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The Kingsnake and My Old Man

Learning to appreciate the unappreciated

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

For years, my father lived by the creed “The only good snake is a dead snake.” Any snake encountered, no matter the species, was dispatched as quickly as possible, usually with a deft stroke of a shovel to the back of the head. Dad’s fear of snakes was taught to him by his dad, who learned it from his dad, who learned it from his dad.

Ophidiophobia is a common affliction. Chances are, most readers of this magazine suffer from some form of it. Ever since the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, snakes have received a bad rap. Like taxes and politicians, most people despise them.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. For Dad, that exception was the eastern kingsnake. If the boldly patterned black and white snake was encountered in the yard, Dad let it slide. No shovels to the back of the head for this serpent. Eastern kingsnakes are powerful constrictors that readily eat other snakes, including venomous ones — a fact that had not escaped my dad, despite his serpentine prejudices.

When I came along, I broke the family mold. As a kid, I never feared any snake. Instead, I found the cold-blooded serpents immensely fascinating. If I encountered one in the woods, I did not rush to grab a stick to bash it to pieces. Instead, I marveled at the way it slithered across the ground, admiring how it navigated the landscape without the benefit of legs.

I devoured every snake book I could find in the library at West End Elementary School. I soon learned that North Carolina was blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with 39 different species of snakes, only six of which are venomous.

Each year, when the “Snake Man,” a touring natural history educator, came around to our school, I was the first to volunteer to help hold Penelope, his pet 16-foot Burmese python. I still recall with vivid clarity how it took over a dozen students to lift the immense snake out of her wooden holding box.

Then there was the time my sixth-grade science teacher, Larry Dull, captured a hognose snake on the school’s playground out by the monkey bars. Frequently called “spreading adders” by locals, for their habit of flattening their heads “cobra style” when threatened, hognose snakes are often believed, incorrectly, to be venomous — a myth that Mr. Dull dispelled by holding the wild snake with his bare hands in front of our class. The hognose remained absolutely still, occasionally flicking its tongue in and out of its mouth, making no attempt to bite. While Mr. Dull addressed our class, I hung on his every word and laughed out loud when the snake suddenly pooped on his shirt.

As my knowledge and love for North Carolina snakes grew, the eastern kingsnake quickly became a favorite. What’s not to like? The handsome black serpent has a bold pattern of white, chainlike markings that encircle its body at wide intervals from head to tail. Capable of reaching lengths of over 6 feet of pure muscle, the eastern kingsnake is North Carolina’s strongest native snake. It’s a constrictor that suffocates its prey with powerful coils from its body.

Not only are kingsnakes big and strong, they possess the superhero-like trait of being immune to snake venom. For copperheads and rattlesnakes, an eastern kingsnake is the ultimate danger noodle.

The reason Dad refuses to kill kingsnakes stems from an incident that happened during his childhood. While fishing for bluegills in an Eagle Springs farm pond, he stumbled upon a kingsnake constricting a cottonmouth along the shoreline. Despite having the cottonmouth’s fangs embedded deep in its back, the kingsnake slowly squeezed the life out of the venomous serpent, then proceeded to swallow it whole, right in front of my wide-eyed father. It left an impression.

Despite witnessing this rare behavior, Dad still grew up fearing snakes. It was not until my college days that his fear began to wane. At that time, I had a pet snake named Herman. Herman was an eastern kingsnake that traveled with me from Chapel Hill back home over the holidays. One memorable Christmas, I pulled Herman out of his aquarium in the living room, but Dad steadfastly refused to hold him, despite the snake’s obvious calm demeanor. Mom chose to remain in another room for my impromptu Crocodile Hunter performance.

After graduation, when work took me away for months at a time, Dad reluctantly agreed to snake sit for me. Fortunately, Herman was a low-maintenance pet. Dad simply had to clean his aquarium once a week and feed him the occasional frozen mouse. Still, Dad never once picked up Herman. Old habits die hard.

It was not until years later, when I took Dad on a wildlife viewing adventure through the Albemarle Peninsula, that he actually picked up a snake with his bare hands for the first time. On a humid day early in the trip, we encountered a large kingsnake crawling across a wide dirt road bordered by forest and cornfields. I hopped out of the car and immediately picked up the shiny black serpent. True to form, the snake made no effort to bite. Instead, it wrapped its elongated body around my wrist. Its iridescent scales shimmered in the late afternoon light.

Imagine my surprise when I asked Dad if he would like to hold it and he said, “Yes.” Not wanting the moment to pass, I quickly handed the snake over to him. Despite being obviously nervous — beads of sweat were forming on his forehead — both Dad and the snake remained calm. Slowly touching its scales, Dad’s expression changed from trepidation to joy. In that moment, he lost his fear of snakes.

It’s been many years since I have seen a kingsnake around Eagle Springs. Of the few snakes that still occasionally turn up in the yard, I am happy to report that Dad no longer kills them. He simply leaves them alone.

Mom recently texted me a photo of Dad helping out a family friend by capturing a large rat snake in their front yard and releasing it unharmed into a nearby patch of woods.

Looking at that picture, I can’t help but smile.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at