Headless Heebie Jeebies
Did you know snakes don’t die until sundown? Sounded suspicious to me too. My grandmother was a wise old soul, and that’s what she told me when I was a child.
She said a snake didn’t die until sundown regardless of what time of day it was killed. As an eight-year-old child, I was curious about this comment and vowed to check it out somehow.
One afternoon somebody accidentally ran over a garter snake in the ranch yard, and one of my brothers hung its body over a tree branch. I was excited to perform my very own scientific experiment! Here was a chance to confirm or disprove Grandma’s theory!
I watched the tail slowly move back and forth throughout the day. There was no doubt the snake was dead, but the tail kept moving. Maybe Grandma was right. I’d get up early and check the carcass in the morning.
Shortly after sunrise, I rushed out in bare feet through grass soaked by heavy dew to take a look. The tail no longer moved, and the snake finally looked truly dead. Did the coolness of the night stop the nerves from working? It was a mystery.
Eight years later in Southern Alberta, I had another chance to verify Grandma’s claim.
During the hot summer months, rattlesnakes would slither into our ranch yard. They’d crawl into rubber boots, curl up next to the house where it was cool, or take advantage of the shade beneath the plants in the vegetable garden. Our biggest concern was not that they would aggressively attack anyone, but that we could step on one without seeing it, leading to instant retaliation in the form of poisoned fangs in some body part. Children from areas without rattlesnakes couldn’t remember to watch for them all the time — no one could.
On day in August when the snakes were shedding their skins and were particularly short tempered, my dad decided he’d had enough of a big rattler that wouldn’t leave the yard. We didn’t kill snakes as a rule because they ate gophers which dug holes in the grassland. The gophers attracted badgers which dug even bigger holes which caused broken legs in horses and cattle.
Oh, yes — killing rattlesnakes was also illegal. Some goof in an ivory tower who’d never lived among them had decided rattlesnakes were an endangered species. Maybe that was because they didn’t know how to find them.
After a few close calls, Dad decided it was time to do something before someone got hurt. One morning the snake was in the middle of the open yard, coiled up, and rattling. It didn’t like all the activity. My dad killed it with a shovel then cut off the head and buried it. The fangs were filled with poison, and he worried someone could step on it.
The body of that snake lay there all day in the hot sun as we went about the business of ranching and, as expected, it was still there that evening when the riders returned from the day’s work. As he crossed the yard, Dad decided he’d like to have the rattles before he disposed of the snake. He pulled out a sharp jack-knife and knelt beside the carcass.
The instant his knife bit into the snake’s tail, the body whipped into a coil, and the grisly headless end slammed against his wrist!
I don’t care how brave you are; if a rattlesnake strikes you, your self-protection instinct is going to slam into over-drive! My father almost had a heart attack! His subconscious knew a rattlesnake had just sunk its fangs into him!
He jerked back, heart pounding, his wrist jarred from the force of the blow. It took a few seconds to remember he’d cut the head off that rattler himself ten hours earlier, but it’s hard to convince your body it’s okay when it knows it’s just been struck by a poisonous snake!
It took Dad half an hour to get over the fright and for the adrenaline rush to slow down. He was never so grateful for having followed the advice of an old local cowboy who’d cautioned to always bury the head of a dead rattler. Guess that old guy had a healthy respect for dead snakes too.
Although the snake’s body had baked in the sun the entire day, its nervous system seemed to function just fine. I wasn’t able to verify that the rattler was truly dead the next morning, as the body had been disposed of. I’m not sure I’d have been brave enough to poke it in the ribs anyway.
I still don’t know how that happened. Perhaps our definition of “dead” needs revision. Regardless of the reason, I shook my head and wondered how Grandma had known all those years earlier.