Snakes, Cats and . . . Hypnosis?
What do snakes, cats and hypnosis have in common?
When I was a child, my grandmother would tell me all sorts of wise things and then drop a bombshell that made absolutely no sense. I remember the day she told me that snakes could hypnotize cats. Seven years old, I stared into her hazel eyes and suspected she was pulling my leg. Even at that age the idea of snakes hypnotizing cats seemed, well . . . unlikely. But she seemed confident in her assertion so I stored the concept in my mental archives.
Mother Nature must’ve been eaves-dropping because she inserted an entry in her diary. You may recall that she and I have an on-going uneasy relationship – uneasy for me, that is. I’m pretty sure she has a blast.
That diary entry materialized right on time the summer I was sixteen.
I’d recently moved to a Southern Alberta cattle ranch that had a heavy concentration of rattlesnakes and it didn’t take long to get in the habit of listening for that distinctive buzz.
It happened now and again that I’d be alone at ranch headquarters looking after the horses, cats, and the dog. With half-a-dozen stallions in residence, it was crucial to keep them separated or they’d kill each other.
One blistering afternoon, I returned from climbing alone in the rattlesnake-infested hoodoos not far from our house – one of my favourite pastimes. The hoodoos were a magical, stunning world of mystery. How could I refuse? I could spot a snake under a rock in time, right?
Looking forward to a drink of water, I heard the buzz of an agitated rattler. Tradition says if you hear a rattlesnake, you stop to establish its location before moving forward, but this could take some time as Mother Nature hides her traps by blending them into the environment. And since I was in bare feet and shorts, stepping on a rattler could be a personal disaster.
I froze to scan the parking area which, except for a small lawn, constituted our yard. A constant stream of irrigators, riders, friends, family and farmers kept everything dry and packed. All I could see was my white cat sitting in the open yard. No snake. Maybe it would just slither away like the hundreds of others that moved through our yard on a yearly basis.
After ensuring the way was clear, I continued to the house where I opened all the windows in hopes the scorching wind would dry some of the sweat from my body. I tried to ignore the snake but, when you live amongst them, it’s difficult to disregard that distinctive buzz. It was still agitated – which meant it was threatened by something in the yard. Which meant one of our animals was probably in danger. I kept glancing out the window at my cat which hadn’t moved. Odd behaviour for a cat in the heat of the day. Should be in the shade somewhere. Hmm.
Unusual behaviour of any of the animals was a red flag to be investigated so I trotted down the back steps to check out the cat situation. The buzz got louder as I approached and my pet ignored me – also a red flag. She loved attention. What the heck . . .?
Every muscle in my body froze . . . The snake was coiled less than a foot in front of my cat, its triangular head ready to strike, rattles buzzing furiously. The rigid cat stared at it without blinking.
Where the hell was everybody when I needed them? Not a soul on the place except me! Damn! I’d have to handle the situation myself. Taking extreme care not to startle the snake into striking, I sneaked away to look for something I could use to move it away.
The irrigators lived nearby in a bunkhouse. Maybe there was something lying around I could use. As I searched, I reviewed options. Moving the cat away from the snake would be risky as any movement from its target might cause the snake to strike, and I’m pretty sure if the cat had any confidence in being fast enough to outrun the strike of a snake, it would’ve already done so.
I hunted around the bunkhouse, keeping clear of the tumbleweeds piled in a corner. Great hiding places for more snakes. I needed something long. Could I use a long metal crow-bar to push it back? A piece of wood?
I spied a shovel at the back of the building. Unfortunately it was one of the short ones with the red hand-hold at the end. My support hand would be within striking distance of those fangs. Didn’t like that option so looked around for one of the long-handled shovels I knew the irrigators used.
Damn! Looked like they’d taken all the best shovels when they’d gone to work that morning. There was only the short one left. Set on its point, it wasn’t much higher than my waist and I estimated the snake would be in the vicinity of three feet. Muttering that the irrigators had probably left this shovel because it was useless, I picked it up and eased back to the site of the confrontation.
It was generally believed that a rattlesnake couldn’t strike more than a third of its length – but there were some old-timers who disagreed. I’d heard many differing opinions already. I eyed the shovel, eyed the snake; glanced at my immobile cat. Hmm. My thoughts flashed back to Grandma’s lessons in life. Seemed I might owe her an apology.
Back to my problem. If I could get the shovel blade between the snake and the cat, the snake would be prevented from striking as the cat ran away. At least I hoped so. I’d be no more than three feet from that rattler myself by then, and my support hand would be within striking distance. I hoped the snake was too distracted to notice.
Taking a deep breath, I eased the shovel sharp-side down towards the snake, ensuring it didn’t scrape against the ground. Anything could startle it into striking my cat with a fatal dose of poison. With a slow steady movement, I got the shovel blade between them.
In a stage-whisper, I tried to shoo the cat away but it wouldn’t budge. Its gaze never wavered. At that point, I realized no input was entering its brain and my hope that it would assist in its own escape disintegrated. Next option was to move the snake away from the cat.
Cursing Mother Nature’s never-ending traps, I pushed the snake’s head away but it simply returned to its coiled state still rattling. I was too close to comfort. All it had to do was change its focus to me – the person poking at it with a sharp instrument!
To those of you who claim you can’t concentrate? Try this scenario one day. I guarantee there will be nothing in your thoughts besides that snake!
Keeping the shovel blade between the fangs and the cat, I eased closer and pushed the body of the snake back. I’d no idea how it would react. Would it come after me? Strike blindly? Strike at my hand? I’d only experienced a few weeks of summer in that area of Alberta and still had a lot to learn about the dangers of the local flora and fauna. Looked like my education was about to get a boost.
The snake coiled, rattled, and threatened as I tumbled it back but it didn’t strike. It looked like a pissed-off living coil writhing in the dust that kept returning to its strike position.
And the damn cat still wouldn’t run away!
I decided to get the snake out of the yard – which meant picking it up on the short-handled shovel and carrying it away. Could that even be done? I’d no idea. People generally aren’t dumb enough to try it.
Gritting my teeth, I slid the tip of the shovel beneath the snake, worked it under as it coiled and threatened. Finally I had it balanced on the shovel blade. If anyone had touched me at that point, I’d have probably had a heart attack.
I discovered that snakes are surprisingly heavy. With careful steps, I carried the coiled and furious snake across the yard.
Did you know rattlesnakes in Alberta are a protected species? Whichever idiot decided that rattlesnakes are an endangered species have never lived there! I know for a fact that old-timers who wanted to get rid of gophers on their ranches introduced rattlesnakes. Where there are rattlesnakes, there are no gophers. Where there are no gophers, badgers don’t dig big holes that break the legs of cattle and horses. I never saw a rodent on our entire sixty-two sections of land during the time I lived there.
One old-timer told me that the Town of Foremost got rattlesnakes when, early in the twentieth century, ranchers transplanted them from the river to the Foremost Coulee. Today the Town of Foremost is infested with them. They have no gophers though. I don’t know if that story is true, but the old ranchers who told me about it had no reason to lie.
Anyway, back to my snake. As I carried it away, that snake spun its attention to me, its tiny black eyes locked on mine. I didn’t draw a breath as, in dead silence, I scooted across the yard. At the edge of the native grass, I carefully slid it off the shovel, darted out of striking range, and watched to see what it would do. I was sure I could out-run it . . . well, pretty sure.
It gave me what appeared to be a sneer of derision and slithered into the grass.
Still imagining fangs stuck into my wrists, I wandered back to my cat that stared at the ground. I waved my hand in front of its face but it was as if I wasn’t there. Cats can attack if they’re scared enough so I returned to the house expecting it would relax sooner or later and wander away.
An hour later, it was still in the same position. With a puzzled frown, I trotted back. I yelled, waved my hand in front of its face yet again but there was no response. It stared at the ground where the snake had been. So, Grandma, it seems you were right again.
The cat seemed so spooky I was afraid to touch it, its mental state obviously abnormal. But I had to do something. It was completely unresponsive. I stood far to the side, reached over . . . and gave it a light tap on the shoulder.
It exploded six feet in the air, scratching, clawing and screaming. As I leaped out of its way, I was relieved I’d listened to my intuition or I’d have been shredded! When it landed, claws extended, and fur on end, it scanned the area. When it didn’t see the snake it gave a shake, shrugged a shoulder and wandered off to the barn as if embarrassed by such a display.
So I chalk another one up for Grandma. That cat was in some kind of immobilizing trance for at least an hour and a half, and who knows how long before I arrived?
I’ll have to carry on the folk-lore – Snakes can hypnotize cats!
As I was writing this story, my mother told me that she also saw one of our cats hypnotized by a rattlesnake, but she used a long stick to shove the cat away. Apparently she was less worried about the cat than I was. Perhaps more pragmatic. When its vision was broken from the stare of the snake, she said the cat shot away at high speed. In retrospect, this would’ve been a safer approach – at least for me.