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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Charming the Snake Pit

Air Date: Week of

North of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the town of Narcisse, Canada is home to one of the greatest natural spectacles on earth. For a few weeks every spring, 3 giant limestone pits holding about 45 thousand snakes seethe with thousands of mating, red-sided garter snakes. Naturalist and Living On Earth Commentator Sy Montgomery was there to witness the phenomena this year. She says the greatest wonder of the snake pits is their power to charm the hundreds of non-scientists who visit Narcisse each year.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Two hours north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the town of Narcisse is home to one of the greatest natural spectacles on Earth. For a few weeks every spring, 3 giant limestone pits seethe with thousands of mating, red-sided garter snakes. Each pit holds about 15,000 snakes, so many snakes they're piled more than a foot deep. You can hear them before you see them. Their slithering sounds like a breeze blowing through leafy trees. Scientists come from around the world to study this spring emergence. Naturalist and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery was among them this year. She says the greatest wonder of the snake pits is their power to charm the hundreds of non- scientists who visit Narcisse each year.

MONTGOMERY: When the snakes emerge from their 8-month hibernation and roll themselves into copulating clumps, Narcisse may attract 700 visitors a day. Parents even come pushing their babies in prams. For these snakes are utterly harmless. Slithery to be sure, but extremely gentle. And at about 18 inches long, they're perfectly kid-sized. One mom handed her 18-month-old a snake and the girl instantly grasped it with delight. The little girl saw that pretty yellow and black striped reptile lift his head, flick his pink tongue, and look her in the eye. She hadn't read Genesis so she immediately saw the snake was as cute and lovable as a chipmunk.

In a world where most people fear and hate snakes, these creatures make wonderful ambassadors for their kind. Their skins are soft and shiny like satin, their fluid movements as graceful as the waters of a stream. While even a pet hamster might bite you if you picked it up suddenly, these snakes won't. And even if it did, it wouldn't hurt because they don't have any teeth. And yet, just a few decades ago people around here used to dump gasoline into the snake dens and torch them, just because they were snakes, and all snakes were vermin.

But attitudes are changing. School buses decant up to 400 children a day here, and park interpreters show kids how to handle the snakes. Soon children are rushing about, eager to tell someone, anyone, "Look! I'm holding a snake!" Or, "Do you have one yet? Go ahead, they're not slimy." A few kids are afraid at first, like the fifth grader who came up to me an announced his dilemma: "I want to hold one, but I don't want to hold one." So I let the one I was holding slither out of my hands and into his. He literally leapt with joy. "Wow! It's nice," he said.

How could you hate snakes after spending time with these lovely animals? At 74, Ruth Nesbitt looks like the quintessential little old lady in her hand-knit pink wool hat and white hair and glasses. Except she's at the bottom of a rocky pit hauling snakes up by the handful. She's helping researchers here investigate some of the most basic questions in biology, like how animals compete for and select mates. Ruth joined the team last year as a volunteer and loved it so much she came back again this spring. Her friends think she's crazy, but she doesn't mind. She wants to bring her 14-year-old grandniece next year.

As Ruth Nesbitt and the children see, the Narcisse snake dens offer us a second crack at Paradise. Here we can rewrite the tale of Eden, with snakes as our neighbors instead of the villain. And give it a happier ending this time.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery is author of The Spell of The Tiger. She comes to us by way of New Hampshire Public Radio.



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