My Hero and Gardening Anxiety

Yesterday morning, while driving to the community mailbox area to pick up my mail I spotted a cottonmouth snake along the roadway (photo above).   Thought it was a good time to dust off an old article I had written on my first encounter with this venomous species.

Dateline: June 22, 2012*

Beautiful, but deadly

I’m doggie sitting this week for a friend of mine. Her two woofs are wonderfully obedient and a pleasure to have around. The other morning all four woofs and I head outside for our usual morning romp in the meadow. I brought a cup of coffee out with me and was standing on the top step by the kitchen door. I saw the big lab/dobbie mix (AND I MEAN BIG!) playing with my Irish. Tanner, the English Setter was off in the front sniffing around.

I looked at the shortest member of the group, Melo, a mix who is a little “quirky”. He must have been abused during his young life for he will cringe in terror at normal routine things such as opening a dishwasher door or if you make a quick movement to pet him. With the patience and understanding of my friend and her family, this adoptee  is a bit more confident and very loving.

I glanced at Melo who was at the end of the parking pad. The fur on his back was up and I heard a low, guttural growl. Now, I’ve been having a bit of a rat-fest here…yet another has infiltrated my car engine compartment…a hazard of living rural. Melo has a fabulous reputation as a fruit rat catcher. I was hoping he had zeroed in on one of the enemies so I looked out a bit in front of him. There I saw a snake, a rather thick snake and I figured it was just one of the usual garter or banded water snakes that call my place home.

Now snakes are not uncommon in my yard and I welcome them with open arms…that is until this week. Thankfully Melo listens so when I called his name and yelled, “come”; he immediately turned and trotted back to me. I put him in the house. Next up…I called Hershey the big doofy guest. He too trotted over and entered the kitchen. I yelled out to Tanner and thankfully, he listened and ran inside. Chili was off in the distance so I cautiously walked over closer to the snake. I’m enamoured with snakes and I appreciate their rung in the food chain as they tend to the things I find icky…such as rodents and palmetto bugs. But I always use caution when approaching snakes given that Florida has dozens of snake species, but there are 6 venomous species in our midst. I’ve tangled with several pygmy rattlers, small guys who I can chop the head off with a shovel** without bodily fear to myself. My setters have collectively [been bitten] 3 times by pygmies, all healed with a quick trip to the vet.

No mistaking this triangular head as being a venomous cottonmouth

Back to the current snake…as I glanced, my eyes widened and I thought, “OH CRAP, I know that big triangular head”. There, lying in the high grass was the most beautiful water moccasin snake (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti) pit viper and one of the more venomous of Florida’s snakes. I quickly ran to get hold of Chili, who doesn’t necessarily listen where wildlife is concerned. Oh, she’ll drop whatever she catches when commanded to, but she insists on needing to catch it FIRST. I grabbed her collar and trotted her off into the kitchen. Then I pulled out my zoom camera (heck, I don’t have a gun…I needed to shoot it with SOMETHING). I got a few snaps but then it “smiled” at me showing the reason that it has its other common name, cottonmouth. It had a mouth full of foam. I was far enough away, but I don’t like to annoy the nature so I backed off. A bit later it was gone, though I’m not sure what direction it headed out to. Other common names are Florida Cottonmouth, Cottonmouth Moccasin, Water Moccasin, Moccasin.

Now cottonmouths are a water snake and with the recent rains my yard has been holding a lot of water. I was grateful for a three-day reprieve so I could tackle the high grass that built up when my mower crapped out. I had done a preliminary mow with the new machine, but had the wheels set high because my native grass meadow is hard to mow if allowed to languish for anything more than a few days. I lowered the wheels and set out to scalp the parking areas and where the dogs play.

I’ve been anxious ever since. I wouldn’t let the dogs out without supervision. Tanner is the only one that goes back by the pond so he has been leash restricted. He loves to jump through the brush on a rabbit hunt and since a pygmy has already bitten him, I don’t have any faith that he is smart enough to back off.

On Chili’s annual visit to the vet this week I inquired if there was anything I could do before I rush one of the dogs in with a cottonmouth bite. He wanted to know why such a question. I explained my dilemma and he said, just get em in here quick. Then he cautioned me to be careful myself. These snakes are not to be messed with.

While hawks do control rodent and snake populations, I’m not sure this young hawk is a match for the very large snake.

So, I contemplated what I could do to change the habitat immediately around my house. I have a trapper coming to trap any of my rodent “friends”. Remove the food source, remove unwanted wildlife. I scalped the area closest to the house, removing a lot of the Spanish needles (Bidens alba) and tall grasses, which saddens me, but we can’t be giving habitat to our venomous friends. I was thrilled to see a hawk land right next to the car clawing at the ground. Shortly thereafter I saw him in the back grass pulling apart pieces of his find and munching away. To me it looked like it was some sort of snake…alas, I doubt it was the big guy I need to move on. I’ve a piece of wood that I intended to build a bluebird nesting box with. Now the plans are being rework into an owl nesting box.

Fellow blogger Kathy Vilim gives some excellent awareness and avoidance advice.

In the meantime, I will keep the 30-foot parameter “defensible area” around the house scalped. I am wearing my clunky boots any time I am out in the yard. I am researching fence installers to prevent Tanner from going back into the pond area. I’m praying that the repeated noise I have created with the weed wacker and mower sessions has bothered the snake enough to slink on down the road. Personally, he didn’t seem to want me hanging around his area any more than I want him hanging around MY area. I’m contemplating shooting lessons…hey, while I don’t relish the thought of killing wildlife, this is one species that I cannot mess around with, although I will opt for it to slither off into it’s own safety any time possible.  If it endangers my dogs tho, it is a goner!

I’m a bit more relaxed as the week moves on.  I’ve had tens of dozens of snakes in my yard over the years and they don’t seem to hang out for days on end…mostly passing through. I’m holding on to that thought to keep my calm. Time will tell, in the meanwhile, I have the car gassed up and the vet’s number on speed dial…and eyes in the back of my head.

*This is tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 22, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

**Since my initial posting of this article I have evolved and now choose to safely relocate any dangerous wildlife by calling a licensed wildlife relocation service.

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