Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
A ghost in the attic

Today’s blog comes to us from Sam Alison, former Ontario Parks gray rat snake researcher at Murphys Point Provincial Park.

I have to admit, when I was seven years old, I was a little nervous about spending the night at my great-grandmother’s cabin. At the family reunion, he had heard all about the seemingly mythical creature that lived in the attic…

…a creature so good at hiding that you would never know where it is at any time.

…a creature so long it could reach the doorframe if it wanted to.

…a creature so fascinating that everyone had a story to tell.

What was this creature? Where was it? I got hooked.

I spent our family vacation searching for this legend. Little did I know that this adventure would inspire my future career.

After earning a university degree, many years later I am still searching for Canada’s longest snake species: the gray rat snake.

the girl and the willow

Truth be told, at first I was as unsure of the residents of our cabin as I was excited for them.

After a fruitful search, I discovered that gray rat snakes liked to rest in the most inconvenient places, such as on top of the door frame you were hoping to pass through.

This behavior was strange to me and I couldn’t understand why they acted the way they did. He wasn’t necessarily afraid of snakes, but he was wary of them.

A long, thin snake, light and dark gray in color, resting on a deep window sill.

I would have felt this way for a long time, if it weren’t for a new friend I made when I started my parks career.

My freshman year of college, Thousand Islands National Park hired me to run their Visitor Center during the summer.

Central to my role was caring for a shy gray rat snake called Willow. I saw this as my chance to learn to interact with the creature that had been a mystery in my childhood.

A gray snake poking its head out of the pocket of a gray sweatshirt.

After a few lessons on snake care and handling, I soon found myself letting my guard down. Willow was fascinating to care for and I began to get a sense of what she liked and what she didn’t like.

She loved earrings, pockets, long hair and playing in the sandbox. When the Visitor Center was busy and she was feeling overwhelmed, she would gently squeeze my arm to let me know it was time for a break.

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But above all, she had a knack for mischief and would look for opportunities to get into positions that she knew would be nearly impossible for me to get out of.

Whether it was a trip down the back of my shirt during a presentation or the decision to slide through all of my belt loops at once, there was never a dull moment.

A personal connection

I left my summer with Willow feeling inspired to learn more. This led me to enroll in a herpetology internship after my bachelor’s degree.

I spent a semester at Scales Nature Park, working with its various herptiles (reptiles and amphibians), including rat snakes. It was while I was at this zoo that I realized there was something unique about working with snakes.

A gray and white snake on a piece of wood, looking at the camera.

They can be frustrating, adorable, smelly and entertaining all at the same time. I was surprised that each snake, although identical, could have its own set of likes and dislikes that set it apart. It was a revelation to me that such a seemingly expressionless and voiceless creature could have a “personality.”

My scientific colleagues will probably cringe at this personification, but I have no other way to describe these attributes.

I thought snakes were cold and distant creatures, but I was wrong. Once you’ve seen how a snake’s behavior mirrors yours, you can’t help but feel attached.

Let me introduce you…

Take gray rat snakes for example. I have noticed their childlike sense of wonder as they explore new corners of their habitat.

When faced with challenges, determination appears. They can be as stubborn as anyone, ready to stand their ground against even the biggest and scariest predators.

A gray snake coiled defensively in the grass.Photo: Brock Ogilvie

However, gray rat snakes are calm and prefer to spend their time resting in the glow of a ray of sunlight. It is an incredible duality to be peaceful, childish and yet have mature, well-developed determination and courage.

A person holding a thin gray snake and smiling at the camera.

I soon discovered that this also applies to wild rat snakes, while running the Gray Rat Snake Monitoring Program at Murphys Point Provincial Park.

Sure, wild rat snakes aren’t always happy to see you. They are quick to scare you with a rattlesnake act, and biting is always a possibility. But once the snake gets over its initial fear of being picked up, it becomes quite docile.*

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There is not much difference between a wild rat snake in hand and a captive one. If you know how to read their behavior and handle them carefully, you can’t go wrong.

A lesson for life

When I look back, it has been an incredible journey going from ghost hunter to rat snake investigator.

Where before I felt a sense of unease, now all I feel is excitement to meet the next rat snake and learn “who” it is, as an individual. It has taken a lot of training and education to get to this stage, and I had no idea that years after those first encounters, I would also be helping others overcome their fear.

I am grateful to have had a role at Murphys Point Provincial Park where I was able to help protect gray rat snakes and also share my story. From daily snake talk to heart-to-heart trailside conversations, it was a privilege to introduce others to the snakes I call friends.

Friends who are in danger of disappearing forever. Gray rat snakes are an at-risk species. A species at risk of ceasing to exist in nature; He’s only kept alive by ghost stories in the attic.

A person wearing a purple jacket with a very long gray snake coiled around his right arm, around his neck and down to his left arm.  They are smiling at the camera.

I hope you too will consider their story, considering its flexibility and impact. Scary stories can be transformative and happy stories can be revolutionary when shared.

When it comes to gray rat snakes, where do you stand?

This is the fifth edition of our 2023 Species at Risk series.

Read our previous edition: From the abundant to the rare, parks protect them all.

Why are your scientists detecting wildlife? Can I collect snakes and turtles too?

Do not handle birds, mammals or reptiles unless you are helping to remove them safely from the road. The staff members pictured here are trained biologists engaged in professional research. These biologists follow a strict animal care protocol approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. These protocols review the desired outcome of the research and ensure that steps are taken to place the least amount of stress on the animal as possible. We ask that you always observe animals from a distance for your safety and that of the animal.