Wednesday, October 7 , 2015, 12:40 pm | Fair 75º

Karen Telleen-Lawton: Gopher Snakes Can Be a Welcome Visitor in Your Yard, Garden

Gopher snakes keep the small mammal population in check.
Gopher snakes keep the small mammal population in check.  (Karen Telleen-Lawton photo)

By Karen Telleen-Lawton, Noozhawk Columnist |

I saved three lives the other day. Actually, I saved one life three times, and had mixed emotions about it.

Returning from a bike ride, I spied a juvenile gopher snake stretched out on the road ahead of me. Though I know snakes have to be coiled to spring, I still swerved a wide arc around it. Then I quickly pedaled up my driveway and ran back down with a wooden garden stake.

My idea was to herd it across the street before it succumbed to the wheels of a passing car. I wouldn’t exactly call myself an aficionado of snakes, but I respect them as an essential part of the environment and a sacred creature among all creatures.

We don’t get much traffic on our street, but it was early evening and neighbors were coming home from work. I detoured two cars before the snake slithered safely into the neighbor’s overgrown ivy. Then I admonished it to stay over there, and crossed the street back to my house, having done my duty for nature.

My husband, David, arrived home shortly afterwards. He asked why I hadn’t made an effort to keep the serpent on our side of the street. We struggle perennially with all manner of garden-eating varmints (sacred creatures, all). Trapping gophers only results in opening a niche for the neighboring critters to move into. Battery-operated vibration stakes are like lullabies to voles and moles. Ground squirrels have chewed through our irrigation system so many times that David has taken to filling a large saucer with water in hopes they’ll leave the drip line alone.

The root of the problem, in our opinions, is that our full complement of varmint-eating snakes hasn’t found its way back since the Tea and Jesusita fires. Owls and hawks are active and presumably doing their fair share of dining, but our garden seems nearly bereft of snakes of any kind, at least compared to before the fires.

A year ago I was desperate enough to inquire about purchasing gopher snakes to recolonize our yard. But pet store managers informed me it wasn’t legal to buy a snake and then free it into the wild, despite the fact that they are native everywhere in North America.

It seems a shame: When they’re present, gopher snakes keep the small mammal population in check, all the while performing a decent rattlesnake mimicking act. They are constrictors, but they can hiss and wave their tails like rattlers. Gopher snakes are identifiable by a distinctive dark stripe running from in front of their eye to the angle of their jaw.

Stripe or no stripe, it is a shock to encounter any snake while kneeling to pull a weed in my garden. So I wasn’t totally unhappy not to be able to buy our own supply. But if this juvenile was out searching for a place to call his (or her) own home range, I should have welcomed it to our garden. Gopher snake, won’t you please return to our side of the street? I promise you a personal escort — again.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

comments powered by Disqus

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.


Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.