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Living with West End Wildlife

I LIVE in the West End of Saint Paul. According to our neighborhood Facebook page, “West Seventh Is Where the Cool Kids Hang Out,” so this makes me a “Cool Kid.” When Cool Kids aren’t arguing over who has the best pizza or commiserating over their disdain for the band Nickelback, they often post about local wildlife. We have raccoons that spy on you from the sewer grates as you walk past, their eyes reflecting red in the dark like little gutter gremlins. There are turkeys that roost on parked cars. Kevin, the ubiquitous albino squirrel, is everyone’s favorite. Like Santa, there is only one Kevin. One April Fools’ Day, someone posted a photoshopped image of what appeared to be a dead white squirrel on West Seventh Street. Distraught Cool Kids weighed in on the thread causing the poster to repeatedly explain, “It was just a joke!” But the most talked about wildlife in the West End is without a doubt, the garter snakes.

There is a diagonal line that runs through the neighborhood. On one side, folks who have lived here all their lives have never seen a snake. On the other side, well, we’re crawling with them.

They say it has to do with the geology of the area and our close proximity to the Mississippi River. It’s been suggested that a West End flag be created with a garter snake on it. A friend in real estate told me potential home buyers will ask on which side of the snake line a property is located.

We installed a small water feature in our backyard and as the saying goes, “Build it and they will come.” The snakes are in heaven. They sun themselves on the rocks and hold well-attended spring procreation parties. When they want to cool off, they go for a dip in the cement pond, happily swimming in circles and floating on the lily pads. The snakes are a benefit in that they eat insects and rodents. My husband grew up in Iowa chasing all manner of creatures around rivers and creeks. He loves the snakes. I get that. But I grew up in the South around the venomous variety and so it’s taken some getting used to. Whenever I see one, I let out a short, involuntary shriek. Sometimes this is followed by the sound of my neighbors on the other side of the fence laughing.

One hot summer day, my husband and I were walking from the house to the garage when a snake shot across the path in front of me. I shrieked, no surprise there, but then my legs took off running without my permission. Our yard is very small and so to keep from running into the fence, I turned and ran back where I came from, where there is also a fence. I continued to run back and forth, shrieking, with zero control over my legs and going nowhere. My husband, who is old enough to collect Social Security, became a ten-year-old boy. He ran to catch the snake before it could dive into the water feature. Just as he grabbed the snake’s tail, he slipped on some loose gravel causing him to throw the snake high into the air. I was still running back and forth, but now between shrieks I screamed at him, “Ahhh! What are you doing? Ahhh!”

I looked up to see the snake flying through the air in a graceful, slow-motion dance against blue sky filled with puffy white clouds. It sailed over the fence and into the neighbor’s backyard. My feet stopped running. My shrieking stopped. My heart was pounding. My husband and I stared at each other in silence and then started to giggle. That’s about the time the neighbors started screaming.

Story: DEANNE L. PARKS is a painter, sculptor, writer, and speaker who builds the occasional giant puppet. Her work is published and collected internationally. She resides in Saint Paul’s West End with her husband, their dog, and a ridiculous number of garter snakes.


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