Snake wrangling with my son

As frequent readers of my blog may have noticed, I spend my free time outside a lot. As I have written about many times before, I’ve been an ‘unprofessional herpetologist’ from when I was seven years old. I have kept reptiles ever since, and for a part of this time I bred snakes in numbers that went beyond the regular hobby (or as my mother used to call it – obsession).

Whenever I would go outside, I would also look for reptiles. For the most part of my life I ignored mammals and birds. Insects also always had a special place in my heart, but I never collected or reared anything native. The herpetofauna of The Netherlands is fairly low in diversity, but there are still some amphibians that I have never found. The reptiles though, I have all found many times over, but every single time is special. I can’t ignore them and always stop to take a picture. I’ve developed a pretty keen eye for them too. I’d happily brag about this skill that is otherwise completely useless :).

My field herpetology days are over now that I walk side-by-side with an overenthusiastic two year-old. Snakes and lizard are long gone by the time we would potentially cross paths. Yesterday, however, I got lucky. I was walking around a beach forest in the Alps with my son sitting on my shoulders, when I saw something grey slither through the undergrowth. The yellow ring gave it away, a grass snake (Natrix natrix). The slender build for its length suggested it was a male. Females are usually a bit chunkier. Grass snakes are completely harmless, and tend not to bite, but rather play dead or hiss loudly. The herpetologist in me managed to – with the kid on my shoulders – lower to my knees on the forest floor, strategically aiming a bit ahead of the snakes crawling path. A quick manoeuvre and I managed to grab it gently*. This was a learning experience for my son that I could not let go by unused.

Natrix natrix – I had forgotten how horrible these little dudes can smell. When disturbed, many snakes release substances from various glands at their anal opening. Or sometimes they just take a shit on you. Both versions stink. The stench coming from this is hard to rinse off. It is a trait that is well-conserved among snakes, but for some reason water snakes (such as Natrix, or worse the North American Nerodia species) are the most pungent that I’ve come across.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed why I had been able to catch it so easily. It had probably sensed my vibrations (snakes don’t hear, but rely on sensing vibrations a lot, also for communicating with competitors or mates), but it may not have seen me properly. The little guy only had one functioning eye. The other side showed scars of a freshly healed wound. It had probably been caught by a bird of prey, or perhaps a weasel (we saw a weasel cross a meadow about 20 minutes later). In any case, it must have managed to escape and find a refuge. I showed the animal to my little son, who got very excited about its hisses. We took a couple of pictures, and one minute later the snake slithered away through the leaf litter.

Two happy chaps observing what is my my son’s first wild snake.

I hope that some day soon we can take our new camper into Italy or the Balkan, where reptile diversity is higher and there are still species on my personal ‘wish list’. It seems that I may have a fellow snake wrangler in the family!

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*Please don’t do try this yourself – I’m a bad example by doing this, but at least I’m one with almost 30 years of experience with handling dozens of species, from grass snakes to large boas to rattlesnakes. Keep in mind that although snakes are never ‘out to get you’ – snakes are defensive, rather than agressive – venomous snakes do live in most parts of Europe and the rest of the world. You may not only hurt the snake – but it may in some cases hurt you.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of one but almost two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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