If snake killing is wrong, then my dog Opal doesn’t want to do right

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opal young
Opal in her glory days

When I lived near the Luray TN bottoms, the dogs and I often walked the field road to the back of a farm tract known locally as “the island”. This was several hundred acres surrounded by water – swamp, stream and man-made ditches and canals. More accurately, I walked, and the dogs trotted, tumbled, trailed or ran. From a bird’s eye view, I imagine a wildly moving circle of four legged beasts with one slow moving two-legged beast toward the rear.

My squatty brown dog Opal was a snake killer. She so enjoyed it, that if I yelled “SNAKE!” to warn any unsuspecting dogs, she leapt into action, surging forward and scanning eagerly for action. I learned instead to shout “RABBIT”! and point the safest direction.

One day I experimented with shouting “SNAKE!” as she napped on the porch. She peeled up from deep sleep at full roar, thrilled at the prospect of doing combat with her hated foe. Opal had a face that looked like a caricature of a benevolent snapping turtle, and she made me laugh every day.

The field road to the tract known as “the island”, a place where these rescued dogs could run freely.

 

I did not like her lust for snake killing, though I grudgingly admired her ability and dedication to the task. I hold the snake clan in high esteem. Imagine getting around in the world without legs or arms, as well as being mostly despised and feared. They deserve admiration.

I find many friends that agree with me on non-venomous snakes, but feel they can make a case for killing the venomous. I honor even the venomous snakes, and feel gratitude for the many times they have chosen to spare me in my barefooted or sandal-footed wanderings. Water moccasins in particular have had plenty of opportunities to bite me and did not.

Opal could have cared less what kind of snake it might be. Venomous snakes had bitten her several times on her legs or face as she charged in, snatching the snake in a violent blur of shaking that was over in seconds. It was terrible and terrifying, especially at the end of the thrashing, when she flung the snake aside with no clue as to direction. Flying venomous snakes with fangs still extended are bad news, dead or not.

When Opal was bitten, her limb, or face, or neck swelled to frightening proportions. My veterinarian had become so accustomed to her habits, that he equipped me with antihistamine, anti-inflammatory and antibiotic medicines so I could give them to her immediately. Usually within forty-eight hours, the swelling was gone.

Whippoorwill Hill is an upland setting, and home to copperheads before it was home to us.

 

Opal’s excitement was contagious, and some of the other dogs thought they’d like to have a go at snake killing. Jolene, the big coonhound, could handle it, but her shaking style was slower, more of a head slinging, causing the snake to whip her on one side and then the other. It might have been funny, except it wasn’t.

I did my best to prevent anyone from grabbing the snake, racing into the confrontation screaming in an attempt to protect snake from dogs and dogs from snake. I imagine you could hear me from outer space, giving my all to convince the dogs that any disobedience at that moment might end in blood and guts.

My instinctive fury was inexcusably unfair to Opal on this particular walk. I was in shorts and sandals, looking at clouds, when Opal knocked me aside, lunging against the side of my knee, her big head just at the point where my foot should have descended. No doubt I would have stepped directly on the water moccasin she now shook ferociously just in front of my legs. Adrenalin made my screamed “NO’S” sound so full of rage, that once she’d flung the snake into the soybeans, she hung her head and crouched in submission, afraid she was to be punished.

She probably did save me from a painful bite this time. In relief, I fell to my knees and hugged her blocky body, apologizing and kissing her broad scarred head. She butted it against me, shoved close and wagged her ugly rear end, full of doggy clemency. Sweet, brave, good dog Opal.

Opal has since “crossed the bridge” or she might have saved me from the snake that was not aware of my pact with the clan of snakes. The painful encounter took place my first spring on Whippoorwill Hill, and cost me. It was not just the insurance deductibles, or the three days in the hospital watching my leg swell into something unrecognizable. It took my naivete. I have trekked woods and fields and creeks and swamps all my life with no thought of peril. Now I find myself looking before I put my hands or my feet into places a snake might be concealed. I refuse to call it fear, but it has replaced my heedlessness. I miss being oblivious.

Where I once tread fearlessly, I now cautiously probe.

Fear was not really the emotion present even when I looked down to see that the sting was not a wasp as I first thought. It was beautiful copperhead, gracefully poised to give me another pop of venom if I needed more encouragement to step aside. Some people exclaim they would have died from on the spot from sheer terror, but in that millisecond I had three sensations, and none were related to fear.

I was incredulous. I’d been bitten, and it was definitely a copperhead! I was immediately resigned to the truth of it. I’d been bitten by a copperhead and it could not be undone. Thirdly, I was curious, because now I would know what it was like to be bitten by a venomous snake. It did turn out to be a rougher experience than I expected overall, but obviously, I didn’t die, and it had unexpected rewards. I suddenly became the cool great aunt to my several great nieces and nephews.

…and no, I did not kill the copperhead that bit me, nor did I even consider it. That handsome snake deserved to be there as much or more than I. If there was one good thing about Opal not being with me on that walk, it is that I can imagine the fiesty snake still slips through the woods on Whippoorwill Hill, and you know what ? I hope it is oblivious to any fear.

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Carol Reese

Carol Reese is an Extension Horticulture Specialist housed at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson. She is a nationally-known speaker, blending equal parts gardening knowledge, natural lore, and quirky humor.

Carol is the gardening and nature columnist for several newspapers, as well as a contributor to several gardening magazines. She was the Q&A columnist for Horticulture Magazine for several years.

Her B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture are from Mississippi State University, and she could also add her Ph.D. if she “had ever written that damn dissertation!” While there, she taught classes in Plant Materials, and co-taught Landscape Design for non-LA majors alongside a “real” landscape architect.

She attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by generations of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each spring to “break up his hard pan”. Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her near daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.”

 

8 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderful piece, Carol, I also have a fond spot for snakes (although we do not have so many poisonous ones here in the Pacific Northwest). I would say your new-found caution is also a show of respect for the snakes; you’re not likely to step on them, anyway.

    I was once backpacking in the mountains northeast of Big Sur, and we had lost the badly-marked trail. Crossing a sunny boulder field, I put one step forward and almost planted it on a huge rattler, rattling furiously away at me. I must have jumped about 20 feet down the boulders, right on to the trail. I am sure Snake was glad to help point me on my way out of his personal sunning spot!

    • I had to laugh, yes, fond of snakes or not, being surprised by one can inspire amazing athletic feats, even levitation when there is nowhere to go but up!

      i like your thoughts about more respect, yes. Perhaps like me, you find yourself apologizing to disturbed toads and worms as you garden?

      Glad you enjoyed the piece..

  2. Apologies to disturbed creatures can always be heard in my garden. As well as greetings and compliments! My neighbor wants me to remove some plants because they might harbor animals. Well that’s what they’re there for – shelter for birds, lizards and yes, snakes. I love my urban sanctuary for all beings.

    • Great comment! I also say hello to toads and other critters as I am gardening in my small suburban plot. I call my space the oasis—because all around me is manicured lawn with no wildlife.

  3. A great saga, thanks for sharing. I would only disagree with your description of Opal — ‘squatty’, with a ‘face like a snapping turtle’, ‘ugly rear end’?
    She looks like a typical adorable chocolate lab mix, and if ‘beauty is as beauty does’ she was indeed GORGEOUS! I hope you got to have her and love her for many years!

    • She was a fine dog, bighearted, cheerful, and cooperative with man or beast, with the exception of snakes. Even the cats were fond of her. Opal lives on in love and memory.

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