Life becomes death

Over the summer of 2013, SocialSnakes was blessed to be visited by many great people, including the author of this post, Jennifer Fill. We were honored to host Jennifer for part of her first annual trip to Arizona and introduce her to our neighbors which she had never seen before (western diamond-backed rattlesnakes, patch-nosed snakes, Arizona black rattlesnakes, Gila monsters…). I think she would characterize her trip overall as fun, however one sad, but all too common, event stood out enough for her to write about. This was originally posted on her facebook and reposted here with her permission. Keep in mind as you’re reading this that the only thing unique about this story is that Jennifer was there to bear witness. Thousands (millions?) of snakes are slaughtered on roads with no one to mourn their passing.

I want to dedicate this trip to the two baby rattlesnakes I saw get run over by motorcycles. I don’t often post my deep feelings on facebook, because I don’t really see it as the appropriate venue, but this deeply affected me and I think is an issue that everyone should at least give a passing thought. Because this is our world, and these animals are our heritage.

It chilled my heart and brought tears to my eyes. It was a nightmare. Like a real horror story.

Newborn black-tailed rattlesnake, photo by Jennifer Fill.
Newborn black-tailed rattlesnake, photo by Jennifer Fill.

I saw one…two… little rattlesnakes in the headlights on one of my passes down the mountain while road cruising. I straddled them and pulled over. It was tricky because there wasn’t always a pull-off right around the corner. I grabbed my headlamp and camera, snapped the hazards on, left the car running, jumped out and jogged up the road, scanning with the light. I found the second one first. I’m pretty sure he was a blacktail rattlesnake. Just a babe. I had nothing with which to move it, so I hesitantly kicked it, hoping I could goad it across the road. But these snakes are too passive for their own good. It flinched, and waited to see what I would do. I was only wearing sneakers, and I really couldn’t afford to risk getting bitten, even by a baby. Then I heard the roar of motorcycles coming down the mountain. What could I do? I thought desperately. In retrospect, I probably should have tried to get them to slow down by waving my light. But they were coming fast, and there wasn’t much room between the bend and the snake for them to slow down. I jumped to the side of the road, and shone my headlamp on the snake. I gritted my teeth, hunched my shoulders, and tensed all my muscles, standing rigid and sick, hoping they’d see where my light was shining on the road.

What happened next was an out-of-body experience.

The first motorcycle zoomed by. The rush of air caused the snake to snap back into a recoil, The second motorcycle blew it over a bit, so that it flipped to the side. Frightened, the snake drew itself into that beautiful defensive strike pose and faced the third motorcycle. I wondered later at how it hadn’t run away; it didn’t know where its attacker had gone, but it knew the direction from which it had come. The little snake couldn’t run away because it didn’t know where the predator was. So it faced it. The third vehicle zoomed by and blew it off balance again, and as it pulled itself back up to face the fourth offender with a pathetic show of fierce warning, the last motorcycle ran right over its head.

I saw this happen.

Just as suddenly as life had become life, I watched a birth be destroyed.

Newborn black-tailed rattlesnake, photo by Jennifer Fill.
The aftermath, photo by Jennifer Fill.

All that energy that its mother had so carefully and diligently stored up, all that time she had spent nourishing the mystery of a growing embryo, all that it had taken to bring these cells together to create an incredibly beautiful, complex, intelligent organism, everything that had happened since this little snake had been born, and everything that it would have affected in the future, was over in an instant.

Life became death.

Not just life, but everything that had a connection to it, was dead. Its future would never happen. And we lost something we will never get back.

My guts were churning as I thought of its last stand. I was so shocked that I couldn’t even cry just then. It had survived three strikes, and the fourth one killed it. It didn’t even have a chance.

If I’d had a stick, it might yet be alive. It was sickening. I watched it. I watched it die. I saw the delayed death of its writhing body, the last reaction of this complex, misunderstood, and unappreciated, hidden, cryptic part of our world and our natural heritage.

It wasn’t an “animal rights” horror. It was the shock of seeing something so fragile, delicate, defenseless, misunderstood, and beautiful be destroyed in an instant. It was like watching the destruction of the Colosseum or the rosetta stone. But worse. We could build another colosseum; we could recreate the rosetta stone. But no human will ever be able to make that creature. We will never be able to replace that rattlesnake. We don’t even understand how they are created. I’m not ashamed to say that I still cry when I reflect on that night.

We take them for granted because we can easily see them in zoos. While zoos are important venues of showing us what we might otherwise never see, exhibits are devoid of the atmosphere of survival that engenders the ultimate respect for these animals.

To watch it react – not attack – in the only way it knew how was gut-wrenching. It was powerless against our machines. People, we are not evil. We can live with rattlesnakes; we don’t have to destroy everything we fear. We can try to understand them. We just lack respect.

By Jennifer Fill