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PAWS Mailing Address:
PO Box 1037
Lynnwood WA, 98046

PAWS Street Address:
15305 44th Ave W
Lynnwood, WA 98087

July 2006   

Kevin Mack

Shedding Captivity
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On June 19th, 2006, a Northwestern Garter Snake in a Lynnwood neighborhood was undergoing an amazing transformation. In the days leading up to this event, the scales covering her body had become somewhat dull, she had stopped eating and her eyes had become cloudy in appearance. With her vision obscured, the snake was at her most vulnerable, and she had likely been trying to stay out of sight. But today, she could not sit still. The dull covering on her body had loosened, and the snake was compelled to rid herself of it. To that end, she had begun to crawl slowly forward, rubbing against objects in her path.

Starting at her head and moving back toward her tail, an opaque, paper-thin layer of dead skin was peeling away from the snake’s body. As the dead skin sloughed away, it turned inside out like a sock being taken off of a foot. Inch by inch the snake’s dull body covering was being removed to reveal bright, shiny new scales. The dull spectacles covering her eyes came away with the skin, and the new spectacles underneath them were crystal clear. The snake had been through this process of rejuvenation many times in her life, replacing old skin with new as her body increased in size. But the shed she was undergoing on June 19th was nearly her last.

As she worked to remove herself from her old skin, she was spotted by a house cat that had been allowed to roam free outside. Fortunately for the snake, she was rescued by a concerned human before she was added to the list of the millions of wild animals killed by uncontained domestic cats every year; however, the rescue did not come quickly enough to spare her from injury in the cat’s jaws. She was brought to the PAWS Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and recorded in the computer database as case number 06-1295.

When garter snake 06-1295 arrived at PAWS, she had completed her shed on only part of her body. The cat had torn off the section of loose skin that the snake had already peeled back, and had also removed another small patch further back on her body. It would have been difficult for her to complete her shed without assistance. In addition, the snake had suffered a small puncture wound close to her spine, but she was lucky in that she did not appear to have any serious internal injuries. Because cats have a potent cocktail of bacteria in their saliva, the snake was placed on antibiotics to ensure that her wound would not become infected. She was then soaked in a water bath to soften the dead skin that remained attached to her body. After several minutes of soaking, the snake completed her shed with a little assistance from wildlife rehabilitator Candace Parker.

After her initial treatment, the garter snake was housed in a terrarium furnished with a dirt substrate, grass, a hide box and a heat lamp under which the snake could bask if she wished. A heating pad under one portion of the cage provided the snake with an additional area in which she could soak up heat while staying out of sight. Northwestern Garter Snakes feed primarily on slugs and earthworms, and snake 06-1295 was offered one of each on her first day at PAWS. She readily devoured the slug, demonstrating why garter snakes should be a welcome sight in any garden. She did not eat again for the remaining four days of her stay.

During the four days following her intake, garter snake 06-1295 was treated with antibiotics once a day. She also received a daily soak to ensure that she was able to keep herself well hydrated. As would be expected, she kept herself hidden most of the time, but she was bright and alert every time she was handled. She completed her course of antibiotic treatment on June 23rd, and showed no signs of a developing infection at her healing wound site. There was no further reason to detain her.

On June 24th, I placed snake 06-1295 in a small, well-ventilated container with a tight-fitting lid. I drove her to a park that was less than a block from where she had been found, and that would provide her with far more cover. I believed it would give the snake a much better chance for avoiding the outdoor cats that were still lurking in her neighborhood. I chose to release the snake in a grassy area that was right next to a dense patch of low-growing cover. I took one last look at her through the clear plastic of her transport container. Her tongue flicked in and out delivering scent particles from the air to the Jacobson’s organ inside her mouth. I couldn’t even begin to guess what those quick flicks of the tongue were telling her about the world. I placed the container on the grass about two feet away from cover and removed the lid.

As I removed the lid from her container, garter snake 06-1295 recognized her change in circumstances immediately. I sat very still as I watched her slither over the edge of the container and onto the ground, shedding her captivity inch by inch. To my eyes, the results were much the same as when she had shed her skin. The animal that had been dulled by captivity became bright and alert as her freedom was restored. As the last few inches of the snake cleared the transport container, she hesitated for a moment. Her tongue flicked rapidly in and out of her mouth as she slowly moved her head to the left, and then to the right. Whether she saw or smelled something to her liking I cannot say, but she made a beeline for the patch of low cover that was nearby.

As the snake’s head disappeared beneath the vegetation, the stripes running the length of her body momentarily made it difficult to detect that she was moving. The optical illusion was broken when the tapered, tail end of her body moved through my field of view. I assumed that predators looking to make a meal of the snake would have a similar visual experience. As her tail disappeared, I hoped that if the snake ever encounters another house cat, her stripes will fool the cat’s eyes as effectively as they had fooled mine.

Give Wildlife (and a Naturalist) A Reason To Sing!

PAWSwalk 2006 will be on Saturday, September 9th at Seattle’s Magnuson Park. I have given my team, the “Wild Things,” a special challenge this year. If we raise $7,000 or more, I have agreed to "reward" them by singing a Karoke song of their choice in a public venue. A little humiliation is a small price to pay for helping out the animals! Your donation will help make both lifesaving work and musical "entertainment" possible! If you wish to donate to the cause visit the PAWSwalk pledge site.

Or, visit the Wild Things home page and sign up to walk with us for the animals!

Ninety-two animals were released between June 17th and July 17th 2006. Thanks to all of you for helping to make these releases possible!

Wildlife Releases: June 17 - July 17, 2006

  • Steller's Jay- 5
  • Eastern Cottontail- 9
  • Virginia Opossum- 3
  • Band-tailed Pigeon- 4
  • American Robin- 7
  • American Crow- 10
  • Eastern Gray Squirrel- 8
  • Black-capped Chickadee- 7
  • Chestnut-backed Chickadee- 3
  • Northwestern Garter Snake- 1
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet- 1
  • House Sparrow- 3
  • Pied-billed Grebe- 2
  • Mountain Beaver- 1
  • Western Screech Owl- 1
  • Spotted Towhee- 1
  • American Robin- 3
  • Black-capped Chickadee- 5
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch- 1
  • Least Chipmunk- 4
  • Canada Goose- 5
  • Wood Duck- 2
  • Brown-headed Cowbird- 1
  • Hooded Merganser- 2
  • Bewick's Wrens - 3

302 wild animals have been released since the beginning of 2006.
Thanks to all of you for helping to make these releases possible!

All rights reserved. 2006 Progressive Animal Welfare Society

A Northwest leader in protecting animals since 1967, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) shelters homeless animals, rehabilitates injured and orphaned wildlife, and empowers people to demonstrate compassion and respect for animals in their daily lives.


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