Garden Surprise: A Case of Miss-Snaken Identity

While outside with my dogs the other day, I noticed a tall weed in my garden that cried out to be yanked. Usually I don’t pull weeds without gloves on because of a severe poison ivy allergy, but this stood tall enough above my perennials that I could grab it without worrying about touching a hidden poison ivy vine.

I yanked it out, and the following thoughts passed through my brain at a speed usually reserved for snails, slugs, and teenagers in the morning.

1) Hmmm. That’s a strange-looking root.

2) It’s longer than I expected.

3) And black.

4) I’ve never seen black roots like that.

5) It’s kind of thick.

6) With a stripe.

7) And eyes.

8) And a forked tongue.

9) That’s a snake.

Yes, folks, hanging from the weed, was a garter snake — staring at me, flicking her tongue. (I decided she was a female because I am not versed enough in snake physiology to determine at arm’s length the sex of a snake, and, damn the patriarchy, I’m going to default to “she” instead of “he.”)

Anyway, we both seemed to have a “What the…!” moment there, Ms. Snake and I. She was obviously just as startled as I, one minute snuggled around a perfectly comfortable stem and the next she’s flying through the air on an amusement park ride she had most certainly not been buckled in for.

She was not amused.

The snake flicked her tongue at me several times, trying to figure out exactly what just happened and how to rectify the situation, all while dangling at the end of jewelweed stem.

In the meantime, my befuddled brain was just coming to terms with the concept of “snake,” as in, I’m holding an unhappy garter snake three feet in the air above my purple phlox. This was not a tenable situation.

“Sorry,” I said to her.

She flicked her tongue.

“You should find a better place to hang out.”

Flick. My pun was lost on her.

“I have dogs.”


She seemed unimpressed.

By then Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker were trotting toward to me, having noticed my unusual posture from across the yard: standing stiffly, holding my arm out.

For dogs, a snake is, at the very least, an interesting sniff; at worst, well, I don’t imagine a snake would come out too well in an encounter with my three, and as for me — who rescues errant moths that fly in our house at night lest they become playthings for the cats — I did not want to carry the guilt of an eviscerated snake on my conscience along with squirrels, rabbits, mice, voles, chipmunks, and groundhogs whom I have laid to rest in our woods after unhappy encounters with the dogs. We won’t say any more about that. Though I have a local wildlife rehabilitator in my cell phone contacts, because sometimes there are happier endings. But I digress.

My synapses finally began firing at normal speed instead of slow mo, and I gently lowered the weed so that Ms. G. Snake could slither off unbothered beneath the fading peonies, and disappear into a forest of bee balm stems.

The dogs had reached me now, and I threw the snakeless stem back into the garden and quickly turned away, lest the pooches catch a whiff of a huntable.

“Let’s go,” I said to the gang. ” Anyone want dinner?” I strategically used the magic D word, which is nearly always guaranteed to focus attention on me, the owner of thumbs and provider of things most tasty. We headed inside, and I hoped Ms. Snake took my advice and found a safer place to hang out, where humans didn’t yank out comfortable weeds, and dogs kept their noses — and teeth — to themselves.

Garter snake

This was not Ms. G. Snake, but a relative of hers, possibly a great, great grand-something whom I met in our yard several years ago.

Green frog

A green frog, another visitor to my garden this spring, whom I also encouraged to find a more appropriate home.

Jewelweed root

Re-enactment: This is another jewelweed I pulled. Ms. G. Snake was hanging off the bottom of the plant. And no, I didn’t have my camera / iPhone with me at the time, but even if I did, I’m not sure I would have had the presence of mind to snap a picture, considering not only how my brain was functioning at the time, but also keeping in mind the fact that I wanted the snake to slither off into the sunset unharmed.

Tucker looking at garden, staying behind the fence

Yes, I have a fence around my perennial garden. Lilah respects it. Jasper knows he’s supposed to stay out of the garden, but sometimes Deer! Squirrel! Chipmunk! And Tucker believes it’s merely a suggestion to be ignored under most circumstances.

What To Do If Your Dog Has a Close Encounter with a Garter Snake

Finding a snake in the grass or the garden might be a bit startling, but the common Eastern Garter Snake is a relatively harmless — and quite lovely —visitor, unless you’re a worm, vole, tadpole, or other tiny creature. Then you’re dinner.

If you’re a dog, garter snakes are probably not as much fun to chase as squeaky rodents like squirrels and chipmunks. Still, your pup might get up close and personal with one, particularly since this species is considered the most widely distributed snake in North America, and the one most often found on hiking trails.

Helping the Snake

Usually an encounter between dog and snake ends less well for the snake. If the reptile is still alive when you find it, and is unable to crawl away, it’s best to contact your local wildlife rehabilitator for advice.

Snake Bite

What if your dog gets bit by the snake? According to Barbara Wolfe, DVM, Phd, DACZM, and Chief Scientific Officer of the Morris Animal Foundation, garter snakes were formerly thought to be nonvenomous, but it was recently discovered that they produce a mild venom, which is used to stun their prey, and thus make their meal less wiggly and more consumable.

Because garter snakes have very small teeth rather than the venom-delivering fangs of rattlesnakes and other vipers, says Wolfe, “their bite is generally harmless to humans and other large mammals, like dogs.” However, she cautions, ‘if your dog is bitten by a garter snake, you should wash the wound to prevent infection.” You should also keep an eye out for any sign of irritation. If  your dog has a reaction to the bite, or you’re uncertain about the snake species, or you just want to err on the side of caution (which is nearly always my plan), contact your veterinarian.

Snake Snack

But what if your dog bites — or worse, eats — the snake? (Hey, my dogs eat cat poop out of the litter box, so eating a snake is definitley within the realm of possible snacks, like a dog version of a Twizzler), Wolfe says not to be alarmed. “If your dog is the offending biter, or eats a snake,” she says, “the smelly musk produced by the frightened snake may cause the dog to drool, gag, or even vomit, but isn’t toxic and will likely make him think twice before getting too aggressive on his next snake encounter.”

As always, if you have any questions, contact your vet.


What happens when you or your pet encounter wildlife?

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13 Comments on "Garden Surprise: A Case of Miss-Snaken Identity"

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  1. O!M!G! mom would have FREAKED OUT! she has a strict NO SNAKE policy

    • Well, then, better me than your mom. The funny thing was, I wasn’t startled, just confused. If I was startled I would have dropped her, but no, I was still processing “That’s a snake.”

  2. That will teach you to pull before looking! No dogs here, but cats who clear out the root-eating voles from my gardens. I leave buffers for snakes and often see them slithering off from my prying hands as I’m harvesting or clearing out some unwanted plants. I’m sure Mimi would be “right on that” if she saw one.

    Jewelweed is good and bad for you–it always grows where poison ivy grows, but the sap from the crushed leaves is also the natural antidote for the urishiol oil. So maybe Ms. G. Snake was letting you know you should keep at least one jewelweed for your own good.

    • Our property includes some woods, and we are right next to a few-hundred-acre park, so we always have poison ivy popping up in the gardens, as birds love the berries. I get overrun by jewelweed, so I usually have to pull a lot of it. It is pretty when it blooms, and, as you said, I’ve heard it can alleviate poison ivy symptoms. But I don’t want to test that out on purpose. I’m so highly allergic to urushiol that if I am exposed to it in any place in my body, I get a systemic reaction, which means the rash can pop out anywhere. And I mean anywhere: places I know have not nor will ever be exposed to poison ivy directly.

      You’re right, though; I’ll keep a few jewelweed plants around just in case I accidently touch poison ivy. Maybe it will come in handy. So thank you, and thanks to Ms. G. Snake.

  3. Mary McNeil says:

    Jewelweed “juice” eases any itch, so a couple mosquito bites will be the better for it too. Also the hummingbirds love the flowers. Glad you plan to keep some around, and that you are into putting wildlife safely aside.

    • Thanks. I have a feeling jewelweed is a little like aloe, and I keep that around (though in pots on my deck, and inside in the winter) as well. As for wildlife, I do everything I can to keep everyone safe from my dogs, which includes walking around my fenced-in backyard for several minutes before I take them outside, clapping and singing (thank goodness my neighbors’ houses aren’t too close) to scare away any potential prey. This time of year is particularly hard because there are lots of young birds and mammals that haven’t learned to be wary of other creatures like my pups. Sometimes I have to go right up to the young ‘uns and give them a lecture about natural selection.

  4. Your reaction is not what the mom’s would have been. She would have screamed and dropped that snake as fast as she could!

    • I don’t mind snakes. I was surprised I didn’t drop the poor thing, but I think that was because my brain was still catching up with the concept of a snake on a stick. It took a long time to process.

  5. Daisy says:

    Yikes! I probably would have freaked out and tossed the weed as far as I could, snake and all. Then I would have felt bad for the little guy (or gal) and wished I’d kept a cool head. I’m like you with moths and ladybugs that get into the house, though – those I catch and put back outside. My daughter puts stink bugs back into the wild too, she thinks they’re cute. But spiders…no. Show no mercy if they cross my threshold; their last moments are usually coupled with horrified Halloween-like screams from both of us. ::shudder::

    • So glad you save little creatures too. You can tell your daughter I save stink bugs too, hopefully before the cats get to them, because then they stink up everything they touch. I used to feel the same way about bees as you do about spiders. I screamed like I was being murdered, and once jumped out of a moving car because there was a wasp in there with me.

  6. You were much calmer than Mom Paula would have been! That snake would have been in flight and Mom Paula would be off to a mad dash!

    • I’ve heard that from several people. I’m not afraid of snakes; I think they’re beautiful, but I think the only reason I didn’t yelp like a fool and drop the weed instantly is because my brain was on slow mode, and I was just not processing what I was seeing. By the time I figured it out, it was past startle time.

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