A story for intelligent, curious, well-schooled children.
Mrs. Rabbit had just finished nursing her babies as the sky was getting light enough for her to skedaddle from that open area we call a garden. It would not do for her to be caught by some cruising coyote or noticed by some sharp-eyed gliding hawk. It was getting too easy to see and be seen. Animals move faster when it is light, with few exceptions, like Bat or Owl who rely more on their ears than other critters do. Even Rabbit knew, with that inner, whole-body knowledge that it was dangerous to try to move quickly at night. Not only might you run into a tree or scratch your eyeball on a briar thorn, but you would call attention to yourself for the benefit of something that sees and hears better than you do in the moonless dark. The air temperature was starting to respond to the rising sun, although it was not yet completely above the horizon. Rabbit prepared to leave her brood, and head for the woods or at least the tall-grass meadow and brambles to graze under some protection from hungry eyes.
But she did not realize that she was already under observation. A thick, black hog-nose snake had already been up that morning. That is, if you can consider it “getting up” in respect to someone who merely raises his head a little higher than his bed. And for Snake, whose bed is smack-dab on the ground, that’s not very high at all, is it? Anyway, Snake had stopped his slow slithering in this moment. Notice when we say that, how snake-like it sounds? That’s something I learned from Mr. Rudyard Kipling in his story about a young elephant. But since we don’t have elephants in these parts or in this story, let’s get back to the garden.
Snake patiently watched Rabbit pat the inside of the little hole (let’s not call it a foxhole, though that’s what a soldier would liken it to) to straighten and smooth it, then pick up her pink, nearly hairless babies and drop them into that fur-lined pocket. The home for baby rabbits of this age is a burrow just deep enough to be below ground level with a couple of inches to spare. It is lined with very soft chest fur and feels somewhat like the inside of those leather mittens or gloves with the rabbit fur linings that children and some grown-ups use up north. But Rabbit’s baby bed is even softer, because the hair comes from the chest. It birds, we call the softest feathers “down”, and that comes from the chest, too. So I guess that it didn’t matter to the baby bunnies that they didn’t yet have any hair of their own except for a little fuzz. They had momma’s own soft fur to insulate them from the chill or even the wet ground.
Rabbit stroked some of the fur from the sides over the top of the nest, almost like wrapping a sweater in tissue paper before putting it in a box and getting it ready for placing under the Christmas tree. Then on top of that, she carefully scraped some or the surrounding dead leaves and grass that had grown in the garden over the winter. With all safely prepared, she looked around, took a few hops, stopped to see if her movement had been noticed by any predators or busybodies, and continued in that fashion into the woods to scrounge for her breakfast.
Snake also hesitated a moment, until he was sure that the rabbit with its strong nails and sharp teeth was gone from sight, and then silently, slowly, deliberately made his winding way over to the hideout. The “silently” portion of his gliding motion was for the sake of his neighbors, since everything is silent to snakes, who have no ears. You might think it strange that some snakes deliberately make noise sometimes, when they cannot hear it themselves. But there is good reason for that automatic feature in the serpent. The combination of a loud nervous rattle and the knowledge that on the other end is a pair of fangs filled with poison is enough to keep you and me from coming any closer to a rattlesnake, isn’t it? Even some non-venomous snakes hiss, shake, rattle, and roll in order to warn you not to tread on them, hoping we will believe them to be dangerous like a canebrake or diamond-back rattler. Ever surprise a harmless rat snake in the tall weeds? Around where I live, folks also call them chicken snakes, because the biggest of them are capable of swallowing the smallest chick or an egg, I suppose. Rat snakes will vigorously vibrate and bang their tails so hard in the dry leaves that it sounds a lot like a rattlesnake’s early-warning system.
Our hog-nose snake leisurely but deliberately glided to the nest and after a careful moment to pause and watch, began to shovel the leaves and fur-thatch aside with the broad, blunt nose that gives him his name. After another short pause, he nudged the motionless mass of morsels until one stirred. Assuring himself of which end was which, he struck at the head with surprising speed, considering the slowness of his movements up to that point. He pulled back a little from the depth of the nest that was hardly bigger than a man’s fist, and for a couple of stationary seconds contemplated the exact position of the wriggling prey. The bunny hesitated for a fraction of the time it would take you to blink, and in that instant, Snake jerked his head up and to one side to reposition the bunny so its head was pointing perfectly toward Snake’s throat and, eventually, his stomach and long intestine. In that same short flick of the serpent’s neck, his fangs had refastened into his prey a little further down its back and still-soft ribs. The game was up now, because of the bunny’s immobility and lack of oxygen, and in another minute the mouthful was being moved by the muscles in Snake’s throat in much the same rippling way that his ribs moved him through the grass. A little similar to the way an old-fashioned dairy farmer milks a cow, with fingers wiggling like those of a piano player. These days, almost all of our milk is obtained from cows by machine, but perhaps your parents will someday take you into the far West or deep into the Appalachian hills where a few people keep one milk cow per family.
Well, now that you know how a snake eats, let’s get back to what happened that warming morning. Snake was in no hurry. His kind don’t “eat and run”; they would not even do so if they had anything to run on. Unless there is something about to trample on them or eat them, snakes do everything in a relaxed, watchful, slow manner. Snake was meditating, and he continued so for quite a while. One of his mind’s eyes was on the process of peristalsis, which is a fancy term for swallowing. The other was on the nest where he planned to get his second little tender breakfast muffin after the first was well tucked away, deep down (forgive me for using the word “down” in regard to a horizontal food canal!). The sun was higher by then, warming his back that fortunately was black and therefore absorbed heat very efficiently. Snake was comfortable and happy, and would have smiled if he had had lips, or closed his eyes in satisfaction if he had had real lids.
When the sun rises, country folk also rise. So it was that the human who thought he owned the garden woke up and got dressed (something rabbits and snakes don’t waste time doing). The human’s name was Man, and he had a friend called Dog. They both emerged from the house and Man looked at the sky to see what the weather would be, and stretched. Dog had already done his stretching before Man had put his second foot on the floor. Dog immediately trotted over to a shrub and did something to it that does not concern us in the telling of this particular story, and then went about his usual routine of investigating his surroundings. One part of which included a sojourn to the garden, where a dark object caught his attention. It was like the tail of an otter. If you have never seen an otter up close, then let me say that it looked like the tail of a correctly structured Labrador Retriever. It was of about the same length and proportions, and Dog had never seen a Lab’s tail without a Lab attached, so he was curious, and approached it more closely. In case you don’t have a purebred Labrador Retriever at hand, I shall describe it a little more. That breed’s tail is quite thick at the base, and tapers gradually to the tip, without becoming narrow. About as unlike the whip-like tail of a Whippet or Greyhound as you can imagine.
Well, that’s how a hog-nose snake is built. Some of the adults have a neck about the circumference of your wrist. But it’s hard to describe a neck on such a beast. Marines and wrestlers are jokingly described as having no necks because they have built up their shoulder and neck muscles through exercise. There is far less of any semblance of a neck in a snake of this breed. When it is startled or frightened, it flattens its head to look like the head of a dangerous rattlesnake. Of course, it doesn’t change the shape of the skull, but moves the muscles in and around the throat so that the head is wider. At the same time, the hog-nose snake hisses loudly (again like some rattlesnakes and others more dangerous) and shakes the end of his thick tail. If there are leaves or grass, that can also make enough sound to make any intruder become cautious. This is what cautious Snake did when he saw curious Dog approaching. Hissing worked on others, and it worked on Dog, even though he had never had a run-in with a rattler. There is something about warning sounds made by animals or humans that dogs naturally heed.
Dog stopped in his tracks when he got close enough for Snake to respond in his snake-like way, then circled the strange thing and noticed that it indeed kept focus on him. So it was not something that he would feel casual about getting any nearer. Things that appear out of the ordinary are things that get one’s attention and put one on guard. And so it happened to Man, who saw something unusual in Dog’s pattern, which ordinarily was an almost aimless wandering. He instinctively knew that he had better go over to see if Dog needed help or protection. But when Man got closer, Dog’s courage increased, and he also started closer to Snake, which made the latter rattle and hiss even louder. Since Man was not yet close enough to know whether it was or was not a poisonous reptile, he yelled at Dog. Dog knew what that meant: don’t go any further, back away, and let Man take the “point” (the front position in their advance).
In the northern part of Alabama where they lived, as in much of the country, there had been many years of declining reptile populations, with almost as many explanations as there were people to propose them. Man had not seen a hog-nose snake in about 25 years, so he had forgotten, at least on an immediate level, that it is a harmless faker. He did not bother to hesitate like his more cautious fellow creatures do, in the remote wooded valley where his lived. It is odd, isn’t it, that humans who have the capacity for real reasoning thought usually act precipitously (that means suddenly, without weighing the potential consequences), while lower animals who cannot consciously reason are the ones that usually act as if they are considering possible results. So, while Man could have very easily, simply, and safely picked up this particular type of serpent by hand, he elected to try doing so with a stick instead.
While corn snakes and cold, slow rat snakes “cooperate” when picked up with a stick, hog-nose snakes are not as amenable to being handled in either fashion. They are more fearful, perhaps because they have fewer weapons of defense — only bluff. A rat snake might bite if provoked or frightened enough, but a hog-nose snake will only butt you with closed mouth and blunt chin. By the way, his chin turns up a little, like the toes of Persian slippers in an Arabian Nights tale, or the nose of a Bulldog or Boxer. But when hissing, tail-vibrating, and butting do not work, the hog-nose resorts to the most curious snake behavior that you could imagine. I know of no other reptile that feigns death, unless you believe that that is what turtles do when they retreat into their shells and close the doors. It’s as if hog-nose snakes have been conferring with `possums as to the best survival techniques to use when danger is great and imminent. They both “play dead”.
But while Opossum merely shuts his eyes, opens his mouth to reveal huge but supposedly useless teeth, and lies limply until dogs tire of biting and turning him over, Hog-nose Snake is a more dramatic actor. If he has eaten in the last few minutes, he will do what many a snake will do when cornered and in supposedly real danger: disgorge the food (vomit). Maybe it’s because it’s harder to escape on a full stomach, with a big ball or bolus consisting of a toad or mouse interfering with the muscles that move the ribs. After all, it is partly by rib action and partly by straightening out semi-circles of its length that a legless snake is able to move along the ground. This is what Snake did in this instance, writhing in pretended agony until the morsel was up-chucked. But then he did the very unusual hog-nose act of turning over on his back, and after a couple more writhing motions, lay still. His mouth was open, and thick saliva or similar fluid dripped from it like wax down a candle. His “eyelids”, as some mistakenly call the membranous film that snakes cover their eyeballs with when underwater or when wind whips irritants at them, became apparent. It gave him a glassy, dead look.
Man then turned him over with his stick while Dog watched obediently from a little distance. Snake didn’t like being “dead” on his belly, so immediately flipped over again onto his back, which is the position that he instinctively knew all good corpses must assume. Dead means being on one’s back, curled in the shaped of your last agony, drool and glassy-eyed, as every snake in his family knows. Man then turned him by hand, and immediately “lifeless” Snake flipped onto his back again. Figuring that he had played enough with this reptilian actor, Man carried him over to the edge of the woods where Snake could “come to” in his own good time, and go look for a less traumatic breakfast experience.
Dog was happy to follow Man to the garden, where both found the regurgitated bunny and, soon, the uncovered but still well camouflaged nest. His spade was leaning against the beanpoles left there from last autumn’s harvest, and Man dug a deeper hole next to the fur-lined pocket, pushed its contents and the dead one into the new grave, and chopped the remaining four mouse-size bunnies with his spade before covering all with a heap of dirt.
Now you must not think that this was an act of cruelty, as some children who live in the city might. Children who grow up in the “real world”, a world close to nature instead of the artificial, synthetic world of TV and sidewalks, know that rabbits are destructive and need be kept out of gardens, where food for the human family comes from. Br’er Rabbit, the Easter Bunny, Peter Rabbit, Flopsy Cottontail, Bugs Bunny, and all their fictitious friends are all right for story-time and the occasional comic strip or cartoon, but in real life, rabbits are not welcome competitors for our food. I won’t talk about how they really are food for us, for that’s a topic for another story. But there will never be a shortage of rabbits; so reducing their population around our gardens and homes is a necessary part of life in the country.
Cruelty in essence is a matter of what an act does to the person who commits it, more than to the victim. A person who is cruel to animals or other people not only hurts them, but also and to an even greater extent destroys his own soul. In many cultures, such as the American Indians in many places, men apologize to the deer or buffalo before killing them as efficiently and mercifully as possible. In our story, Man perhaps should not have played with Snake, and next time would let it move away with a full stomach. He had forgotten about the vomiting response, and was sorry later. But what’s done is done, and we make the best of learning from it, and move on. The woods are for rabbits, the garden for Man, and Snake is welcome to share.