“You’d better remove all these tires before the campers come,” Sister Kathy instructed us. “They create a poisonous snake habitat!”
Ian and I listened with an almost patronizing level of bemusement, knowing that neither one of us had much intention of following through on her commands.
Looking back, I regret our thoughts at this time and how little notice we were taking of Sr. Kathy’s advice and 40 years of experience living on this mountain ridge. Our youth was showing itself. And it caused us to not head her thoughtful advice, to tragic results for our livestock.
Those tires were growing our potato experiments and, to us, seemed perfectly fine right where they were. Besides, the dramatic stories we’d heard of dangerous copperheads in our area rarely seemed to match up with the dangerous-snake-less reality around us, and we designated copperhead into the “mythological folklore” part of our brain, to the point where we almost saw them as a figment in the imagination of the Sister we were living with.
It’s not that we hadn’t seen snakes before on our property. A black rat snake had recently taken up residency in the nesting box of our chicken coop, and our best attempts to relocate him proved unsuccessful as he would soon be found slithering back to his rightful place. The infiltration problem wasn’t solved until we relocated him over a mile away from our property, but even then a bigger rat snake simply came in his absence
These scaly creatures were more entertaining to us than threatening. Because black rat snakes constrict their prey, they pose little danger to our chickens and might even keep our rodent population in check. A few stolen eggs seemed an easy price to pay for this service.
Yet we seem to be in the minority here. A fear for copperheads pervades this region and has created a hatred of all snakes so strong in some people that seeking them out has become an almost obsessive fascination. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Appalachia is the birthplace of and still has small pockets of snake-handling churches.
In our time on the mountain, Ian and I have witnessed drivers going out of their way to run over a garter snake, and a few Facebook groups I am a member of are glutted with pictures of proud people posing with the snakes they rendered dead that day. It seems that many men wouldn’t think twice about chopping any snake’s head off with a shovel at first sight, with no attention paid to whether it was poisonous or harmless.
As we found ourselves profoundly uncomfortable with this compendious attitude towards creatures simply going about their reptilian business, we took it upon ourselves to make our property a snake refuge of sorts.
Ian went out of his way to seek snakes out, capturing them and storing them in tanks; feeding them on mice bought from the local pet store to the delight and disgust of our Appalachian summer campers. He tried to turn their discomfort into interest by educating them on the benefits that snakes posed to their world.
Perhaps he thought, with a little exposure to a different perspective, these boys wouldn’t grow up to be men that killed snakes on sight.
In hindsight, this mindset was laughably naïve.
It wasn’t much longer before we spotted our first copperhead in the thick grasses of our chicken coop. Ian used a trash collecting claw to grab it by the head, carefully contained it in a plastic bucket, and drove down the road to release it in a less dangerous area.
A few nights later, another one appeared in the same spot, but it was late in the day and it seemed like too much hassle to fuss with it, so we left it where it was.
The next morning Ian walked into the chicken coop and was treated to a gristly sight. Somehow the copperhead had made its way through the closed coop door and was now feasting on the dead body of our youngest chick. Beside him was the body of his mother, our favorite silkie chicken, now as stiff as a board.
This wasn’t any ordinary chicken. After we got her for free on a whim off Craigslist last year, this amazing lady has successfully hatched two clutches of eggs for us. She has survived a three inch laceration on her back and not one, but two sessions of Ian stitching up her wound with a sewing needle and embroidery floss. She was as tough as nails, a devoted mother, and full of more personality than our other birds combined.
Yet she was no match for a hungry copperhead.
It seems the snake went for the her chick first, much to the anger of Mrs. Silkie, who managed to peck his head sharply enough to draw blood before being struck and paralyzed by his poisoned fangs.
Ian took in this situation and made the only choice he could. He grabbed a shovel and cut off the feasting snake’s head.
What else could he do?
I find myself at a loss for how to respond. Nature has no favorites, and my affections for that chicken meant nothing to a hungry snake. I couldn’t expect different- and yet somehow I did.
In my mind my love of chickens and love of snakes could coexist peacefully. Sure, our loose approach to predator control might cause us to lose a chicken or two, but I had rationalized it in my head to always be one of ugly unfriendly ones, never the very best one (if also, as a brooding mother, the most stationary) we had.
It hurts that this is the way the world works and I feel more than ever for the ranchers around the world that are villainized for killing endangered animals to protect their herds. They only do what Ian did to protect the rest of our chickens, but everything is at stake for them and while we face almost no consequences besides losing a hobby flock. Nature is messy and brutal and defies our best intentions to live in it by our own terms.
Losing livestock is a necessary hardship of homesteading. Our mistake was thinking we could love the eaters and our eaten alike without getting emotionally involved. I’m no longer sure we can.
In the end, Sister Kathy and those around us we ignorantly ignored were correct. Dangerous snakes are a real problem in our area, and it’s best to do what we can to prevent them from making homes for themselves anywhere close to where we live. Because we didn’t head her advice, Ian and I had to learn this lesson the hard way.
As time goes on, I know we will lose more of our animals to predators. Even if we get tougher on snakes, one or two is bound to slither its way in our coop. I understand that- I will even expect it.
But that doesn’t make this first experience any easier to sort out in my head.