Dog Versus Big Snake

I have now officially lost track of how many times our dog Dakota has put the fear of her death into me. She is not a dainty little dog. Dakota is what you’d call a dog’s dog, totally immersed in her wild ancestry. Dakota is bred from two dogs who were born to be wild: the Australian Cattle Dog and Siberian Husky. The ACD was bred to herd cattle through the wilds of Australia while the Siberian Husky was bred to withstand the harsh life in Alaska. Hardy, durable and fearless, so much so as to scare the bediddle out of me on a regular basis.

We’d been out in the yard all day, me gardening and Dakota chasing bugs and enjoying a beautiful day outdoors. She loved the outdoors especially when it brought small animals for her to chase such as squirrels and cats. I’d finished my gardening and was admiring my handiwork, ready to pack it in for the day.

Dakota was at the far end of the garden engrossed in the pursuit of some small hapless creature. Even after a full day outdoors she hadn’t lost interest in the denizens of the wild. The chase led her straight into a patch of daylilies. Dakota was always after something and the flowerbeds which bordered the woods were a prime hunting ground for her. There were always creatures skittering under the layer of pine straw mulch.

Hollering fell on deaf ears and I went to pull her out of my daylilies. I froze dead in my tracks when I saw what had captured her attention. It was a snake more than three feet long, coiled and ready to spring. She and the snake had faced off and she was intent on her prey. Dakota was not backing down.

Intense fear flushed through me as I recalled the warnings our neighbors had given. We lived on a small lake and we’d been told that water mocassin snakes were common. Our neighbors claimed they once found a four footer in their garage. A bite from a poisonous snake would surely kill Dakota and here she was, less than four feet away from a good size snake that was coiled and ready to spring.

The three of us stood frozen in the moment, me watching in horror as Dakota and the snake stared each other down. I heard a rattle and panic engulfed me. A month earlier I’d heard of a dog who died of a rattlesnake bite somewhere outside of Atlanta. Water mocassin or rattlesnake, either way Dakota was in grave danger.

Eastern KingsnakeShe made a move for the snake and I grabbed her collar and pulled her back away, hollering for Bear who was up on the deck. “Quick! Bring a big bucket! A BIG one! Hurry!” I had every intention of capturing the snake so that we could identify it and delete it if we discovered it was poisonous. I couldn’t allow a deadly snake in Dakota’s stomping grounds. Oddly enough I wasn’t afraid for myself, only for Dakota who was fearless in her desire to go after the snake.

By the time Bear arrived with the bucket the snake was disappearing off into the woods. The snake realized that nobody was going to attack it so it left. I handed Dakota off to Bear and told him not to let go of her and I went into the woods after the snake. I could still see it and I was determined to capture it so we could identify it. I laid the bucket on its side in front of the snake and he slithered right on in. I tipped the bucket up and carried it out of the woods, tilting the bucket away from me in case the snake sprang out. I had no idea what to expect from a snake.

Questions filled my mind. How far can a coiled snake spring? How likely is an angry snake to chase you? What should you do if you get bit by a snake? How bad are the bites of the venomous snakes in Georgia? Can you die from a snake bite? The snake vibrated its tail against the bucket sounding much like a rattle. Every now and again the head would rise up over the edge and we’d push it back in with a tree branch.

The air was charged with fear as we debated its fate. Had it bitten Dakota? Were we risking her life wasting time trying to figure out what to do? We decided to take a photo of it for later identification and then we were going to let it go. I grabbed Dakota and ran to the house with her, leaving her safely indoors while I grabbed the camera and a lid for the bucket.

The snake was highly agitated by this time, hissing and vibrating its tail against the bucket. After taking a couple of quick photos we gingerly carried the bucket to the lake and dumped the snake into the water, expecting it to swim away. It didn’t wanna. It kept heading for our yard. There was a three foot retaining wall so we were separated from the water but not by much. The snake swam toward us and we splashed the water with a tree branch to scare the snake away.

It swam parallel to the wall a few feet and then headed toward us again. This snake was determined to be in our yard. It did not want to go elsewhere. Had it laid eggs? Was it protecting a brood of baby snakes? We were fairly sure Dakota had been bitten a couple weeks earlier. Was this the mama?

The snake stopped swimming and stood still in the water just a few feet from shore, facing us. I threw a tree branch at the snake and it finally decided to give up. It swam next door and up into the neighbor’s yard, disappearing into a thicket. It hadn’t gone far. Our next goal was to identify the snake and determine if Dakota had been bitten. A thorough examination of Dakota did not uncover any snake bites so we started matching the photos we’d taken to snakes on the internet.

After the ordeal ended Bear had time to reflect on how fearless I had been to pursue a potentially venomous snake into the woods to capture it in a bucket. I’d been wearing shorts and flip flips, not what you’d call protective gear.

Bravery wasn’t in play as much as the drive to protect Dakota from a potentially deadly snake bite. A human can call 911 for help but a dog will likely just die from it. I wasn’t ready for Dakota to die. Letting that snake go before actually identifying it was the scariest moment of all for me as it guaranteed Dakota’s future danger if the snake had been venomous.

Our snake turned out to be an Eastern Kingsnake, a highly desirable snake to have around. It’s a good thing we didn’t kill it as we’d debated. Sparing the life of the Eastern Kingsnake might very well save Dakota’s life someday. Eastern Kingsnakes are resistant to the venom of pit vipers and are known to eat all three poisonous snakes found in Georgia: rattlesnakes, copperhead snakes and water mocassins (cottonmouth snakes).

Eastern Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula getula), also known as Chain Kingsnakes, Chain Kings, Common Kingsnakes or King Snakes, are shiny black snakes with white or cream colored stripes from the top view and chain link bands underneath. The stripes can be wide or narrow and these kingsnakes can grow up to four feet long.

They are found throughout the southeast from the coastal states to the Appalachian Mountains, south to Florida and as far north as New Jersey. A versatile snake, they make their home in wooded areas, wetlands, farms and even suburbia. While their time is spent mostly on land they do like to live near water and can swim as we found out. They can be found hiding under boards, rocks and logs, in dense vegetation or down in holes.

Kingsnakes are most active during daylight hours, especially dawn and dusk. They feed on other snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, birds, rodents, and eggs, often killing their prey by squeezing it to death. They are most famous for their habit of eating poisonous snakes.

Our snake was not likely protecting a brood of baby snakes as we suspected. Eastern Kingsnakes mate in the spring laying up to 30 eggs in logs or under tree litter. Kingsnakes do not guard their eggs and baby Kingsnakes are left to fend for themselves. The eggs hatch in late summer to early fall. Kingsnakes can live to be 20 years old.

When threatened they will vibrate their tail to simulate a rattle. They will also hiss, smear poop on the attacker, emit a foul-smelling musk, or they may roll into a ball and play dead. When all else fails they will bite. Even a non-venomous snake bite can be painful and get infected just as any other animal bite so avoid being bitten if you can. Clean a non-venomous snake bite with soap and water. Disinfect it with hydrogen peroxide and apply antibiotic ointment. Do not bandage.

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