Patient of the Week: Wild Northwestern Garter Snake Saved from Life as a Pet

By Ashley Lema, Wildlife Rehabilitator

On April 6, we received this female Northwestern Garter Snake from a good Samaritan who found her injured outside of their apartment complex. The rescuer could see she was injured, but believed the snake was a domestic species, and wanted to keep her as a pet. We were thankful they came to us first, because we were able to identify her as a native species, and help her return to the wild. Wild animals don’t adapt well to captivity, and so it is both inhumane and illegal to keep or care for them without the proper permits, facilities, and training. In this case, since adult wild snakes generally don’t willingly eat in captivity, the fact that the rescuers were able to bring the snake in right away gave her a much better chance of surviving to return to the wild. 

 

The Northwestern Garter Snake laying on top of her hide in her indoor enclosure. There are a few crickets on top of the hide as well, they are part of her daily diet.
The Northwestern Garter Snake laying on top of her hide in her indoor enclosure. There are a few crickets on top of the hide as well, they are part of her daily diet.

Once in our care, we were able to examine the snake, and found lacerations over her back, and a prolapsed vent. A vent is an excretory opening on the bottom of the snake, that expels waste and eggs: an “everything exit,” if you will… We gave the snake antibiotics and medication for the pain, as well as tended to her injuries. After a few weeks of healing, we were able to remove her stitches and release her back to her home territory!

Northwestern Garter Snake’s are fairly small snakes, with adults averaging around 1 to 2 feet in length. These snakes vary in color, but follow the same general pattern: brown or black bodies, with three stripes (one dorsal and one lateral on each side) along the length of the body. Stripe colors can be red, white, orange, yellow, or blue! Occasionally the stripes will be broken up by small variably colored spots as well. Their range is from British Columbia south along the coast, (mainly west of the Cascade Mountains), all the way to northern California. They live a mostly terrestrial life, slithering along forest edges and backyards. They are active during the day, searching for slugs and earthworms under lush vegetation, old boards, or leaf litter. They will also occasionally prey on snails and amphibians, and if their mouth is big enough, eggs!

One staff member is holding the Northwestern Garter Snake while the other is removing stitches prior to releasing her.

How to Help

    • Snakes can sometimes have a frightening reputation, but they are an extremely important part of our ecosystem! Northwestern Garter Snakes are non-venomous, and are great wildlife neighbors to have especially for gardeners because they naturally control pests like slugs. There is no need to fear these gentle, shy, and beautifully colorful snakes!
    • Although we are unsure what attacked this Northwestern Garter Snake, based on her wounds and location found, we suspect she was caught by a cat. The best thing you can do, for all wildlife, is keep your cats inside. Cats injure and kill billions of native wild animals a year, making them one of the leading causes for declining populations. On top of that, your cat will live a happier, healthier, longer life when kept indoors! Learn more at Cats Safe at Home.
    • Learn about the native wildlife in your area and how you can support them! 
    • No need to throw away leaf litter–instead try raking it towards shrubs/bushes so the animals that forage and/or hide in it can still utilize it!

What to Do If You Find An Ill, Injured, or Orphaned Animal 

    • If an animal is visibly ill or injured, has been in contact with a cat, or is definitely orphaned, the best thing you can do is contain the animal in a securely closed (but ventilated) box and keep the animal quiet and undisturbed until you can transport it to your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not offer food or water.

Portland Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center accepts new patients from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day. You can also leave a message on our Wildlife Hotline at (503) 292-0304 or email wildlife@audubonportland.org and one of our wildlife solutions counselors will get back to you and provide advice for your specific situation.

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Unfortunately due to COVID-19 we had to operate our Wildlife Care Center this past year with about 20% of our normal staffing and with about a 25% increase in our annual patient admissions. We were left with the difficult but necessary decision to discontinue providing follow-up updates on patients brought into our center so that we could focus on the daily care of the animals. And while we simply cannot write a story about each animal, our goal for this fresh and bright new year is to show you what we can: in the form of a weekly patient update! Check in every Thursday for our “Patient of the Week”; with information on the species, the circumstances that brought the animal in, and preventative advice so you can be a better steward for our wildlife!

If you’d like to contribute to the Wildlife Care Center, please consider making a donation here. Your support helps us save lives.