Sympathy For A Snake

Plain-bellied water snake ~ Nerodia erythrogaster

If I’d had a machete or side arm at hand and an evil intent in my heart, this beautiful creature wouldn’t have had a chance, and it appears to know it.

Which of us was most surprised by our encounter is hard to say. Curled near the base of a tree in a pool of late spring sunshine, the snake seemed more inclined toward napping than attacking. As I changed lenses and took a few quick photos, it never moved, but fixed its gaze on me with an expression that, even at the time, seemed like supplication. I could imagine its thoughts: Please, lady…

As we looked at one another, sensing that neither of us posed a threat to the other, an ages-old enmity began to dissolve. As it did, I recognized what I was feeling, and couldn’t help smiling. Sympathy for a snake, I thought. Who could have imagined that?


Comments always are welcome.

53 thoughts on “Sympathy For A Snake

    1. Indeed they are. Like people, there are some I’d rather avoid, but learning the difference between the venomous and the non-venomous can yield real rewards.

    1. When it comes to snakes, I’ve always been on the side of flight rather than fight, but in this case, just standing around and looking seemed a perfectly good alternative. For one thing, I got to see a couple of characteristics that distinguish a harmless water snake from, say, a water moccasin. These things are good to know!

  1. It really does look apprehensive and very timid. It may be remembering a past bad encounter with a person. In Fiji we once had to care for a snake which had been captured by a frightened human, and placed in a paint pot. The paint did come off, but the snake didn’t really appreciate our care and escaped before we could return it to the countryside. And, on the subject of timid, I have just learned about Caspar Milquetoast.

    1. Honestly, it never had occurred to me that snakes might be capable of different facial expressions. As far as I knew, “mouth shut” or “fangs bared” pretty much covered it.

      This one’s expression truly did suggest the kind of responsiveness we associate with other kinds of animals, like our dogs and cats, or even people, for that matter. Everyone’s had the experience of dealing with someone whose vacant stare suggests there’s “no one at home.” That certainly wasn’t the case with this snake.

      Capturing a snake is one thing, but putting it in a paint pot? That intrigues me. When the snake escaped, did he leave a paint streak in the grass to mark his path?

      It’s been some time since I’ve thought of Caspar Milquetoast. When I was growing up, the admonition to not be a Caspar was fairly common. And, being kids, we’d often describe our more timid classmates that way. I just looked at a bit of his history, and noticed the claim that the generalized phrase as a descriptor for a timid person shows up in American English dictionaries, but not others.

      1. I can see you will be trying to study the facial expressions of snakes whenever you meet them. It is an intriguing subject. As for our snake, the paint stains were well gone before it made its bid for freedom. The paint pot only had paint remnants in it; I suppose it was the handiest receptacle available. The sad thing was this snake was harmless so the person had no need to be frightened of it.

        1. If I ever encounter another snake willing to stay put the way this one did, I’ll certainly take a look. But I’ll not be seeking them out. I’m not exactly afraid of them, but I’m happier when I see them heading in the other direction.

          It is true that these water snakes often are killed needlessly by people who confuse them with water moccasins. I’ve got a chart of the differences in my files that I study regularly.

    1. What surprised me most, GP, is that the snake never moved. Its eyes seemed to follow my movements, but I never saw a twitch, or any other indication that it was thinking of uncoiling. It may well have been frozen with fear, as we say — or just taking some time to evaluate the situation.

  2. What a great shot! You can see every scale, and I love the apprehensive look.
    Snakes have never bothered me. It was impressed on me at a young age, to leave ’em alone and they’ll leave you alone. I’m always glad to run across a big Black Snake (the biggest kind in NY), because they’re almost always dozing in the sun, pretty calm guys, so you can get a good look at them. We almost never see a venomous snake in our part of Upstate, although there are rattlers, massasaugas, and copperheads (which don’t rattle) in a big swamp near Rochester.
    I will however make an exception — nobody likes the water snakes around here, they’re non-venomous, but even the local forestry college says “certainly an aggressive species with a nasty disposition”. My theory: one of them got bit by a politician and it spread.

    1. The expression on its face was my favorite aspect of the photo, but those scales are pretty cool, too. They really are impressive creatures — nicely put together.

      I’ve always heard that if we leave snakes alone they’ll return the favor, but there are stories that seem to contradict that. I think every east Texas lake has an account of a waterskier attacked by water moccasins. I take those with a grain of salt, but there are Galveston Bay fishing guides who’ve had their boats boarded by snakes, and lake fishermen who’ve lost a fish to a water snake.

      Of course, sometimes the snake gets the raw end of the deal. I was driving down a gravel road in Kansas once when an eagle flew across the road in front of me with a good-sized snake dangling from its talons. I suspect the eagle was pleased: the snake, not so much.

  3. Um, just looking at this snake photo gives me the willies, Linda. Yes, you’ve got a beautiful capture here — it’s the subject that strikes fear in my heart. I’m sorry, but I don’t like snakes. Never have, probably never will. This one *looks* gentle enough, but no way would I have gotten close enough to find out for sure — or to get this photo, ha!

    1. No need to apologize for not liking snakes, Debbie. I don’t seek them out myself, and every time I come across one, I’m always happy to see it heading in the other direction. Still, this one was so willing to have its photo taken, I couldn’t help obliging — especially since I had a lens that let me capture some detail without having to be right on top of it. I was about five feet away from it, or maybe a little more. That helped make both of us more comfortable.

  4. First rule of action when you see a snake: Keep your eyes on the snake. (Because usually it will take off if it can and you don’t really want to both be panicked and run smack into each other.)
    What a lovely snake and amazing picture – it does have expression and seems to be thinking, “Geesch, I just wanted a little sunny nap and now this.”
    Another example of a place for everything and everything in it’s place….like keeping your feet and hands away from snakes…even if the head isn’t diamond shaped.
    Great image – great thoughts

    1. I’ve read that the best thing to do when encountering a water snake is make sure you’re not between it and the water. If you are, what looks like a snake attack may simply be the snake heading back to where it’s most comfortable. This one was some distance from the nearest bayou, which made it even more surprising to find it curled up there, but it certainly had found a nice place. Not only was it sunny, there was lots of nice, soft clover to provide some cover.

      Here’s another surprise: I didn’t find it out in the wilds of West Wherever, but at the Varner-Hogg plantation. Who knows? Maybe they keep it on the payroll, to provide a little local color.

  5. Nice pic of the snake. It is actually sort of benign looking and I know that it is from your description. I sort of know or pretty much know the lethal ones and I never kill the good ones. They have a place in nature and help balance the eco-system.

    I like Steve’s comment about a “snake in the grass.” My folks often said that about certain questionable people and to this day, it is a saying that I have applied to some folks along the way.

    1. It’s true that snakes have an important role to play. I knew someone who moved into the country and did her best to eradicate every snake within miles. Next up: rat eradication.

      I don’t worry much about the rattlesnakes, which usually give warning, or even coral snakes, which are easily identifiable and not much given to confrontation. But the water snakes are quiet, and can be sneaky — unlike this one, who seemed mostly placid and lazy.

      I learned the expression “snake in the grass” too, and it’s been a useful one over the years, although I sometimes think it’s an expression that’s unfair to the snakes.

    1. I did, and it was nice to have a lens that let me keep my distance and still get a nice photo. Every time I look at it, I smile. What’s not to like about that?

  6. It is looking at you with some trepidation for sure!! Funny how we can see human expression in the least human of creatures. Geeze maybe that is how come he sold Eve on that apple.

    1. The urge to somehow connect with the creatures around us seems deeply rooted — at least, in some people. Now, if only we could find a way to encourage people to connect with other humans. Wouldn’t that be a different world?

      You’re right that a fierce, frightening snake probably would have had a hard time getting that apple accepted. A more appealing snake would have had a much easier time; maybe it’s a good thing this one didn’t have an apple!

      1. One of my favourite short stories is entitled: When the Serpent Failed by Pierre Boulle in his collection called Because it is Absurd: On Earth as it is in Heaven. He is a wonderful provocative French writer who you may know as the author of The Planet of the Apes and The Bridge Over The River Kwai. ‘When the Serpent Failed’ kind of fit my sense of the question, are we God’s only experiment here on Earth or what of other planets?

  7. I must admit I’m not a snake fan myself.

    Comes of stepping on a (baby) poisonous one hiking with my family as a small child. I’ve never been so scared in my life. My Father said “Don’t move” and although i can’t remember how, he removed it from the rocky mountain path/trail we were walking on. He probably snared it with a forked stick so I could keep walking.

    The snake in your image looks rather peaceful and friendly in fact.

    1. Those childhood experiences can linger, can’t they? I never feared snakes as a child because the ones I encountered always were garter snakes, and they were so slender and cute it was hard to be afraid of them. I do remember being told once that they should be picked up in the middle; it sounds like your father had the technique down pat.

      It still tickles me that I found such a placid and beautiful example willing to have its photo taken. I don’t expect that will happen again any time soon.

  8. They do say that snakes are as scared of you as you are of them, and will surrender the field if you give them the choice and the chance to do so. All too often, people’s reaction to seeing a snake is a gross overreaction. Our relationship with snakes has only been made worse by the bad rap they got in the opening chapter of a well known book. Something about a garden and apples . . . .

    Still, snakes are unique and fascinating creatures, and that one is a rather fine looking specimen.

    1. It’s that “choice” business that can be tough. Seeing a snake makes it easier to avoid, but surprising one’s a different matter. Still, there are ways to minimize the number of encounters.Making noise or setting up vibrations give the snakes a chance to move away. Twice this spring my shuffling through prairie grasses scared up some sort of snake. I never saw them, but it was fun to watch the S-shaped curves as it moved away through the grass.

      This one is handsome. I’ve wondered if I might have been the first human he’d seen. That could explain the expression on its face.

    1. It looked so comfortable and cozy, I really didn’t want to send it scurrying off in a frenzy — any more than I wanted to have to scurry off in a frenzy. Whatever it sensed, it was a nice encounter.

  9. That snake truly does seem to be begging you to leave it alone – funny! There’s something poignant about the bits of grass and clover surrounding it – I can see your sympathy for the snake easily. On the other hand, water snakes can be dangerous, right? Truce, but maybe temporary?

    1. I like the clover and grass, too. It’s a pretty setting, although it looks more like it’s designed for a bunny than a snake.

      You’re right that some water snakes can be dangerous, but the ones in the Nerodia genus are essentially harmless. I’m told they can be feisty if someone messes with them, but otherwise they’re fine. Here’s a nice comparison chart that I found. It’s a little hard to see the head shape in my photo, but it’s obvious in the linked page. On the other hand, the nice, round eyes are hard to miss. I think if he were my pet, I’d call him Bright Eyes.

    1. I never expected to look a snake in the eye, and I never expected to be able to get such a nice photo of one. I do like his eyes. They look like the little buttons on my Raggedy Ann doll.

  10. I used to be crazy afraid of snakes. But lately I’ve learned to share the farm with the black snakes. I don’t bother them as long as they’re not hanging around the coop. If they are, then it’s game on. :)

    1. I was that way with dogs. I’ve gotten over it now — mostly — but from my earliest years I was terrified of them. Funny how those innate fears differ from person to person. I do know this. If I were a snake, I’d be scared enough of you to stay away from the chicken coop.

    1. The good news is, you don’t have to handle them — at least, not literally. Figuratively? That’s something else. While I’m beyond the stage of full-blown panic when I see one, there’s always that little moment of, “Which way do I go?”

  11. Thank you for not killing. We do enough senseless killing as it is. Every living thing has equal desire to live it’s life as we do. (And snakes are a whole lot less destructive than we are.)

    1. The water snakes often are confused with venomous snakes, which can end badly for them. I’ve only killed one snake in my life, but that was a black mamba that was in the process of coming into my house in Liberia, and I have no regrets about that. Black mambas were known locally as a three-step snake. If bitten, that’s how many steps you had left. That’s a level of destructiveness I wasn’t willing to to risk.

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