The Eastern Garter Snake

Fearing Snakes

The story of how I overcame my childhood fear of snakes.


Before I get started on how I went from being a wuss around snakes to being way to inquisitive around them, I want to say that the picture above is of a 34 inch Eastern Garter Snake.  I remember a time way back  when I was just knee high to a grasshopper. My friends and I were playing out in a field and along came this slithering creature. My adrenaline took over and rapid-fire brain signals started countering each other in my head. Should I pick it up or shouldn’t I? This thought raced through my mind about a million times a second. Just as I found the courage to do it, my friends were already passing it around.  

Reflecting back upon that story reminds me of the time my cousin and I found an eastern garter snake as kids. We were around 7 years old and swinging on the swings held up by grandma’s clothes line poles. We seen it! Slithering through the grass headed towards the outside entrance to the cellar. By the time we leaped off of our swings, the snake had disappeared. However, the little rascals we were, we found its projected point of entry. We quickly ran to grandpa’s garage and got the potting shovel. Digging seemed to take forever back then, but in all actuality it was probably only eight inches or so until we seen a tail. The snake was attempting to gain access to the cellar, and we were too afraid to pick it up. As bright young kids never fail, we had an idea. My cousin took off for a mason jar, and I took off for grandpa’s needle nose pliers. The snake was in the mason jar now laying in the bed of grass we had so diligently prepared. Then, our next “great” idea for the day hit us both simultaneously as we turned and looked at each other with the biggest “up-to-no-good” grins covering our faces. We were off to show grandma our prize capture. You should know that our grandma was deathly afraid of snakes and would jump through herself at the sight of one. I held the snake behind my back as we rounded the corner of the house to meet grandma sitting on the front patio. Giggling inside knowing what was about to happen, my cousin and I smiled at each other once again. I slowly took the mason jar from my back, shoved it near my grandma, and yelled, “RRAAGGHHRRGG”. Next thing I know the mason jar went flying out of my hand into the yard as my cousin and I ran for our lives. Grandma always watched her tongue around us kids, but that day she implied that both of us were fatherless. So it became known that we were B-1 and B-2.

When I was 18 I headed to North Carolina to further my education. Being from Pennsylvania, there were not too many venomous snakes I had to watch out for. How different the story was down in North Carolina. I remember one of my friends laying a dead copperhead behind my Firebird. He called me down to check it out. He had been cornered by the snake and had to use his pocket knife to extract himself from the situation. The copper head measured 39 inches long. I wanted my picture with the snake. Then just as before, even thought the snake was dead, my adrenaline started dispersing throughout my body. I told myself the snake is dead over and over again until I finally mustered up the courage to pick it up and get my picture taken with it. I was so “proud”.

After my adventures in North Carolina I decided to move back home to PA. I worked for a man who owned a used car lot up the road from me. I was one of two mechanics and that put my odds at seeing 50% of the snakes as I moved cars in and out of the garage to work on them. It seemed every time I popped the hood of a vehicle open I would see snakes inside. It was now sink or swim for me. The snakes liked to hide in the exact areas where I had to work. I decided to overcome my fear of snakes from this point on. I went home and jumped right onto my computer and looked up every snake found in my region of PA. I read up on the venomous and non-venomous snakes, their history, their likelihood of striking, and hours and hours more of research. I was starting to develop a curiosity for snakes that took away all of my fear. My curiosity was put to the test shortly after that, and I quickly went right back to being afraid of snakes. The owner of the used car dealership asked me to go over and move his huge woodpile closer to the window of his house he would chuck it through in the winter time. It was mid-July and the woodpile was covered up with several black tarps. I told him to not even think about me moving that woodpile. He looked at me strangely for I was never the type of person to say no to my boss. I told him the only chance he stood for me to move the woodpile is if I went back to my house and got my .22 with bird-shot loads. He told me that wouldn’t be necessary. For the next two days this story unfolded again and again. Then on the third day, when I gave him my line, he smiled at me and pulled a .22 revolver loaded with bird-shot out the small of his back. He then handed me a box of shells and I immediately asked for more ammo to get a reaction out of him. He laughed and walked away leaving me and my the other mechanic to tend to the woodpile. I found 23 snakes in that woodpile. Garter snakes, ring-neck snakes, red-bellied racers, northern brown snakes, and northern water snakes made up the species I encountered that day. I shot three of the garter snakes in the beginning. Feeling badly for taking the life of a reptile I was not going to eat I put the gun down. I realized that the snakes in the woodpile would not hurt me if bitten. That was enough for me to not take the lives of any other snake for the rest of my days.

Now for the highlight of losing my fear of snakes. By the age of 25 I was picking up every snake I could find, and measuring the biggest garter snake I could get my hands on. My previous record was a 27 inch garter snake I found while fishing behind my house. However, what was about to happen next I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years. An acquaintance and I were driving around the dirt roads of a state park one day. I had no idea where I was or how far from civilization I had gotten. I seen what I thought was a big stick in the middle of the road ahead. As I approached this “stick” I realized that it was a Timber Rattlesnake. I always thought I would run and scream like a sissy at


Staring down the the eye of the beast!

the first sighting of a rattlesnake, but the situation was quite the opposite. I pulled up to the snake, jumped out of the vehicle, and started looking for a sturdy stick with a fork on the end of it. Once I found the right stick I got closer to the snake. This snake was not happy with me. He had coiled up and rattled constantly the minute I jumped out of the vehicle. I tried to go behind him and he would just turn with me. Then I got the idea to place the fork end of the stick close to its head and spin on the stick walking behind the snake. Success! ! The snake fell for it. I slowly picked up the stick and pinned its head to the ground. Unfortunately for me, the forks were too long. The snake spun around towards me striking at me. I jumped back and broke off the forks a little making them shorter. I used my previous strategy and got around to the backside of the snake and gave it another go. It worked, but just as I got closer to grab it behind the head the snake got free. Striking at me again, I jumped back. The snake was headed towards the high grass on the side of the road and a 20 foot drop off just beyond that. I used the stick to fling the snake back into the middle of the road. They are much stronger and heavier than I ever imagined. This time the snake was in flight mode. It was not sticking around for me to make another move. My adrenaline pumped more than it ever had before. I knew if I got bit the likes that I would survive it were slim to none. Medical help was far off and I had no idea how to get out of the state park. I also knew that my chances of holding this amazing creature were slipping through the forks on the stick. I fought with the snake for about 30 seconds more. Almost all of his body was now in the high grass with just his tail sticking out. I could not find his head. Just as I was reaching for his tail to pull him back out onto the dirt road, I realized that its head was next to its tail. He struck fiercely at me three times in a row. This is when I finally decided to not press my luck any more. I heard that snake rattle the whole way down the small cliff until it thudded at the bottom. I then said to the snake, “I am not that stupid to go down there and mess with you again.” My adventure was now over, but I will never forget that moment.

Now I am into hunting rattlesnakes. I bought snake chaps, boots, and a set of the most humane tongs I could find. I’m still waiting for my first rattlesnake hunt, best I guarantee that someday there will be a photo of me holding a rattlesnake, and a story proving I have truly overcame my fear of snakes.

J.D. Arp

J.D. Arp





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Featured Image:

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Kerry Wixted 

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