RICHMOND — It’s kind of a chicken, as snakes go, high-tailing it whenever it smells danger. And then there’s the odor.
An Eastern Garter Snake that senses danger doesn’t just pick flight over fight, but emits an offending odor as it slithers away — one described in the august setting of the Virginia Senate on Thursday as “something like a cross between a soiled diaper and a skunk.”
The creature will nevertheless become Virginia’s official state snake if Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signs a bill that passed out of the legislature Thursday.
That would fulfill the wishes of 11-year-old Aiden Coleman of Williamsburg, who came up with the idea of honoring the garter snake after meeting Del. Brenda L. Pogge (R-James City) at a summer science camp.
The bill sailed out of the House, but it was the subject of spirited debate in Richmond’s upper chamber. Sen. Richard Black (R-Loudoun), whose long resume includes snake handling, told the body that he is the only person in Virginia with a license to possess reptiles in Florida — something that he said requires 1,000 hours of up-close-and-personal time with poisonous reptiles. And his familiarity with snakes has bred contempt when it comes to garters.
“The garter snake is small. It’s ordinary in every respect,” Black said. “It’s a very fearful creature. When it’s confronted with danger, it immediately scrambles. ... The garter snake eats insects and worms. This is its diet.”
But that’s not the worst of it, according to Black.
“There’s a substance it excretes when it’s afraid, and it smells something like a cross between a soiled diaper and a skunk,” he said.
Black made a motion to amend the bill to bestow state-snake honors to the Timber Rattle Snake instead. He said that snake is “a very majestic creature” whose markings make it look “velvety.”
“It’s not fearful,” he said. “It’s very courageous. It doesn’t ask for trouble, but when trouble comes its way, it’s ready.”
Black, one of the legislature’s most conservative members, also said the rattler would be a natural companion to the state motto, “Sic semper tyrannis,” thus always to tyrants.
“It’s sort of assertive,” he said. “It’s not like, ‘Sic semper garter snake: You come after me, I run, I hide and I soil you a little bit.’ ”
Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) suggested that the rattle snake might telegraph a tea party message, as it does on Gadsden flags.
Sen. Thomas Garrett (R-Buckingham), a tea party favorite, said he shared Black’s dim view of the garter. He phoned Aiden as a courtesy to give him a heads up before his planned vote against his proposal.
But Garrett said the telephone call turned into a debate, and the boy “smoked me,” turning the senator over to his side. Aiden pointed out that West Virginia, which like Virginia has the cardinal for its state bird, already has the Timber Rattle Snake as its official snake.
“He said, ‘Senator, just how much like West Virginia do you want us to be?’ ” Garrett recalled.
In the end, 33 senators voted for the garter, with six opposed and one abstention.
Now the snake’s fate rests in the hands of McAuliffe, who once wrestled an alligator but has no known position on snakes.
“We’ll have to devote further thought to the snake thing,” said McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy.