Now that we’ve crossed the threshold into summer there will be hiking and trekking to be done (once it cools down a bit, of course) in any of the large urban wildernesses such as Debs, Elysian, Griffith and Hahn parks as well as the wider, opener and more remote spaces that can be found across the San Gabriel and Santa Monica mountain ranges.
In such upcoming journeys, you are making yourself available to encounter a wide variety of abounding wildlife be it insect, amphibian, reptilian, avian or mammalian. And while it is the wise and kind environmental steward who admires such amazing things from a safe and respectful distance (not counting those pesky, and space-invading ‘skeeters, ticks, gnats — and the small percentage of rampaging mountain bikers who give that activity a bad name), there are those of us out there with either an overdeveloped curiosity or an unwarranted fear who might wanna touch touch , or kill kill, respectively.
Thus I submit to any of you who might fall into that category: the humble and beneficent gopher snake (also known as the “bull” or “pine” snake; click to triplify):
Now if you’re the type of person who sees just even a picture of a snake and goes batshit, that’s too bad. Sorry to subject you to this. But if you’re a bit less phobic and more interested in discovery, come along with me to the other side of the jump.
This particular and magnificent specimen was encountered by me, my wife Susan, and former L.A. Metblogger-now–Candy Blog maven Cybele a few springs ago in Griffith Park and was very laid back despite having its sunning session interrupted by me going all paparazzo on it.
If you didn’t know already, gopher snakes are non-venomous; they are constrictors that asphyxiate their prey, which consists of small mammals, birds and eggs. So getting close to one that allows you to doesn’t pose much of a risk (other than it might stress the snake and it could strike out and bite you). Having said that I again refer back to admiring any creature from a distance, and here’s the oftentimes sad irony of why that’s best when dealing with gopher snakes: they’re killed a lot simply because they’re reeeeeeally good at pretending they’re rattlesnakes when distressed.
Now, I can’t tell you specifically when in their evolution it began, but at some wayback point in the timeline there was a gopher snake just hanging out and minding its own business in the vicinity of a rattlesnake that was doing the same thing. Then a coyote shows up and sees the rattlesnake and figures it’s time for a snack. But as the coyote closes in the rattlesnake coils up tight, hisses, rattles its tail, lunges a couple times and in full-alarm defensiveness shows the coyote why it might be a reeeeeally good idea to look for someone else to eat. The coyote, being one of the smartest of all god’s creatures, agrees and leaves.
Meanwhile the gopher snake has seen all this, and somewhere in its rudimentary brain a lightbulb has gone off and it thinks to itself “Dude, maybe if I mimic a rattlesnake I can scare them hairy fourleggers away, too!” And it practices and practices and eventually the time comes when it gets confronted by a hungry bobcat. So the gopher snake coils up tight, figures out a way to flatten its head and make it look more viper-like, and in the absence of a rattle instead rapidly beats the tip of its tail against some dried foliage to produce a rattle-esque vibration. And dang if the bobcat doesn’t say “Jeez, I thought you were just a harmless and tasty gopher snake. Sorry to bother you!”
The ecstatic gopher snake goes about its life eating gophers and deceiving predators, ultimately finding a mate to whom it teaches what it knows, and they breed and teach their kids what they know, and so on and so on down the line, until every gopher snake in the gopher snake network knows how to pretend its a rattler. Not that it’s a deception that’s fooled every single coyote, bobcat, hawk, fox, mountain lion, raccoon, badger, wolverine, wolf or black bear out there over the eons, but it’s certainly fooled enough.
Except in the case of us two-leggers — many of whom are generally creeped out by snakes and are suckers for the misinformation about their evil ways spread about them in the Old Testament and various Rudyard Kipling tales (Jungle Book, Riki Tiki Tavi) and of course the Anaconda films. In our case its fooled us too well.
I’m pretty sure it was somewhere around the 1850s when the first Southern California incident between a gopher snake and a settler took place. Until that fateful encounter the gopher snake was doing a fine job helping to keep the rodent population in check around the settler’s barn, but then came that day when the snake was sunning itself on some hay and the settler came around the barn corner and the snake scared him and he recoiled and he scared the snake and it coiled up and hissed and shook its tail like it had been genetically hard-wired to do in the face of danger.
And it worked, only this time the danger wasn’t a predatory creature that would walk away and find something else to eat. It was a predatory creature that walked away to get a shovel, or a machete or a gun to come back and kill the snake which it perceived not as the beneficial harmless creature it was, but as a potential fatal threat to his safety or that of his family or livestock. One can’t really blame the settler back then. There was no Google. Only Alta Vista.
But one can blame those of us today who have similar encounters be it on a backbone trail or in a backyard and then feel ignorantly compulsed to pick up the biggest rock or tree branch or lawn ornament and destroy the creature that’s in effect helping keep either the balance of nature in check or you from calling the Orkin man.
Perhaps someday we humans will know respect for such amazing creatures with which we share the land. Sooner still though, perhaps someday there will be a gopher snake who will have a lightbulb go off that tells it to be supercool around the two-legged fools. Perhaps this is that snake, behaving so begrudgingly mellow with awed me in its midst.