You Snake! Go a few rounds with the feisty, bite-y (and harmless) garter

story by Bernard Brown | top photo by Jen Britton

I have many photographs of garter snakes attacking. Some are biting my hand. The others are going after the camera, their pink mouths open wide and ready to do battle. I am usually trying for a more peaceful composition, but garter snakes are fighters—they don’t sit there passively while a monster lifts them way off the ground and points a giant, shiny eye at them.

Of course, as any child in garter snake territory knows, it’s all bluster. Garter snakes can draw blood, but only a few little pinpricks. Technically, garters could be considered venomous. Their saliva is toxic to their prey, but less so to humans, and they lack fangs to deliver it efficiently. Still you might notice those little pinpricks bleeding a bit longer than you think they ought to. The terrified little snake can gape its fearsome mouth and bite as much as it wants, but it can’t make you put it down.

We might focus on all the dramatic biting, but the business end of the garter snake is at the base of its tail. When you decide to pick up a garter snake, you’re committing to stink for the rest of the day thanks to a powerful musk they mix in with their feces. Yum.

So, it’s probably best—certainly cleanest—to observe the garter snake from afar. Unlike Philadelphia’s other common snake, the shy and reclusive brown snake, garters are active during the day and in places we go on nice sunny days. If you see a snake glide across the trail at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge or in the Wissahickon, it’s probably a garter. I’ve seen several around Cobbs Creek, hunting for minnows and tadpoles in the shallow water and crossing to the other side, leaving rippling sine curves echoing across the surface.

In front of a block of rowhouses in Upper Roxborough, not far from the old reservoir, I once stopped to photograph a dead garter snake on the asphalt, flattened and dried into road jerky. Some garter snakes have a clean, sharply defined light stripe running down the back; others are like a checkerboard; most are some combination; but all have some green on them. After they’ve been dead a few days, this green pigment degrades to a vivid blue. While I explained what I was doing to a family of bemused locals sitting on their porch, a live garter snake crossed the street successfully, but ran into my foot. As I held it up to the folks on the porch, one remarked matter-of-factly that they had a bunch in their yard.

Indeed, you might find garter snakes in your own garden†, hiding under a rock or hunting worms, slugs and any other small creature they can wolf down. Unfortunately, you won’t find them as deep into urban Philly as the brown snakes—the flip side of being active during the day is getting run over by cars, and the more road surface you’ve got relative to habitat, the fewer garter snakes you’ll see.

†These snakes are not named for gardens, but rather for an article of clothing once used to hold up socks, and probably best known for its ribald role in wedding receptions.