Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Speckled Kingsnake: educator, ambassador, a diagnosis and friend.

Photo provided by: Sean McKinnon
WARNING: The following blogpost depicts graphic surgical procedures in the form of pictures and video. If you are sensitive to this type of thing you may not want to proceed.

Speckled kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki) or Salt & Pepper Snakes as they are sometimes referred to are native species to Missouri and occur statewide, however their population is larger in the Southern portion of our state than up North where I live. They are medium to large snakes that may reach lengths up to 48 inches. There is a World record of 72 inches, which would be quite large for this species. This species is unmistakable in appearance and very easy to identify. They have a shiny black or dark brown background. Each scale contains a cream-colored or yellow spot giving them a "speckled" appearance from which they get their common name.

Like nearly all snakes they consume vast amounts of rodents, but they are also very fond of reptiles, this includes lizards, but most especially other snakes. It is reported they can even kill and consume venomous snakes with no ill affects from the venom. It is believed they are immune to the proteins in the venom, the very same proteins that can cause devastating responses in mammals including humans. Or it could be they are just really good at not getting bit, either way they manage to eat a fair amount of rattlesnakes and copperheads. They will also eat birds, bird eggs and there is even a record that exists of one opportunistic kingsnake consuming turtle eggs.

Most snakes in Missouri mate in the spring (there are a few exceptions), and eggs are laid in April or May shortly after mating. Sometime in late summer or early fall the eggs will hatch. The new born snakes will be on their own and ready to hunt for their first meal. This species is not known to be especially defensive when approached or captured. They may shake their tail in response to being disturbed which sounds very much like a rattlesnake buzzing its tail. If you pick the snake up it may bite or worse yet, musk you in self-defense. Musking is something a snake can and often does to deter a potential predator. Musk is a mixture of feces, and oily musk the snake produces. It smells foul and is near to impossible to wash off your skin (trust me). I guess if a potential predator takes a good dose of musk to the face or mouth it might be enough to cause them to give up on their snakey meal or at the very least be taken aback enough to drop their meal and allow the snake a chance to escape. Generally though they will calm down quite quickly when handled.

Speckled kingsnakes are found in a wide variety of habitats including prairies, grasslands, agricultural areas, rocky timbered hillsides, and near marshes. It is not uncommon to find them under rocks, or old pieces of tin and other debris left out by humans. The one pictured above was found in a timbered area by a friend of mine while he was mushroom hunting with his daughters.

This blog post however is about a very special kingsnake, one that was found, not in it's natural habitat, but rather found in a kitchen in the middle of a large town. This blog post is about Spot, the educational ambassador of her kind.

Photo provided by: Susan Stiles
Our story begins prior to the year 2000, when the Missouri Department of Conservation in St. Joseph received a phone call from a woman who had a snake in her kitchen. As snakes generally don't hang out in kitchens this somewhat shocked our caller and she wanted to know if we could come rescue her (or the snake depending upon your viewpoint). She described the snake in detail and an agent was sent out to help her when it was determined the snake as most likely a speckled kingsnake and NOT a common snake to find in a city much less in a house. The agent returned a short time later with a beautiful speckled kingsnake. The decision was made to keep her and use her as an educational/program snake. She was held continuously and worked with to get her used to crowds and handling. This is important as the vast majority of our programs are done with small children and we can't have a nippy snake biting some unsuspecting child. She proved to be a patient, tolerant and friendly snake and became a permanent fixture at MDC. I became a volunteer in 2003 with MDC and immediately adored this snake. She was so sweet and easy to work with. I did countless programs with her and in 2010 I was hired as the naturalist and continued to use her for programs on a regular basis. She never once offered to bite or musk anyone and was so incredibly tolerant of all the little hands touching her and grabbing at her. Several years ago a group of kids I was doing a program for decided she needed a name and they graced her with the name "Spot." As they explained it...she is covered in SPOTS!

Photo provided by: Susan Stiles
In 2013 I began noticing some changes in her. Whenever I would take her to a program she would defecate all over the place. If you think musking sounds nasty, trust me when I say that is nothing compared to a full-on bowel movement dumped down the front of your shirt or pants. When this occurs in front of dozens of children and adults it takes on a whole new level of nastiness. After several attempts to bring her to programs and her continued bowel issue I finally came to the conclusion she was "over it" and ready to retire. I stopped using her at programs and presentations and she officially retired that year and I must say it was a well earned retirement.

In December of 2015 someone in our office noticed she had a large protrusion coming from her cloaca (vent). This had us concerned as we weren't sure if she had an egg bound up inside her or if she had a bowel blockage. A friend of mine looked at it and said to soak her daily in warm water and keep antibiotic ointment on it and hopefully she would pass whatever was causing the problem. After a week of soaking and using ointment there was no change in her condition. I made the decision to take her to a veterinarian I know named Dr. Roy Wilson at Rafter Cross Veterinary Clinic

He has been our go-to vet for several years whenever I have a snake that needs medical attention. He has helped us with a bullsnake that had mouthrot, an extremely old black snake (40 plus years old) that had cancer and had to be euthanized and a prairie kingsnake that had an upper respiratory infection.

He took one look at the growth and determined it was a fleshy tumor. We had her stretched out on the examining table and I happened to notice that the growth was not at her vent as we originally thought, but rather several inches above it. How in the world me and my friend made that mistake is anyone's guess, but suffice it to say we sure weren't paying attention. I asked Dr. Wilson what exactly he meant by fleshy tumor, and he replied that in most cases it means cancer. I was devastated. He reassured me that he felt confident that he could do surgery to remove the tumor and she would be okay, or at the very least having the tumor removed would ease her pain and would give her a fighting chance.

He took x-rays of the tumor to make sure that it had not spread to her ribs or spine and that surgery was even a viable option. It was determined that the tumor was in the abdominal cavity and had not spread into her bones. This was a good sign.
We scheduled surgery for the following week and he sent me home with pain medicine to give her to keep her comfortable until she had surgery. The following week came and so did a snow storm that dumped 4 inches of snow and ice on us. I had to make the decision to cancel the appointment and reschedule for the following week. Fortunately the weather cooperated for this appointment, and I was able to make the trip up north to his office. Dr. Wilson was kind enough to allow me to sit in on the surgery procedure and take photographs, and help him as his assistant was a little frightened of snakes and preferred to not handle our patient in anyway.

Waiting for the medicine to take effect.
We placed her in a large towel on top of a heating pad to warm her and then 
Dr. Wilson gave her a series of shots that included ketamine-diazepam to get good muscle relaxation with a local lidocaine, and meloxicam for analgesia. After about 20 minutes she was sedated enough to begin the procedure. He worked gently and calmly on her to remove a sizable mass from her abdomen.  We were both shocked at the size of the tumor and opening left behind. He knew sewing her up was going to be tricky as he could not pull her skin closed too tightly as it would constrict blood flow and could potentially cause all the tissue below the incision to die, essentially defeating the purpose of the surgery to begin with. He ultimately closed the four corners and put a few stitches through the center and instructed me to keep it clean and covered in antibiotic ointment and bandages. 


video

He placed the tumor in formalin and sent me home with it and the contact information to send it to a diagnostic center at MU in Columbia, MO. We were both exceedingly curious if it was indeed cancer or benign. He also provided pain medicine and instructions to keep her warm, and the wound clean. We scheduled a follow up visit for the next week.

I took her home and placed her in a clean cage lined with newspapers, and soft towels with a nice warm heat lamp over her. She was pretty lethargic for a couple of days and didn't move much, but by the third day she was moving from one end of the cage to the other and drinking. I gave her two pain shots over the course of the week before our return trip to Dr. Wilson. He looked at the incision and said all things considered it looked pretty good, but he wasn't ready to remove the stitches yet and we made another appointment for the following week to remove them and I told him he should be hearing from MU about the pathology on the tumor as I had put his contact info down.

He told me I should try and feed her, but I wasn't sure she would eat given what she had been through, plus she had appeared ready to shed her skin prior to the surgery. Generally snakes won't eat when they are ready to shed. I offered her two mice and it took her two days but she ate them both. Then she decided to shed and created a big mess for me. The shed skin got caught on the bandage and she could not slough it off all the way. I had to gently cut the bandage way while she slithered all over the table making it impossible for me to hold onto her. It was like wrangling a bag of cats. This was a sure sign she felt better. After numerous attempts I finally got the bandage cut off, then I had to cut the bunched up shed skin off of her. This also took quite awhile as I chased her all over the table trying to corral her while I cut the old skin and not cut good skin. FINALLY I had her free of that mess and back into a clean cage and fed her an additional mouse which she ate.

Right before removing stitches

Snip snip
I returned to Dr. Wilson the following week during a snowstorm that caused slick roads and blinding snowfall. I slid through a stop sign and spun out more than once and debated whether or not to reschedule, but I was determined to get those stitches out.


A warm place to hide: my sleeve
Whatcha doing back there Doc?
Looking good all things considered

After removing the stitches he gave me the news from MU that the pathology report showed it was indeed cancer. Her prognosis is guarded, which as Dr. Wilson pointed out is better than fair and MUCH better than grave. SO in other words she has a chance. We will keep an eye on her and if we see the beginnings of anymore tumors the difficult decision to euthanyze her may have to be made, but for now we will be glad in the moment that she survived the surgery and has a fighting chance to be with us for a few more years.


Resting
Without Dr. Wilson's willingness to perform the surgery our "Spot" would have had no chance at all. I am indebted to him and his dedication to help ALL creatures no matter their species. I've been asked many times since this process began "Why save a snake?" my only answer is "Why not?" To do anything less for this snake is a dishonor to her and all she has done to help people overcome their fear and loathing of snakes. Her gentle, patient, tolerant nature has earned her many fans, even among self-professed snake haters. Thank you Dr. Wilson for giving our friend a chance!





3 comments:

  1. Sqaw a pretty big one on display at the science center in Des Moines. I have been startled a few time finding one basking in the spring.

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    Replies
    1. Despite looking for snakes all the time I've yet to find this species in the wild. I hope to one day!

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  2. What a dramatic story! Kudos to you for working so hard to help out this beautiful animal. I agree it is important to have a snake ambassador for visitors, and perhaps you can find a replacement.

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