The serpents of St. Paul: The West 7th Street neighborhood is a haven for garter snakes

Courtesy of Lisa Wecht
Lucy Wecht holding a tiny snake.

Unless you live there, it’s a little known fact that the West 7th Street neighborhood is full of snakes. On neighborhood facebook pages, posts about garter snakes appear like clockwork every spring and summer. People generally express amazement, surprise, or sometimes fear about the non-harmful snakes appearing in their yards or, less frequently, basements.

People shouldn’t be surprised, though. Because of its geology and proximity to the river, St. Paul’s West 7th Street neighborhood has long been a haven for snake activity. For most people, the garter snakes of West 7th Street are a sign of the uniqueness and natural magnificence of St. Paul’s most river-centric neighborhood.

St. Paul’s West 7th Street neighborhood
MinnPost graphic by Bill Lindeke
St. Paul’s West 7th Street neighborhood has long been a haven for snake activity.

Some West 7th Snake Stories

Curious about the snakes, I put out a call to ask people to describe some of their encounters: 

“Last year we decided to buy a house along West 7th Street,” Barbie Bobbit Schwartz, who lives in the West End, told me. ”I was doing the laundry three days later, and one fell from the ceiling by the washing machine and almost hit me in the head. And that was first time we saw a snake. But there have been eight or nine in our basement since we moved in, and dozens in the yard. They range in size from 5-6” long to more than two feet.” 

Schwartz, who is originally from snake-prone Florida, has a product called “snake away” on her porch and is learning to get used to the idea of snakes. 

She is not alone. If you want to strike up a conversation with a West 7th resident, you need only mention the topic. Nearly all have a snake story to tell, like this one from Sean Kershaw, a West 7th resident who runs the Citizen’s League:

“There was the time when my husband, who hates snakes, was upstairs in our house at 7:30 in the morning helping our young daughter, who hates snakes, get dressed. He picked up some clothes off the dresser and as he passed them to her a snake dropped out.”

Another common thread of the snake stories is how much kids and pets seem to enjoy them: 

“We have a slither of snakes in our yard,” Barbara Jungbauer said. “We keep having to rescue them from our dog, Mr. Bingley. I’ve explained to Bing that we love snakes… [but he is] not impressed.”

Courtesy of Lisa Wecht
Lucy Wecht in a 2010 photo holding a snake.

“I used to go hunting for them as a kid,” Chris Navarre told me over Facebook. “They were everywhere along the tracks by Watson and Osceola [avenues]. We would put them in five gallon buckets to see how full it got. They were harmless, until I came across an all-black snake about 6-7 feet long, I’m guessing it was an indigo snake. Still, I played with the garters. And now I have two pythons.”

(It must also be noted that many West 7th area residents have lived in the area for decades without seeing more than one or two snakes. They aren’t everywhere!)  

Facts about Garter Snakes

I remember the first time I encountered a garter snake as a kid. My uncle Jerome was a biology teacher, and when he would visit he would constantly poke around the trees and margins of my backyard. He brought a garter snake over to me one day and held it out to me. I was delighted and disgusted in equal measure. (For many people, that feeling never leaves.)

But if you talk to a herpetologist, that’s the wrong reaction. The snakes of the Twin Cities are quite benign. “Minnesota has couple different species of garter snakes,” Jennifer Menken, a naturalist at the Bell Museum, told me. “They mostly eat small critters, lots of insects, invertebrates, frogs and toads, maybe an occasional small mouse or something like that. They’re kind of grab and gulp eaters.”

One of the reasons why the snake stories of the West 7th area are so disparate — people either see a lot of snakes or none at all — has to do with garter snakes’ oddly social behavior surrounding hibernation.

“They tend to hibernate in groups,” Menken told me. “A den or a hibernaculum might have 20 to 30 or 100 garter snakes in a good den. The bluffs along the river area really nice. Tiny micro caves or places they can all curl up in a ball.”

Courtesy of Ann Bloomer-Lamotte
Anne Bloomer-Lamotte’s daughter holds up a snake.

The garter snakes also form a key part of the river valley food chain. Not only do they feed on insects, all kids of predators eat them, mostly hawks, owls, or foxes.

“Because they den and hang out together in the spring, you get these large pockets of garter snakes,” Menken explained. “Once it gets warmer, they’ll disseminate and head off to find their own hunting grounds. And in the fall again, they’ll congregate back, so you have these large concentrations of them coming and going.”

(I sometimes think that garter snakes might share commonalities with St. Paulites. Both can be tight knit, occasionally defensive, and like most Minnesotans, have a tendency to hibernate.) 

The Sunny Side of Snakes

Like Barbie, many people’s first reaction to the sight of snakes is some form of recoil. But if you talk to a West 7th denizen for long enough, you come to realize that a vast majority of the neighborhood has developed an appreciation for human/reptilian cohabitation.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Adams
Jeffrey Adams’s cat Pierre, a snake, and a dollar for size.

“They’re just part of the neighborhood,” Jeffey Adams, who has lived in his house by West 7th and Victoria for almost 30 years, told me. “In the real world people refer to them as the patron St. of the West End. I have no problem with them. There’s a little colony in my raised bed gardens in my yard, and they duck under when I walk by. They’re not aggressive, they don’t harm me. It’s actually kind of funny.”

(Last year, Adams accidentally ran one over with his lawn mower and felt very sad about it afterward.)

In fact, an appreciation for nature is a crucial component to the snake stories. “West 7th is the one St. Paul community that truly is along the river,” Wendy Underwood, who lives by West 7th and St. Clair, told me. “That’s completely rooted in our history, being one of the oldest neighborhoods. With our support of maintaining our natural environment, there’s things that come with that.”

Underwood insisted to me that the story of the Snakes of West 7th not be viewed as negative thing. Though she doesn’t often notice snakes herself, she has her share of stories, and sees the snake charm as one of the things that makes the neighborhood unique, full of character and life.

(“The snakes of West 7th is just a myth to keep all of you away,” joked Darren Tobolt, who is married to Underwood.)

Snakes and the River Valley

Courtesy of Kelly Reidy
Kelly Reidy’s son with two snakes.

Like pigeons and skateboarders, snakes are ill served by common cultural narratives. The whole “Adam and Eve thing” is just the beginning, and as Indiana Jones’ script-writers well knew, ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) is a legitimate condition.

To me, though, there’s something honest and inspiring about the pleasant harmony between the people of the West 7th neighborhood and St. Paul’s snake-laden riverine ecosystem. They let us know that, right in the heart of St. Paul, the food chain is alive and well. The whole neighborhood, technically a national park, becomes a science museum, an example of how we come to terms with our environment, our phobias, balancing the human and nonhuman worlds.

To make a long story short, next time you see a snake in St. Paul, try not to scream. Rather, carefully carry the snake to a happy place and let it thrive.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 05/17/2016 - 11:43 am.

    Good news, I guess

    While growing up in Southern Minnesota, I frequently encountered garter snakes, but during many years of living in Minneapolis, I’ve never seen one. It’s good to know that they exist somewhere in the Twin Cities.

  2. Submitted by Richard O on 05/17/2016 - 02:52 pm.

    Having grown up in the west 7th area, I can vouch for the presence of garter snakes. But that’s not all. We would go exploring around Crosby “park” on the banks of the Miss. River and come across some fairly large “bull” snakes that appeared to be quite long, i.e., 3 – 4 feet. No bull.

  3. Submitted by Andrew Koebrick on 05/17/2016 - 07:55 pm.

    Snakes

    I created an account just to share my over long W 7th snake story.

    I lived in the neighborhood from 1997 to 2002 and still have my beloved house there as a rental and as a refuge for when my wife finely gets wise and throws me out. Back then I planted my yard with ~40 trees and ~40 shrubs and let it go wild. Consequently the snake population was populous and the the slitherers grew huge. There were some snakes that grew 2 or 3 inches in diameter. Biggest garter snakes I’ve ever seen.

    When I moved out, and became a landlord, I added a special clause to the stock lease, explicitly to protect the snakes:

    “18. Tenants recognize joint tenancy with the critters of the yard and an will make no attempt to evict or kill them, except through the natural predation of the tenants’ companion animals. This includes but is not limited to snakes, squirrels, bunnies and birds…”

    But I miss the snakes, so whenever I am over there doing work, and see a snake, I bring it back to Seward, in an attempt to get a breeding population going here. One time, three or four years ago, I was turning the compost pile and hit a pit of ~10 snakes. I caught 6 or 7 large ones, put them in a covered bucket and brought them home. My first clue to problems should have been when they got out of the bucket and I had to re-catch them from under the car seats. When I got home, I put them in an aquarium with a screen top in my dining room for the edification of my ~7 year old daughter and unamused wife.

    The next morning when I went down at dawn to make coffee and check on my charges, there were… no snakes in the aquarium. They had lifted the screen and were loose in the house. I desperately hunted them under sofa and cupboard while the family slept above oblivious to the horror below. I left the door open hoping they would leave on their own… Sure, I found and released one or two, but by the time I had to break the news to the waking family, there were still 4 or 5 loose large snakes (perhaps now you can see why I need to keep a spare house around…)

    Over the next day or two, we found a few more and got them to the garden. Presumably the rest escaped of their own volition… except evidently for one.

    A year or two later, my wife was on a flight to San Fran along with my daughter. To keep the child active they had a carry on (which we store in a basement storeroom) full of art supplied. During the flight, while digging for pens and papers, what do they pull out? A desiccated, coiled, corpse of a W7th St. snake.

    We have seen a garter snake or two here in Seward, hopefully descendants of the colonists from the east. I have also been bringing in frogs but they do not seem to have naturalized. Perhaps I am working at cross purposes.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 05/18/2016 - 09:09 pm.

      Andrew…

      You did not give us details of your W. 7th departure. Voluntary??
      A very good friend lives in Seward, perhaps near you now. I shall alert him.
      As for TSA agents: They’re on their own.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 05/18/2016 - 10:40 pm.

      O MY

      SNAKES ON A PLANE!

      Ps. thanks for registering and sharing this amazing comment. i am going to work on adding this to the City Code!

  4. Submitted by Mark Bliven on 05/18/2016 - 10:39 am.

    Snakes in the Neighborhood

    In the Ann St / St. Clair neighborhood. We had a concrete block wall behind us in the vacant lot. Hundreds (if not millions :)) of garter snakes would be writhing in there when the spring sun began hitting the wall. We always credited the occasional snake in our basement with lack of mice in our house. Much less trouble than a cat so snakes were OK with us.

  5. Submitted by B Carlson on 05/22/2016 - 09:40 am.

    Imagine that!

    Thanks for the link listed in the next to last paragraph.

    I’ve lived in MN all my life and had no idea that we have a 72 mile long Mississippi National River & Recreation Park.

    I just spent near an hour going thru their website.

    I’m sure very few people even know about this. It needs much more publicity!

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