When my back-door neighbors moved in four summers ago, they removed a dead oak tree that had been the nest tree for a pair of barred owls. The tree really had to go – it was huge, and canted towards their house, and would have taken all two storeys of the house down with it if blown over. In its place, Larry had a local bird expert erect an owl nest box. The owls seemingly did not mind the forced relocation, as they took possession of the nest box the following spring, and have successfully hatched and fledged a brood of owlets every spring since.
This year Larry had a camera installed in the nest box, and has observed mom and dad returning to their baby owl with squirrels, rabbits (Thank you, owls!) and snakes. So I knew Larry would be the neighbor to ask for help with the 8-foot long copperhead that I found tangled in my garden netting yesterday morning.
This copperhead was huge. It had been traveling on one of the garden paths when its head went through a one-inch square hole of the nylon bird netting that protects the lettuce and kale bed. The head and the first twelve inches fit through, but not the rest of the two-to-three inch diameter body. In its struggle to escape, the snake had wrapped multiple twists of netting around itself.
I am not a snake-phobic person. I am certainly surprised when I unexpectedly come across a snake, but undoubtedly less surprised than the snake who unexpectedly comes across me. In my back yard over the last 15 years, I’ve surprised a 10-foot long black snake, a pair of mating brown snakes, and too many garter snakes and green grass snakes to count. I’ve only found one other copperhead – a foot-long baby that my cairn terrier Bess was repeatedly tossing into the air, and then chasing and recapturing to be able to toss again. By the time I ran into the yard from my upstairs-window view of this drama, the snake had already succumbed to terrier mauling. I only had to dispose of the now mangled body.
I don’t like killing snakes. They have a valuable place in the ecosystem, even the venomous ones. Snakes keep mice and voles and who knows what else under control. Thirty years ago I dispatched a just-hatched nest of baby copperheads in my backyard woodpile. But in all my other snake encounters, giving the snake time to move off to a place where we won’t bother each other has been my response.
But there was no way to free this snake safely, as the head was untangled enough to repeatedly strike at the length of bamboo I used to investigate just how bound up it was. Nor could I really justify allowing an eight-foot long copperhead to roam through our backyards when there are two toddlers who play outside next door. And I knew it was going to die a slow, tortured death from strangulation, starvation, and being baked by the sun. I was going to have to kill this snake.
I decided I wanted backup. Not that the snake really had a chance of biting me – I just did not want to take this life alone. Larry came through the back yard gate at five, and with his cane from last week’s knee surgery, held the free part of the snake against the ground. I apologized to the snake for what I was about to do, said a prayer that his spirit would have a safe and blessed journey, and cut his head off with my long-handled tree loppers.
The snake died quickly, without twitching or shuddering. The rich copper of the eyes instantly turned a milky white. There was now seven feet of untangled snake body draped across the garden path. Larry said, “My owls would really like that,” and I replied, “I knew you would be the right person to help me do this.” One more cut with the loppers and Larry had seven feet of fresh meat to place on the owl feeding platform. The taking of this life would not be wasted.
This morning I was pouring my coffee and looking at the garden through my kitchen window. The barred owl, who usually observes my garden hidden on a tall branch of my cedar tree, was sitting on top of the arched garden arbor, staring into my window. He/she sat there for a full five minutes, despite being harassed by a distressed mocking-bird that repeatedly flew at its head and chest. In spirit lore, owl is harbinger of intuitive revelations, of deep change approaching. But perhaps, this morning, this owl was simply saying, “Thanks.”