Luckily for a 5½-foot Eastern rat snake, a Virginia woman noticed something was amiss. It had a large lump stuck halfway down its slender body.
On May 1, the rat snake, known as No. 20-2755, was expected to be released to the wild — along with two dozen other snakes and reptiles brought to the center over the winter after mishaps with rakes, garden netting, cats, cars, and bacterial infections.
Rehabbed animals at the wildlife center are given numbers instead of names. And in Virginia, reptiles and amphibians, by law, can only be released on May 1 when the weather is warmer and they don’t face dangers of being let go in colder months, experts said.
Jennifer Riley, a veterinarian at the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, said she sees one or two cases a year of rat snakes eating a golf ball.
“Some people don’t like snakes and want them dead, so they’ll use a golf ball in a chicken house as a way to kill them, knowing they’ll try to eat it, but can’t,” she said. “Other people just don’t know how harmful it can be for a snake.”
Riley said chicken owners sometimes put fake, wooden eggs or golf balls in a coop to try to teach their chickens where to lay eggs or to stop them from pecking at real eggs. But that’s a risky practice for snakes.
Rat snakes, which eat a diet of rodents, birds and birds’ eggs, often find their way into a chicken coop if it’s not secure and mistake a fake egg or golf ball for a real one.
Even with an expandable gastrointestinal tract, a snake can’t digest and break down a golf ball. Sometimes a snake can regurgitate a ball or, Riley said, she’s been able to “milk” it out of a snake’s body manually.
Other times it’s not so easy. Eventually the blockage cuts off a snake’s blood and oxygen supply, forcing it to endure a “prolonged, uncomfortable death,” Riley said. She said it “can take weeks to months for a rat snake” that’s swallowed a golf ball to die.
She’s concerned there could be more cases of snakes being harmed by swallowing golf balls as “the number of backyard chickens being raised is increasing dramatically” among farmers and in the suburbs.
There’s a growth in backyard chickens, Riley said, in part because more people want to grow their own food and be self-reliant. And with more people working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, they have more time for chickens as a hobby.
Plus, Riley said, many people don’t understand the role of snakes in the ecosystem and kill them. In Virginia, it’s illegal to kill a snake, because they’re protected, unless it poses an immediate threat.
For snake No. 20-2755, its troubles likely started at least two weeks before being found in November in White Post, Va., about 10 miles from the wildlife center. It was severely dehydrated, and its skin was starting to discolor, a sign of serious health trouble, Riley said.
At the wildlife center, Riley — who has done surgeries on six snakes that swallowed golf balls or fake eggs in her career — got the snake ready for an operation.
Preparing it for surgery involved hydrating it, giving antibiotics, intubating and then gassing it. Once it was unconscious, Riley cut the snake’s gastrointestinal area, removed the golf ball and the dead layers of skin before stitching up the animal.
The snake was prevented from “eating anything big” for about eight weeks, starting with a tube-fed diet and gradually taking on normal favorites such as mice and birds. The snake recovered well, Riley said, calling it a “fan favorite” among the staff and volunteers at the wildlife center.
“He’s especially good-looking and photogenic,” Riley said.
For exercise, staff members put the snake in a tub in a bathroom and let it crawl in and out of tote bags that hang off the shower curtain rod. They set up PVC piping for the snake to slither into.
Because rat snakes like to swim, the staff sometimes turn on the water and allow it to swim against the current — another exercise that Riley said helped build up muscle strength for its return to the wild.
This snake and other snakes are to be released to the areas where they were found, because it’s illegal to relocate a snake in Virginia.
Riley said she hopes that the snake’s tale can be a lesson for chicken owners to make sure their coops are secure so predators don’t get inside and get hurt.
As for humans trying to get chickens to lay eggs in the coop, she advises them to use more caution. Instead of golf balls, she said, use a hard-boiled egg and mark it or use wooden eggs and nail them to the floor of the coop so a predator can’t swallow them.
She said she expects the golf-ball-swallowing rat snake to do fine in the wild.
As snakes head back to the wild, she hopes they stay away from humans, which she considers their “biggest predators.”