Wise as Serpents

“They killed him.  They just ran him over on purpose.”  The disgust in my father’s voice could almost be taken for sadness.  He had just come in the front door of the house and was obviously unhappy about the event.  We didn’t know what or who he was talking about, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.  There had been no sirens from an ambulance or police car, making it a cinch that he wasn’t referring to a human being.  So, it had to be a beast of some sort.  I’ll admit, ever since Grandpa’s little dog had been run over while in my care, I hated hearing about any animal being hit with a car.  But, I was sure this couldn’t be our dog.  Mitzi was a she, not a he, and I knew the family mutt was safe in the backyard.  And, it couldn’t be a cat.  While there were a few of those around which we kids had adopted, Dad disliked cats generally, and I was pretty certain wouldn’t feel any sadness about there being one less feline in the world.  What in the world could have been killed that would disturb Dad so?

We didn’t have to wait long for the explanation.  “They ran over the bull snake!  It was crossing the road and they ran over it on purpose!”  That’s all it was?  A snake?  Snakes were once plentiful where I grew up…before the urban sprawl took over.  Our house was actually right next to the city limits, and we were surrounded by fields and orange groves at first.  Over the years, that had changed and the neighborhood had been built up.  Subdivisions had sprung up, with new paved roads and manicured lawns occupying the space where once buffel grass and mesquite trees had grown in abundance.  Most of the citrus trees had been bulldozed and on property where the only human activity had come from the farmer’s effort to ensure a good crop (and a few barefoot boys intent on sneaking an orange or two), now children and their pets played in fenced yards.  For the most part, the snakes and lizards, including the ones we called the horny toads, had disappeared; either moving to less tumultuous locales or being killed and dying out as their territory shrank in on them.  The only animals not driven out by the development were the rats and mice who thrived on the food and trash which human beings are talented at leaving behind.  Most of the people we knew were happier with the taming of the landscape and the disappearance of most of the varmints.  Dad was not a member of their club.  For years, he maintained the one and a half acre tract on which our house sat and the two acre lot across the street as a wildlife sanctuary of sorts.  No one was allowed to carry a gun of any sort, not even a BB gun, on the property.  We just didn’t kill animals without a very good reason.

In a way, the two pieces of property, separated by the paved street, were the cause of the episode which distressed my father so much on this occasion.  The huge bull snake enjoyed the hunting on both sides of the road, finding adequate mice and other rodents, perhaps even the occasional bird caught unawares.  On this day, the six or seven foot giant, which looked remarkably similar to a rattlesnake (part of its natural protection) had been crossing the street when a passing motorist noticed it in the other lane.  The enterprising fellow swerved into the wrong lane and ran the evil snake over.  According to Dad, who had been working in the yard, the driver even circled the block and came back for another pass.  Still not sure he had finished his task, the culprit returned for one more insurance run, but by this time, my Dad was out at the road and waved him off.  It was too late.  The big guy was dead.  Dad was disgusted.  He understood the good that a snake like this could do, keeping the destructive rodents away.  He also didn’t understand how someone could be so ignorant as to think it was a good thing to kill such a creature.

The driver, no doubt, thought that he was doing a service to the community.  Anyone could see that the beast was dangerous!  Truth be told, the bull snake is an aggressive reptile, opting often for attacking, rather than retreating.  Its body is marked much like a rattlesnake, and many humans coming upon one in the wild, mistake it as the dreaded rattler for more reasons than just the markings.  The bull snake will often flatten his head to appear as a pit viper (even though it has no venom at all) and form its body in the menacing striking position of a rattlesnake.  It even makes a rattling sound with its breath and shakes its tail to imitate its distant cousin, usually all to the unfortunate snake’s detriment.  The harmless, huge faker is often killed for its trouble, all because some human beings can’t discriminate between an actor and the real thing.  In this instance, the snake killer was likely just doing what he could to keep the neighborhood kids safe, even though he was sadly misguided.

I often wonder if I’m not a lot like that driver.  You may or may not be surprised to know that I have gone off half-cocked on many different occasions.  I like that term “half-cocked”, because it describes exactly what happens.  I believe that I see a problem which needs to be addressed and I’m aggressive about confronting the issue.  But, just like a pistol with a hair-trigger, being handled by an untrained shooter, I’m not sure of my target.  I’m not even sure that there are no innocent bystanders.  I just start shooting as fast as I can and hit everything in my line of vision (and a few things not in it).  I find that I have to apologize a lot.  I’m trying to learn the lesson, but it’s a slow process.  Ask questions first, then shoot; not shoot first, then ask questions.  I’m guessing that all of us take the latter choice at one time or another, but there are some of us who are extremely slow studies and do it again and again.  I’ve killed more than a few harmless snakes in my time.  (You do understand that I’m talking metaphorically, right?)

You see, some snakes need to be destroyed.  When we, and those for whom we are responsible, are threatened with eminent danger, we must be courageous and act.  But, there are also times to slow down and think.  Some snakes can be left alone or perhaps only relocated, gently.  We just need to keep our wits about us and discern the difference. 

I’ll try to keep working on that.  Maybe you can bring along the guidebook to help me to identify the real venomous creatures, as well as the harmless ones.  Are you up for the job?

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage, to change the things I can;
And wisdom, to know the difference.”
(Reinhold Niebuhr~American theologian~1892-1971)

“He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.”
(Proverbs 21:23)

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