Saskatchewan has at least two good reasons to celebrate World Snake Day
SCIENCE by Stephen Whitworth
If you’re like most people, you’re wondering if there’s a connection between World Snake Day and The Ramones. There is, and I’ll get to it in a second.
But first: World Snake Day. Have you heard about it? It’s the holiday so awesome that if it didn’t already exist I’d have to invent it.
As regular readers should know, Prairie Dog is Canada’s most pro-snake publication. Why? Because snakes are awesome. First off, snakes look cool. They have no legs, shiny scales, pretty colours and patterns, big, cute eyes, and permanent smiles with playfully flicking tongues. Second, snakes are cool: they’re fascinating animals with unique and interesting attributes and behaviours. And third? They’re one of the few wild creatures you can sometimes (gently!) play with without harming them or yourself.*
Finally, I’m the editor and what I say goes — and if I say we’re a pro-snake paper, we’re a goddamn pro-snake paper.
Anyway, I love them, and I’ve kept and enjoyed (non-native, captive bred) pet snakes since the ’90s. Most of my pets are are still around, too — they live a long time.
So. Last year I thought, “hmm, I wonder if there’s an official snake day? There must be — there’s a day for everything. That would be a great excuse to write about snakes. I’ll Google it.”
Lo and behold, World Snake Day — celebrated annually July 16 — does exist. So I don’t have to invent it. I just have to write about it.
Let’s start with the Ramones connection.
According to my in-depth Internet research, World Snake Day has its origins in a Texas roadside attraction called Animal World & Snake Farm Zoo. Snake Farm, as it’s more often called, is south of Austin in a place called New Braunfels, and it’s a popular destination for tourists looking to admire and/or gape at nature’s best legless creatures (and miscellaneous other perfectly respectable critters).
The Internet says July 16 is supposedly Snake Farm’s busiest day of the year, so that’s where the date comes from. So let’s credit Snake Farm with the invention of World Snake Day. Thank you, Snake Farm.
As for the Ramones? They stopped by Snake Farm in the late ’70s and picked up some promotional T-shirts, which they famously wore on- and off-stage for many years. You can order replicas of those vintage Ramones’ Snake Farm shirts online for US$50. If you want to order me one for an early Christmas present, I take size large.
*Excluding rattlesnakes. Don’t play with rattlesnakes. Admire them respectfully from a distance.
RACERS, BULLS AND BIOLOGISTS
Moving on… we’ve established World Snake Day is a real thing and Prairie Dog’s editor is a snake nerd. What are we going to do about it?
I don’t know about you but I interviewed a biologist who studies Saskatchewan snakes.
Tera Edkins is a master’s student at the University of Regina. While the rest of us are drinking on patios, fishing, going to Rider games and all that other typical summer stuff, she’s catching snakes in the Big Muddy Valley. For science.
Edkins delivers her captured reptiles to a vet who cyborgs them up with radio transmitters so they can be tracked after they’re released. Where do snakes hang out? How far do they travel? When are they active? That kind of stuff.
The focus is on two of our province’s most charismatic species: yellow-bellied racers and bull snakes.
“I’m working on racers, which are currently listed as Threatened,” says Edkins. “Not a lot is known about their population in the Big Muddy Valley, so that’s what I’m looking at — getting population estimates, looking at what kind of habitat they use, and things like that.”
Saskatchewan has at least seven snake species but there’s a lot we don’t know about them. Edkins is helping to close this slithery knowledge gap. That’s why she’s also looking at one of my favourite species: bull snakes.
Bull snakes, Pituophis catenifer, if you prefer, are Canada’s largest serpent, and they’re fucking awesome. Typical adults are thick-bodied and over four feet long. They can grow to more than six feet. When they’re pissed off they rattle their tails and hiss so loud windows shake but they can also be super mellow — it’s not uncommon for a wild bull snake to chill out on someone’s arm for hours.
I mean, no promises, it still might nip you — but despite the show they put on they’re generally not eager biters.
My history with bull snakes goes back to a 1996 vacation in Contra Costa, California. I had an aunt who lived in the county who’d invited me and a friend for a visit. On a beautiful late April morning I went out of a walk, partly to enjoy the weather but mostly to spot snakes. Sure enough, I found a beaut — a brown, cream and tan bull snake, spread out on the side of the gravel road near some shrubs, taking in the spring warmth.
Being a wimp I didn’t pick it up, but I did sit down on the gravel road beside it, and we hung out for 10 or 15 minutes enjoying the California morning. The snake didn’t leave until I gently petted it. It shot me a “WTF?” look and scooted into the shrubs.
Hanging out with that amazing animal was a privilege. I’ve loved bull snakes ever since.
Last summer, a bull snake was photographed in a Regina park (they don’t live in the city, so the snake would’ve been brought in on a vehicle either deliberately or as a stowaway). This year, one was photographed swimming across Lake Diefenbaker. Both times they made the news. Of course they did: bull snakes are handsome and spectacular.
“[In Saskatchewan] bull snakes and racers are at the tip of their range in North America,” says Edkins. “they just live in the bottom part of Saskatchewan, in Big Muddy Valley, Grasslands National Park and Sask Landing. And we don’t know enough about them.
“Bull snakes are listed as Data Deficient, which means they don’t actually have enough information to place them,” says Edkins. “So we’re looking to see if they’re a conservation concern.”
Racers, on the other hand, are known to be rare in the province. They’re smaller, faster and meaner than bulls.
“Racers are about the size of a garter snake, with a green back and yellow belly,” says Edkins. “We’ve found that they’re quite bitey. When you capture them, they tend to hold their mouth open and wait for you to come near with your hand.”
As their name suggests, racers are fast little bastards. How do you catch them?
“We run,” Edkins says. “I’m sure they’re laughing at us as we try to catch them, like ‘la lala lala’.”
Unlike the large, mammal-devouring bull snakes, yellow racers mostly eat bugs. “They can eat small mammals, but mostly they eat grasshoppers and insects,” says Edkins. “They’re not constrictors, so they actively just hunt their prey and just grab it in their mouths or just eat it while they sit on it with their bodies.”
You ever try eating bugs while you’re sitting on them? Not so easy, is it?
Give snakes credit. They’ve got ssskills.
As for Edkins? She’s hoping her professional relationship with snakes doesn’t end with this project. “It’d be neat if I could get them to be my specialization,” she says.
THE SSSPECTACULAR SSSNAKES OF SSSOUTH SSSASK
I love living in a province with such interesting creatures and Edkins obviously does too. We’d both be thrilled if more people discovered how gorgeous these under-appreciated animals are.
“People dislike snakes just because they find them icky or they think they’re dangerous,” she says. “But they’re actually an important part of the ecosystem, whether they’re prey for a predator or controlling populations, such as rodent populations. If you remove the snakes, everything gets out of control. It’s all connected, and even one animal can affect the whole ecosystem.”
If you meet any bull snakes or racers in southern Saskatchewan, Tera Edkins and her team would love to hear from you. E-mail details of your slithery sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And Happy World Snake Day!
This article has been updated since publication.