Extrovert, our female Wandering Garter Snake, finally died overnight. She’d been declining for months and we’d been expecting this for quite some time. She last ate on March 23rd, which was not immediately a cause for concern (she’d gone off her food before, in 2011 and 2014, but her appetite came roaring back in each case). But as the skipped meals piled up it became increasingly clear that this was probably it. We kept offering her food, just in case, but in the end it was the end.
Extrovert came into my hands on May 12, 2000. She was a well-started juvenile by that point, which meant that she’d been born the year before. That made her 17 years old when she died. Now, 17 years is a magnificent age for a garter snake. Not unheard of, but certainly not typical. She’s outlasted any other garter snake we’ve had, and a good number of the other snakes, too. Only four have been in our care longer than her.
She arrived with another wandering garter, a male we named Introvert. We planned on breeding them, but because their species has a reputation for cannibalism they had to be kept in separate cages. Intro died in 2003 from a tapeworm infection, but they managed to breed once the year before, and on July 4, 2002, Extro had a litter of seven babies, six of which made it out of infancy. Compared to the litter of 42 Red-sided Garter Snakes we were also wrangling at the time, they were larger in size but fewer in number. They were in no particular hurry to start eating, but eventually took mice eagerly.
Finding homes for those babies took rather longer. Wandering Garter Snakes aren’t terribly popular with reptile hobbyists, largely because they’re garter snakes and they’re drab, which make two strikes against them. I always thought very highly of them, because they were so interesting: they were strong, and they had voracious appetites (at least most of the time).
They were also surprisingly gentle—I say surprisingly because people who’ve encountered wandering garters in the wild have not always enjoyed the experience. Extrovert did bite Jennifer on two occasions, but in each case the snake had been startled, so it’s excusable. Me she never bit at all. And she was used in presentations and handled and seen by hundreds of kids. Because Wandering Garter Snakes are a western snake—in Canada they’re found in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan—her educational utility here was pretty limited. All the same, she was a sweetheart.
Snakes aren’t cats, and while I’m terribly fond of them, I’m not at all devastated by this. As I wrote back in 2007, “while I have to admit that there is a stronger emotional bond with a cat than, say, a corn snake, I’m still affected when I lose a reptile. Even if I’m not affected as much.” My primary feeling, I said back then, was responsibility rather than grief: “I have a duty to ensure their health and, inasmuch as their little reptile brains can comprehend it, their happiness. When they die, I feel as though I’ve fucked up, even if they’re dead from natural causes or old age.”
Except that back then old age really hadn’t played much of a factor: I didn’t know what I was talking about. When a snake dies of old age—and Extrovert lived to a grand old age—I find an absence of guilt more than anything else. She was a snake we were happy to look after, we did not screw up her care, and she was with us longer than I could have anticipated. I’m okay.