Popular myth says that snakes are very hard to kill. It's no myth!
It was a warm fall morning in Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in Georgia as I set out to go squirrel hunting. I parked my pick-up truck beside the wide, clay-topped road and walked up the hill along the overgrown dirt road that led to "my" stretch of woods.
Something was moving in the weeds a little way in front of me. Slowly, I took a couple of steps closer, with my rifle ready.
There in the middle of the road was a rattlesnake!
This was rather exciting for me, as I had never seen a rattlesnake in the wild before. It was an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the largest of all the rattlesnakes. Well, the largest species, anyway. This individual was hardly the largest of his kind. Still, it was a rattlesnake.
I was wise enough in the ways of nature to know better. Rattlesnakes are very important to whatever ecosystems they happen to live in, and they are under tremendous pressure from people who kill them out of misunderstanding and needless fear. I knew that.
I wasn't about to kill the snake out of misunderstanding or needless fear. I just wanted a souvenir rattlesnake skin and rattle. This might be my only chance to get such a trophy. I figured one rattlesnake wouldn't make a difference, and I promised myself that after I had this one snakeskin and rattle, I'd never kill another rattlesnake unless it was a life-or-death situation.
This certainly wasn't such a situation. The snake was so torpid from the overnight chill that it could barely move. But, this would be the first and last time I would kill a rattlesnake. I flicked off the safety and fired.
I was using hollow-point .22-caliber long rifle shells. Hunting squirrels with a rifle was new to me, as only shotguns were permitted in my previous home-range in Delaware. I figured that with a rifle, I'd want a hollow-point bullet to break up and deposit all of its kinetic energy in the body of the squirrel without passing through. Before long, I'd learn that this was not at all necessary. Better to use hard-point bullets. They pass right through a squirrel, exiting with just about as much energy as they had when entering, but they do enough damage to kill the squirrel, and they don't destroy as much meat in the process. I would also learn that .22 shorts are just as effective and accurate as .22 long rifles at the distances at which I was likely to shoot a squirrel, but much quieter.
Anyway, this day, I shot the rattlesnake with a .22 hollow point long rifle. Where the snake's head had been was now nothing but bloody rags of flesh.
My first concern was that when I brought my trophy home, my dog would lick up the blood and might ingest some of the venom. So, I took out my knife and cut off what was left of the head a couple of inches back, to be sure there was no venom in what I was bringing home.
My next concern was that I didn't want to lug that dead snake around with me while I was hunting squirrels, but I didn't want to lose it to a passing fox or hawk. I hid the snake in a bush overhanging the road, out of site from above and out of reach from any predator likely to pass, but easily visible to me.
Then I went on with my squirrel hunting.
Several hours later, on my way back to my truck, I looked to pick up my trophy. The snake was gone. Had my effort to hide it been in vain? I looked around, and found the snake in pretty much the same condition as I had left it, on the ground under the bush. Oh, well, maybe what little life it had left had enabled it to wriggle enough to fall out of the bush.
I picked it up by the tail and continued on my way.
But the snake kept getting tangled in the weeds and creepers growing in the road. It wasn't just that the snake's neck happened to be curved into a hook-shape. The rattlesnake was still wriggling, ever so slowly. Whether consciously trying to grab hold of the vegetation, or just reflexively bending its body to resist hanging down, I couldn't tell, but it was definitely still moving. And this was over four hours after I had shot its head to bloody ribbons and cut the bloody ribbons off!
I threw the snake into the back of the truck, along with the two squirrels I had gotten, and drove home.
I put the dead snake in the carport out of the sun, and went out back and cleaned and skinned my squirrels. I went inside, washed up, and had lunch. Then I headed out to the carport to skin the rattlesnake.
It hadn't moved from where I left it, so now it was really dead.
How do you skin a rattlesnake? Never having done it before, I just made up my own technique. I would take hold of the end of the spine with a pair of pliers and just peel the skin off, turning it inside out as I went, until I reached the rattles. Then I would cut the skin off at the rattles, and cut it laterally along one of the two lines where the belly scutes meet the side scales.
As I clamped down with my pliers, the snake shuddered violently, giving out one last rattle, then went limp. It was nearly six hours after I had shot the snake's head off!
Okay, now it was really dead.
I peeled off the skin. It was a little hard to get started without tearing the skin. This was snake skin, not nearly as resilient as the skin of mammals, with which I had more experience. But once I got it going, it came off smoothly enough.
I peeled down past the lung, examining the unfamiliar anatomy as I went, and comparing it to the squirrels I had just dressed a little while ago. There was no layer of muscular or membranous covering over the internal organs. With the skin removed, the internal organs were completely exposed through the wide gap between the muscle-sheathed ribs.
Just behind the lung was something I had never seen before: The heart. No, I had seen lots of hearts before, and even though I knew this was a three-chambered heart, internally different from the mammal and bird hearts I had seen so often, it didn't look much different from the heart of a squirrel or a dove. Except for one thing. It was still beating!
I watched in fascination as the heart continued to throb, perhaps at a rate of about ten or twelve beats per minute. There was no blood coming out of the severed arteries, but the heart was still pumping away.
I touched the heart, and it stopped.
Okay, now the snake was really dead.
And this time, it was really dead.
The beating of the heart was the last sign of life the snake had, and once it stopped, there was nothing left. Six hours after I had shot its head off, the rattlesnake was finally completely dead, but not until after I had peeled its skin off and touched its beating heart.
I was planning to make a belt or something out of the skin. When I was seventeen, it was just barely long enough to go around my waist, but I didn't know how to convert it into a serviceable belt. So, I just put it into a box and lugged it around with me as I moved from place to place, pretty much forgetting about it.
Thirty-four years later, I still have that rattlesnake skin, but it is no longer long enough to make a belt. It must have shrunk.
Epilogue: I don't condone wanton killing of animals, and perhaps especially of important apex predators that are slow to breed. And I have kept that promise to myself: I've never killed another rattlesnake, or any other snake, and not for lack of opportunity. I have eaten rattlesnake that someone else killed. It really doesn't taste much like chicken.