Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Death in the garden

We were on the way out to feed the chickens when we first heard the frantic squeaking. It's been a bad year for rats, so the sound of them isn't uncommon around the chicken pen, but this was different. This was clearly a distress call.

I grabbed Alex's arm. "Stay close," I said, and began to scan the ground for what I knew was there - a snake.

I'd expected to see a greenish rat snake or some other constrictor, but was surprised to see it was a black racer that had caught the rodent. The rat was little more than a weanling, but still a good-sized meal for such a reptile.



Black racers aren't venomous. And they aren't constrictors. They have to kill their prey by overpowering it, by swallowing it alive. I've seen many snakes feed, but none like this. I sent Alex for the camera.

It took fifteen minute for the snake to subdue the rat. It was a remarkable, almost holy experience to be there in that place and that time playing witness to such a primal struggle. It was terrible and beautiful and poignant, and while I felt a bit of sympathy for the rat - I did not interfere and explained to Alex that this was simply what happens when Wild Things get hungry.


The rat continued to struggle as the snake worked its powerful jaws around to the front of its head. There was one, final scream as the racer closed its jaws over the rat's face, cutting off its air supply. The rat continued to struggle, its front paws grasping at anything and everything around it to try and stop its progression into the snake's mouth. But it was no use.



The late morning sun was high in the sky when the rat finally stopped struggling and the racer dragged it back through the grass, knowing the process of swallowing would make it hard to move and vulnerable to heat and predators. Once in deeper grass, the snake began to work its detachable jaws over the rat's head and down its body. Like the kill, the consumption was no quick process.



As the rat descended down the snake's throat, its flexible scales and ribs stretched to accommodate the meal, giving the racer an appearance that was more lizard than snake.


But finally, nearly forty minutes since we'd heard the distressed rat's screams, it was disappearing down the racer's throat. Its tiny feet and tail paused briefly at the opening of the snake's mouth before the powerful muscles pulled it completely out of sight.


The snakes powerful muscles continued to work, until the bulge of the rat became compressed and almost unnoticeable in the center of its slim body.



The snake sat for one more moment before easing away into a tangle of banana plants. It will be another week before it will need to feed again, another week until the drama plays itself out in the quiet of our garden while we work and play around it, completely unaware of the wild beauty. Of the horror. Of the necessity we humans often fail to completely comprehend.

Alex and I watched the spot the snake had occupied for a few more moments before silently going back inside. There's little to say after witnessing something like this, little that needs to be said. It is Nature, and words cannot do it justice.

(**Less squeamish readers can click on the photos to enlarge them, if they dare.**)

16 comments:

laughingwolf said...

great pics/tale, morg [yeah, i enlarged em all]... anything that reduces the vermin population i'm all for...

horrors be damned, rats are responsible for so many human deaths over the centuries

i know, i would not make a good hindu....

Morgan said...

I'm glad you liked the post and the photos, Wuffy.
I'm no fan of rats myself; they're one of the few wild animals that slaughter for the sake of slaughtering. A bit like humans, they are, in that respect. In numbers they are especially brutal (rats and humans).
Larry and I regularly ping wild rats with the pellet gun and throw them in the deep freeze to feed to animals that come in for rehabilitation. In addition to being pesky vermin, they are a handy meal for most any carnivore.

laughingwolf said...

you are so right, m'dear

sounds like a perfect end to em, no point wasting em if they can feed needy critters....

Andrea said...

These pics are much less graphic than the ones you posted of that hawk dining on a rat a while back. It's cool though. We all have to eat.

It's a matter of perspective. To me, kangaroos are strange and cute, to many/most Aussies, they're an annoying pest. And I think rodents are cute too. With their intelligence and hardiness, I can see how many cultures have come to revere or respect them.

The snake did a fine job. I hope it enjoyed its ratty lunch.

But now I'm wondering if I was a rat and I got to choose a quick, painless death, would it be in the jaws of a snake or the talons of a hawk? How do hawks kill, Morg?

thimscool said...

Larry and I regularly ping wild rats with the pellet gun and throw them in the deep freeze to feed to animals that come in for rehabilitation.

Now that's a date!

Morgan said...

Hawks kill more quickly than the snake, Andrea, so if I were a rat and could choose my exit, that would be the way.

Hawks kill smaller prey with a quick bite to the back of the skull, severing the spinal cord. Large prey, like rabbits, suffer a slower death. It's an unfortunate part of raptor rehabilitation, but I have had to give live rabbits to hawks prior to release to make sure they can catch and kill them. Usually the hawk grasps the rabbit with one talon about the neck and the other mid-body and squeezes until the animal suffocates.

People often feel sorry for prey animals, and they can have a rough time, but my sympathies are for the predator. If death comes for them it's usually via starvation, and that's a far more dread killer.

Morgan said...

It's not just a date, Luke. It's a cheap date. Back when we were courting, we used to cruise the roads after rains to see what reptiles were out and about. And then there was Road Kill Bingo.
Good times...good times..

Andrea said...

Ah. Hawk it is then!

Bobbb - Citizen of Earth said...

Talk about fast food...

Wrap that up for you?
No thanks , I'll just swallow it here

Morgan said...

LOL, Bobb.

Lu' said...

Wow. Wow. I know these things must take place. I like snakes and I like rodents. I have to close my mind to this reality. I hurt for all critters in distress. On a different note I think the pic with the little feet still to be consumed is a good picture. They all were but that one was special.

thimscool said...

How do you thaw out the rats?

Morgan said...

Hi Lu, I'm glad you liked the post, even if the raw reality of it was disturbing. I don't like to see animals in distress either. I think ironically enough my years as a wildlife rehabilitator has given me an emotional detachment to suffering. That probably doesn't make a lot of sense, but I guess the best way to explain it is that I see the suffering as necessary.

I really like the photo of the feet sticking out of the snake's mouth, too. I was really surprised to be able to get the whole sequence. Black racers are very skittish snakes, but this one has lived in our yard so long that it probably feels pretty safe around us. It might not if it knew it was going to wind up on the Internet. :-))

Thimscool, we just take the hard-frozen rat and thaw it at room temperature. I generally toss them on the screen-top tables in the greenhouse. They thaw rather quickly in there.

Lu' said...

Morgan I applaud people like you who are able to detach yourself from the suffering and administer help when needed or let nature take it's course. Animals need more people who are able to do this and not just write a check like me. The money helps too but the HANDS ON is where the true gift lies; bravo.

Morgan said...

Lu, I don't think one is more noble than the other. It does take people to do the work, but without the financial support many wildlife shelters and organizations wouldn't be able to even begin to tackle the rescues that come in.
Believe me, that check you send to whatever wildlife organizations you support is greatly appreciate, I'm sure.
And I wish I could tell you that the detachment is part of some worthy effort on my part but in truth it's a coping mechanism. Most every long-term wildlife rehabilitator I know of is a bit detached. The ones who don't can't hack it for long. It'll just rip your heart out.

Bina said...

Wow! That is awesome!