Snakes Alive!

Most of what they say about snakes ain’t so ... So says Sinclair, who has been hunting them in Ontario’s isle of serpents

GORDON SINCLAIR August 15 1945

Snakes Alive!

Most of what they say about snakes ain’t so ... So says Sinclair, who has been hunting them in Ontario’s isle of serpents

GORDON SINCLAIR August 15 1945

Snakes Alive!

Most of what they say about snakes ain’t so ... So says Sinclair, who has been hunting them in Ontario’s isle of serpents


EVERY year about this season the museums of Canada, particularly the Royal Ontario at Toronto and the National Museum at Ottawa, are besieged by queries about snakes.

Are they deadly? Do they swallow their young? Is it true that snakes milk cows? Do the number of rattles tell the age of a snake? Is the copperhead found in Canada? Do snakes really hiss? Is there such a thing as a glass snake which flies apart and later reassembles itself?

Since Canada will probably have a bigger snake population this year than for any period during the past 20 years, it’s time to debunk some of the fallacies which persist despite repeated doses of debunking.

On the positive side it’s true that Canada does have poisonous snakes, and three rattlesnake varieties are poisonous enough to be deadly.

More surprising is the probable fact that parts of the Canadian Lake Erie shore have a denser snake population than any other part of the world, including the Florida Everglades or the Bengal jungles. Not more species, but more individual snakes.

Parts of Lake Erie are south of the northern border of California, believe that or not, and they abound with snakes. It’s probable that Ryerson Island, which is part of Long Point, about 108 miles to the southwest of Toronto, has a greater snake population than any other place on earth.

On the negative side it’s sad to repeat the old, old denials but it has to be done: No snake ever swallows its young. No snake has ever been known to milk a cow. The number of buttons on a rattler’s tail has nothing to do with his age. There are no copperheads in any part of Canada, and there is no glass snake which flies apart when attacked.

If you need 50 or 60 snakes it would be easy to pick up this many any afternoon, rain or shine, on sandy Ryerson Island, which lies, V-shaped and roughly a mile and a quarter by a mile and a half in size, across Inner Bay from the mainland town of Port Rowan. For this is the snake metropolis of Canada, and its citizens are numbered in millions.

Frequently over the past dozen years partie;“rom zoos, museums, side shows and universities have invaded that Island in the Canadian banana belt and returned with serpents by the sackful, puzzling, incidentally, why Ryerson should have so many snakes. Scientists have not yet found the answer to that question.

On one of these trips I went along with Shelley Logier of the Royal Ontario Museum and William LeRay of the University of Toronto, and after three days we brought back 419 snakes and assorted salamanders, tree frogs and turtles. Some of these were later shipped to museums and zoos as far south as Florida, and we could have had thousands as easily as we got hundreds.

We took a boat to the Island, and long before we had carried our kit ashore we had caught snakes. It was cold and they were sluggish and easy to grab—but ill-natured.

The Canadian snake, except for an occasional rattler, is never venomous, and even the rattler is not usually lethal except in the West. But in the cool days of spring even the garter snake will sometimes sink his fishlike teeth into a finger —a bite that is actually antiseptic, because of a chemical in the snake’s .saliva.

As we carried our gear to a red cottage on a sandy bank, snakes scurried noisily through dry leaves and sharp grasses in every direction.

Within an hour, when we were ready for the actual hunt, the sky had clouded over and rain threatened. This, to the man seriously bent on snake collection, made it much easier, because the serpents sought, shelter under logs. If your aim is excitement and the sport of actually pursuing a snake and catching him, the clouds will slow down your fun because the snakes have no steam in them; but to hunters who just crave

snakes clouds are a help. That afternoon we collected 150 snakes and turned most of them loose again. The ones we saved were bigger than mine-run in length or more peculiarly marked.

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On the Island there were fox snakes, sometimes called the warn per, black garters, brown garters, striped garters and solid brown snakes of a smaller but gamer species.

Best timeof all to harvest snakes was by moonlight. The last evening on the island we collected 35 racy wigglers in 25 minutes. Just turn over a fallen log, swing the beam of your torch along the ground and grab. Usually each grab yielded four serpents but you had to be fast to hold them all.

Ryerson Island first attracted attention 15 years ago when the university heard with considerable disbelief -that the Island was overrun with black garter snakes.

As experts, the Varsity men knew that the black garter was rare indeed. Tell them there were striped garters, brown grass snakes or even a few reds and they wouldn’t have lifted an eyebrow. But blacks? No, it couldn’t be—but we’d better go and see.

LeRay and Logier, together with Dr. James Campbell, veterinary surgeon to Riverdale Zoo, went to the Island and discovered, to their delight and amazement, that every third snake on the place and there were literally millions was. the valued black garter. Some of the hundreds gathered at that time are still at the University.

During my visit two snakes out of every three were black garters. The black outnumbered all other garter snakes combined by two to one.

Scientists figure it possible that in a few more snake generations all the garter snakes on Ryerson Island will be black. Something in the food causes the change. And there are almost none of the conventionally striped garters left now.

At one spot on our trip we came to a ruined bit of Canadian jungle; a spot where a seiy ¡hurricane had howled disaster, uprooting trees of all sizes by .the score.

The twisted roots proved an excellent shedding ground for snakes about to go into their shiny summertime skins, and you could watch them methodically rubbing their way through the interlaced roots, pulling their old skins off. We also discovered that Ontario snakes not only climb trees but occasionally make their nests in trees. On the other hand we found that raccoons sometimes nest at ground level, in swamps. It had always been thought snakes nested on the ground; coons cuddled their young in trees.

By far the most beautiful snake gathered was a red garter, picked up by moonlight, but there was only one like him.

To indicate just how thick snakes were on the Island it’s worth mentioning that a circle of 100 feet around the gamekeeper’s cottage showed 75 snakes the first day. None of this group was molested. At another place count was made of the snake eggs on the beach and 400 were spotted in a distance of 00 feet. LeRay brought back several hundred eggs with him. At least they started out as eggs. When they actually reached Toronto several had hatched.

Every log or stump turned over on the Island produced either a nest of field mice, a den of snakes or an anthill, but never snakes and mice or snakes and ants under the same protection.

The ants were easily the most desperate and most determined of the three. A colony of ants will drive a den of snakes to cover any time. They bite them into a state of nervous jitters.

There were a few deer on the Island, hundreds of ground hogs, some skunks, some coons and a few nesting ducks, mostly mallards. The whole Long Point district of Lake Erie is a bird sanctuary, and seldom visited by mainlanders.

Accordingly, many a legend has grown up about the size and ferocity of its millions of snakes. Some of these are told with tongue in cheek, but occasionally a citizen, in all seriousness, will tell of serpentine monsters. These big ones, of course, always get away.

The fox snake, or wamper, does abound on the Island and he Ls one of the biggest of all Canadian snakes, but to tell of him attacking dogs or even humans is fantastic.

The fox snake is not only the most colorful and harmless of all Canadian snakes but he’s actually affectionate and the favorite of carnival charmers. During our visit I caught three of these, five feet long or more, and since it was a cool day they seemed delighted to be picked up by warm hands.

There’s one authentic record of a nine-foot pilot snake being found in Ontario and several of more than eight feet have been caught in Leeds County but for every pilot snake there are a thousand or more wampers.

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Snakes Alive!

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The biggest wamper ever taken to the University was six foot four, but there are fairly reliable reports of seven : footers and many a wild and woolly exaggeration about 10 or 12 footers.

No 10 footer, however, could strangle a dog, in spite of the exciting stories j you hear. With a real output of j ambition, which he seldom displays,

I the fox snake might possibly kill a j cat but give him half a chance and he’ll vanish from the very scent of cat.

His most deadly enemy on the Island is the weasel, which is plentiful, and a battle between a warn per and a weasel is about as near as Canada can come to India’s unequal struggle between mongoose and cobra.

Nine times in 10 a two-foot mongoose will kill a six-foot cobra, and 10 times in 10 an eight-inch weasel will kill the biggest of all Canadian snakes. There are even spiders in Ontario which can kill snakes.

On June 17, this year at Hamilton, a girl came screaming to some ball players, saying a deadly copperhead had hissed at her.

Most Canadian snakes are at home on land or water, and their natural food is equally amphibious . . . frogs, salamanders, toads, small fish and earthworms.

This, to begin with, was a bit off the beam, because few Canadian snakes hiss at all, and the copperhead is not a hissing snake.

Their natural enemies include herons, bitterns, fish ducks, crows, marsh hawks and such small carnivora as the coon, the skunk and the weasel. However, a wide search was started and within a few hours seven snakes were caught and killed. Everyone, according to the boys who killed them, was a deadly copperhead, but before competent experts could look them over they had been conveniently destroyed.

All of these foods and some of the enemies are found on the Island.

In spite of the fact that such an authority as Professor E. M. Walker, head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto, has often said that there were no copperheads in Canada, this Hamilton fake drew headlines from coast to coast.

Copperhead Scare

There are, in all, 20 species of snakes found in Canada and if you divide these into subspecies the total is formidable enough.

Every summer stories crop up about deadly snakes being seen or killed in various parts of Canada but on investigation 99% of these prove to be fakes.

Some, like the bull snake of the prairies, are aggressive and noisy but harmless. They put up a great fuss and can unleash a hiss heard 50 feet away, but the hiss is worse than the bite.

The hognose snake, or blowing adder, which resembles a small cobra, can dilate his head like the Indian killer and he, too, gives a penetrating hiss.

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But. he can’t bite and if you touch him after the hissing has failed to drive you away he’ll roll over on his back and play dead. Although he has strong teeth nothing can persuade this snake to bite. This black exhibitionist Ls found throughout Ontario.

Of the 20 species only one—the rattler—is deadly, and it’s many years since anyone was known to have been killed by a snake in eastern Canada.

In the Niagara glens the timber or banded rattler is occasionally found, and he runs in size from three to five feet. Several specimens of the timber rattler have also been reported in Muskoka but the Royal Ontario Museum doubts them all. You’ll find the timber rattler in rocky bushland, if you find him at all, and he can secrete enough poison to kill a man if that man gets the full dose and no treatment.

This is equally true of the prairie and Pacific rattlers of the West.

There are two or three parts of Ontario in which rattlesnakes are found and in the Bruce Peninsula they are fairly numerous but none, so far as I’ve been able to learn, have ever killed a human being.

Four summers ago, in company with two of Canada’s leading snake experts, I went to a spot called Johnson’s Harbor, on the Lake Huron side of the Peninsula, and there caught seven rattlers within two hours.

The biggest of these was slightly under two feet in length, and all seven put up a convincing explosion of angry rattling when we scooped them into packing cases, but even if these snakes were to bite you in an artery the bite would not be fatal. It would be painful and might possibly cause you to lose consciousness, but even if no antidote were taken death would not follow.

At the time of our investigation we consulted every coroner in the county and none had a record of any Bruce County snake killing anyone. There was a case of a youth dying after a rattlesnake bite, but that unfortunate chap was already near the end of his life through diabetes.

In 1943 a nine-year-old boy was bitten by a rattlesnake, in the Ontario resort country, and it was 6L> hours before he got competent medical treatment. The boy lived, although the pain and swelling were acute.

The late Dr. Raymond Ditmars, one of the world’s leading authorities on snakes, declared after exhaustive tests that the Ontario rattler, known as the massassauga, had poison five times as strong as that of the big diamondback rattler but this poison was in such small quantity that there was little chance of the snake killing a man. Dr. Ditmars agreed, however, that it could happen.

Rattlers and Boas

William LeRay, who has a natural gift with snakes, although he is not a trained scientist, has written Canada’s most complete report on the massassauga. LeRay has caught scores of such snakes and on one occasion captured 35 during a single Ontario trip.

The biggest of these was 29 inches long, and soon afterward LeRay’s brother was bitten by one about that size. Here’s what he wrote of that experience:

“A ligature was at once applied and both fang punctures opened, with a razor, to a greater depth than the fangs had actually penetrated. The wounds were sucked and washed and a solution of permanganate of potash applied. When the ligature was removed the thumb throbbed painfully and the arm became badly swollen. After the second day, however, the swelling subsided. In one week the hand and arm were normal, and he was none the worse for the experience.”

Application to the Antivenin Institute of America for information of the venom of this species elicited the following reply: “We have extracted

venom from a number of specimens ana have found that the quantity of venom has averaged about 5j^ to six milligrams at each extraction. As compared with the Texas rattler, this is a very small quantity, the Texas rattler yielding from 75 to 100 milligrams at an extraction.

“Although much smaller in quantity than the venom of the Texas rattler, the venom of the Ontario specimen is considerably more toxic.

“Our laboratory experiments on pigeons indicate that the minimum lethal dose, when injected intravenously into pigeons, is .03 milligrams, which indicates a toxicity of about five times that of the Texas Rattler.”

LeRay is possibly the only Canadian ever wounded, in Canada, by a boa constrictor.

In his collection are two South American boas of about 20 feet and these are highly temperamental about food. They must be given living food, not often, but with absolute regularity. It happens, therefore, that feeding day occasionally falls on a Sunday.

On a Sunday morning a few years ago LeRay went down to his cages and took both boas and another snake from their boxes, in preparation for feeding. The snakes can’t really get going on their nourishment if coiled up, and these specimens were too long to uncoil inside the cage.

So LeRay draped them over the top of the boxes and brought out two white rats as victuals. These have to be given to the snakes alive, otherwise they won’t be eaten, but it’s best to strangle the rats a bit first. If the sacrificial rodents aien’t made unconscious they might get away from the pouncing snake, and you can imagine the tumult if a 20-foot constrictor went racing after a rat which ducked in and out of the cages. It would probably wreck the laboratory.

As LeRay stood watching the first boa swallow his rat he failed to note that the other one, seeing another rat in LeRay’s hand, had moved in for the kill.

Suddenly, with more fury than you can imagine from such a sluggish reptile, the big serpent lashed out. He was not attacking LeRay but was after the rat. Just at that moment, however, LeRay turned his head, so that 90 pounds of pouncing serpent caught him in the left eye.

LeRay, a onetime circus strong man, was knocked sprawling, with the boa on top of him. By now the white rat had partly recovered but before he could get away the snake had him.

LeRay, blinded and bloody, staggered to his feet. He couldn’t call for help because this was a Sunday and the lab was deserted.

He couldn’t go to hospital without getting those big snakes back in their cages because they’d surely wreck the rat houses and possibly escape into Queen’s Park.

So with one eye partly blinded, and one fully blinded, he staggered around the room, caught and caged the boa constrictors and then hurried to the nearby Toronto General Hospital foi assistance.

The record in the emergency ward said, “Severe lacerations of the left eye suffered when attacked by boa constrictor.” LeRay was as -1S new in

a fortnight and his o .a.-, a. still fed in the same way There is a certain background of explanation behind the many fables and legends concerning snakes. No snake, Canadian or otherwise, swallows its young in time of peril, but not all snakes lay eggs and mother snakes have sometimes been killed when their young were about to be born. When these have wiggled away from the twitching body it might have given rise to the belief that the young had been swallowed.

Each time a story denying this swallowing act is printed or broadcast, there are indignant outcries by alleged eyewitnesses. I’ve interviewed dozens of such people and they all seemed sincere. Yet no naturalist, who is frequently afield looking for just such a sight, has ever seen it. Dozens of snakes with young have been put under close watch but none has ever swallowed her babies.

Recently, Professor J. R. Dymond, one of Canada’s outstanding herpetologists—snake expert to you—was widely quoted in a speech debunking these fables.

Dr. Dymond is director of Zoology at the Royal Ontario Museum and his office was soon swamped with bitter letters of complaint and criticism. He, a professor at a state university, should know better than to tell such utter lies-! The mail was so steady and so withering that the professor decided to follow it up.

He soon learned that 80% of the alleged eyewitnesses were, at time of writing, in their sixties and in every case the snake they had seen swallowing its young was seen during their childhood, about fifty years earlier. Professor Dymond was convinced that these people were honest but their memory had played them tricks.

Similar sifting of case histories shows the same trend among people who swear that they’ve seen snakes milking cows, but these stories are more easily punctured. Canadian snakes will drink milk but no snake of any land on earth has the throat muscle necessary to milk a cow.

Even small snakes have sharp teeth and it seems illogical to believe that a cow would allow these teeth to penetrate a teat without violent objection.

It’s also a fact that no Canadian snake, least of all a milk snake, which is but a yard long, can hold even a quarter pint of liquid. Yet there are reputable people who will insist on oath that the best milkers in their own herds have been sucked dry by field snakes. In Brazil this fable has a new twist, because many a mother in that land has sworn that snakes crawled into bed at night and sucked her own breasts dry of all sustenance.

This is folklore from first to last. It never happened and it never will, and yet this paragraph is certain to bring indignant and bitter denial.

In many parts of Asia there is a belief in a glass snake, and I’ve heard this story in Europe and the Southern States too. This snake, if touched or even approached by man, is said to break into pieces. Each piece leaps j about for a while and then, if the j enemy goes away, they reassemble j themselves.

This, like “snake milks cow,” is nonsense but we all know that snakes will continue to wiggle long after death. The story that they quiver until the sun sets is untrue, but they’ll sometimes jerk spasmodically for a half hour or longer after the head has been cut off.

In southern countries there is a type of lizard which might explain this reassembly idea. This lizard, if scared by an enemy, will shed its tail and then remain motionless. The tail, on the other hand, wiggles and jumps at a great rate, thus attracting the attention of the enemy. With the enemy’s attention so fixed the lizard itself sneaks away and will soon afterward grow i another tail. All snakes shed (heir skins and can grow new sets of teeth. Most lizards can grow new tails.

A hardy annual among snake fables is about the woodsman felled by a mighty rattler which bit him through the boot. His sorrowing family buries the woodsman, and in 15 or 20 years his son, browsing through the attic, comes across his father’s boots and puts them on. In a few hours he, too, is on his deathbed from snake bite, because that rattler’s fangs were embedded in the boot and punctured his skin.

It couldn’t happen.

Not only would the venom lose all strength in such a time but at no time could a man be killed by the trifling amount secreted in a hollow tooth. The full charge of venom from, say a diamondbacked rattler or a king cobra comes from the ducts or glands j in which the fangs are embedded.

In the realm of Canadian snake j stories a few authentic items seem to | have been overlooked, while preposterous lies persist year after year.

For example, Canadian snakes sometimes hibernate in great writhing masses, possibly 800 to 400 in a ball. Yet few bug-eyed adventurers have told of coming across such a living ball.

Then again snakes are tireless swimmers and could probably swim across any of the Great Lakes. When not swimming the snake—and aspej cially a rattlesnake—coils up and floats. He can often adjust himself in such a j way that he’ll be blown across great expanses of water in sailboat fashion.

Now, in August, Canadian snakes are at their most lively and their most numerous. In most cases they do more good than harm. They are one of Nature’s most capable agents in the control of animal pests and yet, generally speaking, they are killed on sight.

Such slaughter is cruel and unnecessary. If you see a snake anywhere in eastern Canada the chances are 99,999 out of 100,000 that he’s harmless.

In the West his chance of being evil j and vicious is greater. The rattler, no matter how small, must be considered a poteniial killer, but it’s dollars to doughnuts you’ll never meet up with j one.