|Photo provided by: Sean McKinnon|
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|
|Photo provided by: Susan Stiles|
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.|
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.
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|
|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.