Slither of Truth

Call me mean as a snake, but I just don’t like them.
Phillip Gulley

I was hiking in the woods this past fall and stepped on a snake. It was an Inland Taipan, the most toxic snake in the world. One bite can emit enough poison to kill 250,000 mice, or 100 humans—provided they’re not obese, in which case it would only kill 50 or so. It is a shy reptile, once found only in central Australia. But due to global warming, it is now found in Orange County, Indiana, where I stepped on it.

At first glance, the snake appeared to be about four feet in length, but upon closer inspection it was 12 feet long. The snake, whose fangs were approximately five inches long, tried to bite me, but I was able to jump out of the way at the last moment. It was not the first time a snake had tried to kill me. When I was a child, a boa constrictor, approximately 60 feet long, slithered into our house via the back door, through our kitchen and living room and into my bedroom, where it wrapped itself around me as I lay sleeping. It began constricting, causing my head to swell to twice its normal size, nearly popping it off. My brother David awakened just in time to decapitate the snake with an ax. Another second, and I would have been a goner.

When some people have a near-death experience, they see bright lights and feel warm, like God is embracing them. God tells them that even though they’ve been a snot, he loves them anyway and is sending them back to Earth in hopes they’ll grow up and not be such a goober. I didn’t see any bright lights when the constrictor nearly killed me. I did feel warm, but that was because I’d peed on myself.

A few years later, my brother Glenn caught a black rat snake in our barn and made it into a pet. He kept it in a glass aquarium in his bedroom and fed it one white mouse each week. One time, he left the top off of the aquarium, and the snake disappeared. Shortly afterward, so did our dog and cat.

Snakes have had a bad reputation, justly earned, ever since the first one talked Adam and Eve into disobeying God. I wouldn’t put it past a snake to do such a thing, except that snakes can’t talk. There are people who believe that every word in the Bible is literally true, but I won’t believe it until I meet a talking snake. And Donald Trump doesn’t count.

I’m not surprised that when the author of Genesis was casting about for a villain, he settled on a snake. They slither out of their eggs looking for someone to bite. If there isn’t an unsuspecting child around, they’ll turn on each other. I once saw a picture of two snakes trying to eat one another. That’s how mean a snake is. A friend of mine said it was impossible—that snakes were like lawyers and wouldn’t bite one another out of professional courtesy—but I know what I saw.

I’m not surprised that when the author of Genesis was casting about for a villain, he settled on a snake.

When I was a kid, my friend Bill told me about a lady who fell off of her water skis, landed in a nest of water moccasins, and was bitten more than 100 times. No one would rescue her for fear of being attacked by the snakes. Bill later told me he’d made up the story, but it’s the kind of tale you’d believe about snakes. I’ve never heard of a snake running to get help for a kid who had fallen in a well. Or dialing 911 when its owner keeled over from a heart attack. That’s because the snake would be too busy hissing with laughter.

My mother-in-law, Ruby, a God-fearing woman if ever there was one, killed every snake she ever met, dispatching them to their slithery, scaly hell with one whack of her hoe. She would drape their headless bodies over the fence until sundown, and then run over them with a lawnmower to make sure they were dead. After that, she’d burn them down to ashes, which she would bury in a sealed metal drum. She took no chances with snakes, and neither should you. It is impossible to be too mean to a snake. If I were in charge of developing new weapons, I’d invent a bomb that killed snakes but left people and buildings intact.

People tend to be more afraid of big snakes, but little snakes are just as nasty. The spotted dwarf adder (Bitis schneideri) is only 11 inches long. It is found on the border of South Africa and Namibia and was discovered in 1886 by a German scientist whose last name was Schneider. He died a few moments after finding the snake. His last words—barely intelligible because he was writhing on the ground and screaming in pain—were “I thought it was a pencil.” No, that isn’t true, but you believed me, didn’t you? Because snakes are vicious and sneaky and enjoy disguising themselves as everyday objects so people will pick them up and be bitten. The spoked snake (Vipus bicyclus) of India routinely masquerades as a bicycle in order to attract children, who climb upon it and start to pedal away, only to be savagely attacked.

Not long ago, I had to go down to my basement to check on our sump pump. The electrical cord had gotten tangled up in the switch, and I had to reach down into the pit to unravel it. I suspected the sump pit was full of snakes because sump pits are the perfect snake habitat—wet and dark. Sure enough, a water moccasin had disguised itself as an electrical cord and bit me in the hand, and I nearly died. If my wife hadn’t been there to cut an X over the wound and suck out the poison, I would have been dead as a mackerel.

I wouldn’t want to pass on inaccurate information, so I will mention that medical professionals no longer recommend cutting an X over the snakebite and sucking out the venom. Instead, they suggest you lie down and die quietly. Once dead, usually within a minute or so, your body can be moved. If you wish, you can have someone phone 911, but probably no one will come since there are snakes in the area.

In the Bible, God said that because a snake led Eve astray, there would be enmity between us, that snakes would bite people and, in return, people would chop snakes into little pieces with gardening tools. God didn’t use those exact words, but that was the gist of it. You can trust me on this, since I’m a minister. There are 126 kinds of snakes in the United States, 10 of which are nearly extinct. That’s a good start, but we have a long way to go.


Illustration by Ryan Snook

This article appeared in the February 2013 issue.