Damsel In Distress

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My neighbor Erin was concerned. The morning sun was barely peeking over the trees when she knocked on my sunroom door to enlist my help.

I put down my book — the ancient tale of Don Quixote tilting at windmills and saving damsels in distress — and followed Erin to a cherry tree in her backyard. The tree was draped in plastic netting to deter birds from pillaging its fruits. But the netting had snagged another poor soul.

“I wasn’t sure if it’s poisonous,” Erin said. One look and I confirmed it was a garter snake, harmless to humans but hungry for a meal. It had crawled into the tree for the same reason Willie Sutton broke into banks: “because that’s where the money is.” In the snake’s case, the currency is bugs drawn to the ripening cherries. Judging from the snake’s girth, I figured it was a female, full of eggs, simply on a mission to find food when she was ensnared in this trap.

A damsel in distress.

If you’re lucky, you have these serpents in your backyard. You can hate them and fear them and chop off their heads, but in the grand scheme of the cosmos, a garter snake is less toxic to your kids than the chemicals in your garage. And they may be more efficient pest predators than your pet. They don’t really eat mice — they leave those to bigger serpents such as black snakes and rat snakes — but they love to eat slugs at night when slugs are munching their way through your lettuce, your hostas and your other garden treasures.

Erin already had cut as much of the plastic fishnet as she could away from the snake before I arrived on the scene. The snake lay prostrate, still hopelessly entangled. Erin’s cat paced nearby, meowing constantly, assuring us that if we’d leave this snake with her for a few minutes, she’d put the animal out of

its misery.

Neither Erin nor I considered killing the snake. Our goal was to free the terrified animal.

I put on leather gloves while Erin found special scissors normally used to pull sutures out of healed gashes in your skin. Erin is a nurse; in a prior job, she “pulled stitches out of the faces of prison inmates who got into fights.”

The snake was quiet until I picked her up. Then she wriggled and turned back to bite my glove. I’d been bitten by garter snakes as a kid and always thought the harmless teeth marks looked like a Barbie doll bite. Still, I moved quickly to hold her behind her head so she wouldn’t hurt herself.

Erin deftly slid the flat scissor blade between the plastic net and the animal’s skin — beautiful smooth skin that hadn’t been cut yet by the plastic. A dozen scissor snips later, the snake was free. I carried her to the back corner of the yard, a spot where she might regain her equilibrium, and reset her day.

I wondered what her next move might be. Would she move more cautiously? Would she hide until she shed her eggs? Would she end up back in the netting (which Erin had gathered closer to the fruits and away from the ground)?

I can’t be certain that the snake will survive the summer, but she made it through a morning snare that would’ve ended badly in all but a few backyards. Fact is, the approval rating for snakes is almost as low as for Congress. And saving a serpent may seem fruitless.

But not for me. Proud as Don Quixote — and just as content in this, my most recent quest — I returned to the sunroom to finish my book.

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