handled properly and allowed to wrap and be supported gently.  Others, like Demon, do not like contact and are very uncooperative when being handled, which can endanger them. I believe in minimum handling of all snakes. They seem to do better when left to their own devices.

When the circus went on hiatus or was in town, Angel, the 9-foot Python, would live with us. She was a very elegant and regal snake. She always seemed pretty mellow and lazy to me.  Sue would test the asphalt of our driveway and if the temperature seemed okay she would barricade it and take Angel out for “walks” or maybe they would be called “slithers”, which we all seemed to enjoy.  Angel would try to “hug” you, so you did have to take care when carrying her around, but she never was aggressive or dangerous that I recall.  Her size would make her a serious threat if she wanted to constrict you around the neck, but one arm over her body and keeping her calm was all that was necessary.

Having captive snakes around gave me a firsthand insight into their behavior and needs. My love and appreciation of snakes increased immensely when I lived with them and got to know them. However, I would never keep wild snakes captive and “domesticated” again.  I love their wildness and I think, even with the dangers in nature, they are happiest living free. Now, I watch over them in the wild and on my farm. I am delighted when I find them and I love to see my old snake friends come out in the spring, fat and healthy.