Thursday, July 29, 2010

SNAKES IN A YARD!!: Natural Snake Prevention & Deterrence

Our recoving patient...
“A funny thing to do is, if you're out hiking and your friend gets bitten by a poisonous snake, tell him you're going to go for help, then go about ten feet and pretend that *you* got bit by a snake. Then start an argument with him about who's going to go get help. A lot of guys will start crying. That's why it makes you feel good when you tell them it was just a joke.”
-Jack Handy
We had a bit of a scare this week here at High Cotton Home; our new dog Cali, still fresh from the shelter, was bitten by a poisonous snake in our own backyard on Tuesday night! I saw her at the back door, hobbling on three legs, her paw already hugely swollen and dripping a weird mixture of brown juice (venom?) mixed with blood. She was also extremely lethargic and going into shock. Only two veterinary hospitals within 100 miles carry anti-venom, so I packed Cali into the car and broke land-speed records driving over an hour to the nearest hospital. They did an awesome job getting her on a morphine drip, fluids and the anti-venom right away and (after two days in the hospital and quite a chunk of moola) she is recovering well. The venom caused blood problems including hemorrhaging all over her body so she still has a large pool of blood in her chest and her injured paw is swollen and has quite a bit of damage. Parts of her leg will likely undergo necrosis and come off in the coming weeks leaving her paw looking a bit odd for the rest of her life, but she is going to pull through!
One of the little frogs on a brick outside the door...
also known as a tasty, pygmy rattler meal!
Luckily, we were able to come up with the money for the anti-venom($846 a vial!) in time for treatment but many families aren't as lucky and they can only cross their fingers and hope for the best with IV fluids and prayers to save their animals when they are bitten. The bite characteristics for Cali belong to a family of venomous snakes here in the south that include rattlesnakes, pygmy rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouth snakes. Speculation from the local professional (i.e. my vet and the new yard man) is that it was a pygmy rattlesnake that got Cali because they are very aggressive when surprised (my little soft-footed hunter at work!) and like to eat frogs (like the little tree frogs in abundance on our windows every night).
   Though our home backs up to a wetlands so wildlife is inevitable, we had taken no steps to guard against poisonous snakes, mostly because the only snakes I'd ever seen on our property had been non-venomous. This close-call has made me vow to change my ways and, because of our organic lifestyle, I wanted to see about deterring snakes in the most natural ways possible. Here are a few tips:
#1. Clear out all Bushes, Weeds, Shrubs and Tall Grass: I have to admit that the picture above is my overgrown backyard at the beginning of the summer and it has only gotten worse since as the warm days and afternoon rain showers. Plus, with my husband out of town for a bit, the grass isn't getting cut as often either (I love my electric mower, but mine is not cordless so trying to mow has proved to be a little be tougher than the "just like vacuuming the yard!" that I had thought it would be).  Since the bite, I have hired someone to clear out all the brush, cut back the bushes, and generally clear out the entire front and back yard for under $200. I had put it off because of the heat and because I thought that it would take me weekend after weekend to clear it out just to start over the whole process again! I don't know if that is true or not, but for less than 1/4 of the cost of one vial of anti-venom, I could have prevented this problem months ago! Please, let my dumb mistake prevent heartache in yours!
#2. Clear out piles in your yard: Piles of rocks, hay, wood, old branches, fallen trees... all of these scream "COME REST IN MY COOL SHADE" to a snake. This will be a difficult task if you xeriscape your yard, but that would cut down on rodents/critters (see tip #3) so hopefully the two factors will balance one another out. Be sure when you clear the piles and move them to a safe location (if necessary as in the case of winter wood) away from the house or get rid of them (if they are just rock or junk piles) that you wear protective clothing. I didn't have any good, snake proof gaiters to wear for my snake-finding expedition but I did have some pretty cute, knee-high rain boots that I wore and I carried a huge shovel to poke and push the piles around significantly before reaching my hand to grab any of the items for relocation. Assume there are snakes in the pile and act cautiously about reaching your hand into any dark spaces and not only will you avoid snake bites, but spiders, scorpions or any other delightfully nasty creature that your region may harbor.

#3. Make Your Yard Critter Free: Mice, rats, frogs, toads, lizards... all of these little creatures can inhabit out backyards if we make the conditions right for them. Fruit trees, veggie gardens, under porches, garages and overgrown bushes all attract rodents, who are closely followed by their natural predators including snakes. We found a 3-ft rat snake in the tree out back last month and when we first moved in (before we'd built our fence) I saw an 8-ft indigo snake in our yard that I thought was going to eat Atticus before I caught my breath and realized how cool what I was seeing was! But I should have realized, that where non-venomous snakes find a meal, venomous snakes will too. Now, I have to admit our yard is frog paradise because we don't use pesticides (because frogs are natural, environmental indicators pesticides kill them easily as in most of our neighbors yards) and we have a hot tub that houses so many of the little critters that I can't in good conscience turn it on because I'm afraid of boiling the little suckers! I won't start using pesticides, but I will clean out and treat my hot tub (natural items only, no chemicals) to try to make the yard a little less friendly for them. They also enjoy my compost pile when I neglect to turn it (and it draws flies) so I will need to up my work out there, even though you know I hate to put work into the compost pile!

These are the simplest solutions that I am employing immediately, but I am going to continue looking into the efficacy of spreadable deterrents and installing small gauge chicken-wire along the bottom of the fence to prevent snakes of any sort from making it into our yard in the first place. I will keep you posted and review my successes!

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