Five years and 5 months prior to December 24, 2003, my wife Christine and I caught a gravid eastern garter snake near Bancroft, Ontario. Ten days after her capture, she produced 20 offspring. As is typical with most groups of animal young, they exhibited a wide range of personality traits — some were passive, some aggressive, some secretive, some bold, etc. Some of the brood also ate readily while others refused food.
After some debate we decided to keep the “pick of the litter.” We returned the mother and siblings to the wild. We named our choice “Ringlet” as he often curled upon a single finger and rested there for what seemed like an eternity. He began feeding on guppies and gradually worked his way up the usual garter food chain.
Within the year prior to our acquisition, we had moved back to Ottawa from London, Ontario. I was on a leave of absence from teaching and was looking for a small, healthy snake that would be ideal to help educate young children. We couldn’t have made a better choice. Over the past 5½ years, Ringlet had come to school on many occasions and had elicited much admiration and affection from many students. Even adults who were afraid of snakes found him fascinating and would ask many questions and demonstrate concern for his well being. He was gentle, calm, and never displayed any signs of aggression.
When the Great Animal Adventure was held at the Nepean Sportsplex, Ringlet was a regular guest on display. Considering the wide variety of exotic snakes and other reptiles, many visitors would gravitate towards the familiar and come over to look and ask questions about Ringlet. Almost everyone has encountered a garter snake somewhere in their travels. From our perspective, he seemed to receive more visitors than any of the other OARA display animals. We found this to be very interesting. Many kids from my school would make it a point of coming out to see Ringlet at the show. It was always an enjoyable experience.
For the past 5½ years, we only had Ringlet — no other herps. When other enthusiasts would ask about our “collection,” we would reply that we had an eastern garter snake. The response was usually, “That’s it?” or simply, “Oh.” This sort of hobbyist snobbery really started to turn us off and we came to feel that many people were missing the point. Garter snakes can be very responsive and provide a great deal of enjoyment in captivity. They also are the snakes that most people are going to encounter in the wild. For this reason alone, the more information and interaction the public receives, the better.
We relate this story about Ringlet because sadly, he passed away last Christmas Eve at about 10:00 pm. It was heartbreaking for us as he was part of our lives and the lives of many school children as well. I am not looking forward to breaking the news to my class when I return to school. The kids will want to know how he is doing as I told them he was sick just before the holidays started. Some of them even made get well cards for him.
For the curious, we took him to Daren Auger (who is now working at the Blair Animal Hospital) and he determined that he had amebiasis. Prior to his visit with Daren we had tried Panacur for deworming, but he was losing weight quickly. We tried him on Flagyl from Daren for a few days but we were aware that it was a 50-50 chance of him recovering. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Daren was, as usual, very kind and supportive.
We buried Ringlet in a wooded area close to our home. Fortunately, we took quite a few pictures of him and I’ll be taking one to school to leave on my desk.
This story should serve as a reminder to those who scoff at the idea of keeping an eastern garter snake. The hobby is supposed to be about promoting knowledge, understanding and compassion for snakes and other reptiles which are one of the most maligned groups of animals. In this regard, Ringlet was a true ambassador.
Our pets don’t always have to come from foreign countries, be rare or serve as vividly patterned cage decorations. And who knows? There may be another snake just like Ringlet prowling through your very own backyard. But we have our doubts!
First published in Chorus 20, no. 2 (Feb. 2004).