The Great Snake Awakening of Manitoba Gives Me the Willies

Erik is taking a break for the holidays, so we're reprinting an article from 2005 while he hibernates.

Scientists call them herpetologists. I call them weirdos.

People who watch and study snakes all descend on Narcisse, Manitoba every Spring to watch the Great Snake Awakening.

That's when as many many 70,000 garter snakes slither out from the cracks in the limestone bedrock and do what snakes like to do: scare the bejeezus out of me.

I hate snakes. I don't just dislike them, I hate them with a white-hot passion that's usually reserved for tobacco executives, and I scream like a girl whenever I see one (a snake, not a tobacco exec). I've also checked under my desk several times as I write this to make sure one hasn't snuck in here (a tobacco exec, not a snake).

Why people would want to watch snakes pop out of the ground without beating them with a large stick is beyond me. But starting on Mother's Day, snake geeks begin showing up at the Narcisse snake dens to watch the snakes emerge from their winter slumber to eat frogs and toads, and to mate.

"There's nothing else out here but the snakes," Darlene Herron, a roadside snack seller, told the Associated Press. "I don't know why anyone brings their mother to the snake dens."

Because they're weirdos, Darlene. And apparently, their moms are weirdos too. That's where they come from.

When the snakes emerge from their tobacco offices, they haven't had anything to eat or mate with in seven months, so they do both.

Voyeuristic visitors hike three miles to watch the mating ritual, where dozens of horny male snakes climb onto the back of a single female snake in the hopes of making more snakes. Some of these romantic pursuits are known as mating balls. And because the spectacle is such a popular one, there's even a statue of two mating snakes on the road leading to the romantic reptilian rendezvous.

Young Impressionable Child: "Daddy, why is there a statue of two snakes wrestling?"

Uncomfortable Father: "Uhh, you'd better ask your mother."

After the female has chosen the lucky male, the rejected suitors slither away and leave their comrade to a lifetime of taking out the garbage and mowing the lawn. Later in the summer, 20 to 50 more tobacco executives — er, baby snakes — are born as a result of the coupling, but happily, for snake haters like me, only two percent survive into adulthood.

That's because snakes have a lot of predators, including birds of prey, like hawks and owls, weasels, foxes, and raccoons. So if you're ever looking for a charity to support, please consider making a donation to the Hawks, Owls, Weasels, Foxes, and Raccoons Preservation Fund.

Dave Roberts, who is the wildlife technician in charge of the Narcisse snake dens (the "Head Weirdo"), told the AP that the dens are "a great opportunity to pass on information about these snakes and their stewardship. We try to teach a little more tolerance of the fact these creatures live around us."

You go right ahead and teach snake tolerance, Dave. But I'm staying right here in my own little corner of the world where the lawn mower blade is always sharp, and the snakes are in short supply (and getting shorter).

Roberts says that males use their tongues to detect the pheromone that attracts them to the female. However, he wasn't sure why some male snakes also give off the female pheromone, except possibly to confuse rival males, he said.

Sophia Munro, a Grade 5 teacher in Winnipeg, says on her website that "she-male" snakes are twice as lucky at mating than non-pheromone producing males. She also agrees that the "she-male" snakes do confuse the other male snakes during the mating season.

The snakes will then travel as far as 10 miles into nearby marshes to hang out for the summer, drink beer, and tell stories about how they're working to get most of Eastern Europe hooked by getting famous athletes to promote their cigarettes.

In the fall, the snakes who weren't eaten or caught up in a Senate investigation make their way back to their limestone offices to sleep for another seven months, and the whole process starts all over again.

The whole idea is enough to give me a permanent case of the willies, and to swear on a snakeskin-jacketed Bible never to set foot near the Narcisse snake dens.

Driving a steamroller is an entirely different matter.

Photo credit: Greg Schechter (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

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