Naturalist’s Notebook: Garden Party! | Tennessee Aquarium

I’ve always been a flower gardener. At our old house, we just didn’t have room for a vegetable garden. At our new home, I have a fenced-in vegetable garden, so this year I’m planning to grow some veggies.

So far I have several blueberry bushes, a nice plot of strawberries, parsley, and garlic planted. I have plans for many more things when the weather gets a bit warmer.

Right now, I have a big healthy crop of weeds. I’ve been trying to do some weed pulling before they have a chance to go to seed. If I don’t, I’ll have a whole new bunch of weeds next spring. A nice sunny afternoon after a rain is a good time for weeding.

I’d been working for a few minutes when something stirred up the weeds right in front of me. It was a snake about four feet long!

I realized very quickly that it was a Black Rat snake. They are non-venomous and one of the most common snakes in Tennessee. They are also very good snakes to have around, since they eat mice and rats and help control rodent populations.

My newly-found friend, Mr. Snake, stopped about 4 feet away and began using an old rat snake trick. He began shaking the end of his tail really fast. Since there were dried leaves mixed in with the weeds, it sounded just like a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Anyone not wise to that trick usually gets scared and runs. This is exactly what the snake wants you to do. It is telling you, “Run away and don’t bother me!”

I didn’t run. Instead, I dug the cell phone from my pocket and began snapping pictures. The rat snake posed for a few photos and then crawled into a nearby hole.

 I’d noticed that hole the day before. I figured it was a chipmunk hole, and it probably was at one time. Chipmunks are good diggers; rat snakes aren’t. They prefer to move into holes other animals dug. The original owner may have been a meal for the present inhabitants.


About the time the snake slithered into the hole, I happened to look to my left and less than 3 feet away was a second snake about the same size as the first. It had been very still and was well hidden in the weeds. What luck! Not one, but two Black Rat snakes!

Snake number two was so hidden that I couldn’t get a good photo. I reached down to try and move some weeds. At this point, the surprised snake took off and in about two seconds went into the same hole as the first.

I think I interrupted a Black Rat snake romantic moment.

During all of this I was not scared: I was thrilled! I’d been looking forward to meeting my first snake at the new place.

My reaction to this snake-y situation is probably not what your reaction would be, and I can explain why. In my job at the Tennessee Aquarium, I use many species of snakes, including a Black Rat snake, for programs.

Snakes are very misunderstood creatures, and many people are scared of them. When asked why, some say it is because they bite. They seem to think snakes are always waiting to bite someone. Or even worse, they were taught from an early age to be afraid of snakes. They grew up terrified of snakes, but they don’t know exactly why.

I’ve worked hard to help people understand things from the snake’s viewpoint, and I try to practice what I preach. Both snakes today were flat on the ground, so they were about 1 1/2 inches tall. I’m about 5 feet 9 inches tall. To them, I looked like a gigantic, scary snake-eating monster. They were scared! I had no plans to harm them, but they didn’t know that. Did they try to bite me? No. Did I try to touch them? No. Did they do the wisest thing for them to do and escape from the “monster”? Yes.

The current Black Rat snake at the Aquarium is at least the third one I’ve worked with in my 27 year career. He’s over 6 feet long, and he’s my buddy. Of all the snakes we use as animal ambassadors, that snake is my favorite! He has been touched by literally tens of thousands of kids and adults, and he has never hurt or bitten a single one. If you have been in an audience I’ve talked to, you are probably one of the many lucky people who have touched him.

Keep looking for things to write about in your nature journal. If you should see a snake here is what to do.

1. Run away and don’t get too close to it. (Remember, it’ll think you are a scary monster.)

2. Don’t poke at it with a stick, throw a rock at it, or try to pick it up.

3. Leave it alone, and don’t bother it at all.

Always remember this advice: If you don’t bother the snake, it won’t bother you!

Mr. Bill

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