Megan Lawrence is the Director of Rehabilitation at the Salthaven West Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Centre.
"We got a call from a family that found some garter snakes in their basement, and as they investigated further they found a lot more. And then they started finding them in other areas of the house, like kitchens and bedrooms. So they decided then it wasn't a good idea to have them there anymore."
Lawrence said the family eventually reached her, and she and her partner went to check out the house.
"They were starting to end up everywhere in the house but in the basement. For the most part they were in tight spaces. Cracks in the floors, cracks in the walls, between boxes, underneath things — anywhere they could get into basically."
She said they weren't really hiding, and they weren't moving very quickly because some of them had apparently settled in for the winter.
"They were already starting to go into hibernation," she said. "So we just were, you know, picking up boxes and things off the floor and just found them and just caught them by hand. And then we were transporting them in buckets and pillowcases."
Lawrence and her partner used about five pillowcases, and then moved the snakes into a bucket to count them. From there, Lawrence says, they separated them by size. She said the largest snake is nearly one metre long, and the shortest is approximately 22 cm.
Most common call of the season for snake expert
The Royal Saskatchewan Museum's Head of Research and Collections is also a snake expert. Ray Poulin said it's not unusual for snakes to wind their way under the soil and into your home this time of year.
"We get half a dozen calls — at the museum — which, I'm not sure is always the first place people think to call. So, imagine how many places out there, how many houses have snakes going in at this time of year," he said. "So I think it's very common,"he said.
Poulin says it's also common for garter snakes to sneak in homes in large groups. He says it would be a rare occurrence if 100 of any other type of snake were found in a house, but he's not surprised by this volume of Plains Garter Snakes.
Snakes on a plain
In his office, Poulin mostly receives calls from people in southern parts of the province, from anywhere between the Alberta and Manitoba borders. He says he hasn't heard about it as much from the Saskatoon area to the northern border, however there is a different species of garter snake that will also group together to find dens there as well.
So why do they do it?
"The snakes know winter is coming. Snakes have to get below the frost line, or else they can't survive the winter. On the prairies, there's only so many options to do that," Poulin told CBC News. "Older houses that have foundations that the snakes can get into—that serves as a great place to get underground and get under that frost line."
Poulin says what's most interesting to him as a researcher is how the snakes manage to arrive in basements and other parts of homes in such large numbers. He says he's curious about how snakes spread the news to others once one of them finds its way into a warm home.
"Snakes in general tend to go back to the same hibernation site every year. So if you don't have them in your basement already, it's actually quite a low chance that they're going to find your basement and set up shop there. On the other side of that, if they have found your basement and they have set up shop, they're going to want to come back year after year."
'We know there's more down there'
While Lawrence says the family no longer wanted to live with the snakes, she says they have a 'healthy respect' for them. So she's confident they'll take care of them when they find more.
"We know there's more down there, they're just hiding," Lawrence said. "They're going to keep trying to catch them and get them out of there. They don't want to harm them and they know that with winter coming it's important to not put them outside unless they have an alternate place to hibernate."
Plains garter snake tips
Poulin says the type of snakes winding their way into basements in southern Saskatchewan are almost always Plains Garter Snakes, which he says are pretty harmless. Here are a few other tips he relayed to CBC about the snakes:
- Check for cracks or holes near your foundation to see where the snakes are getting through.
- Try placing a barrier of gravel around the house, though Poulin admits he's not sure whether it's a surefire way to stop them
- The snakes in your house at this time of year are likely adults and they're not reproducing, because they don't have their young until summer
- You can put on any type of glove to pick them up. "I always tell people the worst thing a garter snake can do to you is poop on you. They don't really have enough jaw strength or teeth to do damage," Poulin says.
- Don't dump them close to your house. "You'd want to move them. If you just let them go back in the yard, they're just going to go right back to your house," he says. Anywhere with steep slopes can help the snakes find a new hibernation site.
- If handling a snake makes your skin crawl, call a professional to remove them.
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