MURRAY — Chris Garland has been a police officer in Murray for 22 years, and thought he had seen it all, until Sunday.
That was when he was faced with an encounter he was not expecting, dealing with a rattlesnake within the Murray city limits. However, that was the situation and, even though he admits he has a fear of snakes, even non-venomous ones, he said he did not like the fact that he had to destroy the animal, a timber rattler measuring 3 feet.
“No I didn’t, but I didn’t have a choice,” Garland said as he recalled the incident that started with a call from Murray Police Department Dispatch a little after 3 p.m. Sunday. “Dispatch told us that there was a lady that had reported a snake on the underside of her motorized wheelchair near Walmart (along North 12th Street). So I responded, along with Officer Marian Cosgrove.
“We get there and, yes, there is a snake under the woman’s seat and quickly we were able to determine that it was a rattlesnake.”
Garland said the snake showed no aggression, which was a good thing. He said the woman reported that she had noticed the snake while in transit.
“Yeah, she just happened to look down and saw the head right under her. She was still on the chair when we arrived. She couldn’t move, and I guess that was from being scared. Come to think of it, I probably would’ve froze too. So we helped her off and it didn’t do anything,” he said. “Once we had her off, then we were able to get it to crawl out from under the seat and got it to the ground.”
Garland said the decision to kill the snake was not taken lightly.
“We tried to contact someone who might have been able to have picked it up, but when we finally did find somebody, they were too far away from Murray,” he said, noting that the encounter was occurring near Bee Creek. “We couldn’t wait that long.”
John Hewlett, a Murray State University graduate researcher who has studied venomous snakes for about 20 years, said he talked to Garland after the incident. He said one of the first things he wanted to do was ensure Garland that he was not to blame.
“I told him, ‘Look man! Unfortunately, you found yourself in a bad situation.’ He didn’t have a choice, you know?” Hewlett said Wednesday, immediately switching his attention to how the snake came to find itself in Murray in the first place.
“If I had to bet everything on it, somebody caught it and turned it loose in the parking lot (of Walmart) or somewhere else in the city. The chance of there being a population of timber rattlesnakes within 15 miles of Murray is exceedingly low. I study this particular species six days a week. That thing did not need to be in the Walmart parking lot.”
Hewlett said the closest population of this species to Murray might reside in extreme southeastern Calloway County near the Tennessee line, and even there, the population would be a very low number.
“Rattlesnakes, and the timber rattlesnake in particular, does not like human interaction. They shy away from disturbance, whereas a copperhead or something like that has a much higher tolerance of human activity,” he said. “This species prefers a much larger configuration of forest, and that is one reason a naturally-occurring rattlesnake in the Walmart parking lot in Murray, Kentucky doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Hewlett also said the timber rattlesnake is very beneficial to the ecosystem.
“They actually benefit public health, particularly when it comes to the potential to limit tick-borne diseases to people,” he said, explaining how these snakes ultimately control the rodent population. “The bottom line is when it comes to ticks they’re generally not born into this world carrying diseases. Rodents are the competent reservoirs, or hosts, which means that bacteria that are transmitted to people naturally occur in rodents but don’t cause the rodents any harm. When a tick bites a rodent, then bites a person, that’s where that transmission occurs.
“The rattlesnake disrupts that cycle by eliminating the rodents. The idea of ‘a good snake is a dead snake’ definitely does not apply here.”
He also said that the chances of the timber rattler biting someone are low.
“It takes a consorted effort to get them to that point,” he said, adding that the ultimate weapon for this animal is not something that is used recklessly. “In my research, I’ve come to see that venom production is the most metabolically costly biological process for an adult rattlesnake, so it would much prefer to discharge that venom on the prey than on a human.”