How the city’s reptiles went from native species to urban legend

This story is part of Grist’s Summer Dreams arts and culture series, a weeklong exploration of how popular fiction can influence our environmental reality.

People thought the snake seen in the park was a black mamba. Who knows how a reptile that normally inhabits sub-Saharan Africa might have made its way to the east end of Pittsburgh – or why it would want to do this particular trek – but there it was, wrapped around a beech tree in the middle from Frick Park in April.

Of course, everyone in the neighborhood has lost their minds. A very poisonous snake where people jog and walk their unsuspecting Labradors and burrows? Call the police if you see this thing, people posted on Facebook, and sure enough, someone did. A local news station sent a helicopter. (“It’s not a garden snake – look at this thing!” Says an incredulous presenter.) The Public Security Department has issued a citywide alert.

But those most familiar with the ecosystem, those who knew their non-human neighbors, were dismayed. The police? Why? This thing was a rat snake. A big one, but sometimes they get that big too – six, seven, even eight feet long! Originally from the eastern United States, a resident of the Appalachians long before the first indigenous peoples set foot on the land, before the cornerstone of Fort Pitt was erected or the first coal stone ever made from the ground. Neither poisonous, nor dangerous, and certainly not out of place.

“They are very docile and fragile animals,” said Chris Urban, head of natural diversity at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “I hope someone in the police force knew what it was, that it was not dangerous and so on. I don’t even know what the fate of the snake was, but I tried to quickly allay those fears, that it was only an Eastern rat snake and that it was not a pest.

According to Stephen Durbin, a biologist at the Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh, a naturalist who lived on the border of the park actually recognized the individual snake in the Facebook police bait post. “Pete said to me, ‘I’ve seen this snake in that tree many times over the years, and it would be a shame if anything happened to him because someone thought he was where he shouldn’t. not be, that he did not belong to his house, ”said Durbin.

City kids grow up with the idea that urban reptiles are weird, one way or another. My particular generation, for example, had the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a bunch of turtles transformed by a “mutagen,” an alien substance, and all of their monstrous friends and foes: Mondo Gecko, a skateboarder lizard; the Punk Frogs, which are exactly what they sound like; and Leatherhead, the sewer alligator, which interests me the most.

He is a real tragic character, Leatherhead, misunderstood by humans and turtles. Escaped from a pet store, then transformed by aliens into a towering, hyper-resilient mutant with an uncontrollable rabies issue. When an accident separates him from the aliens – whom he considers his family – he retreats to the safety of the sewers. There is no rest for the weary Leatherhead, however, as he is pursued by a big game hunter hungry for his skin. This is how he ends up associating with the Turtles, who show him how to build a calm and safe home in the sewers, which he wanted from the start.

The legend of alligators in the sewers of northern towns dates back to around a century. A plausible origin story is that townspeople in the early 1900s ordered baby alligators by mail or brought them back as souvenirs from trips to Florida and the Gulf region, then flushed them out or let go when they started to grow tall and outgrow. small and manageable size. Over the years, very few alligators have been found in local sewage systems or watersheds, but the force of the imagery has kept the story alive. An example in Westchester County in New York in 1932, as described by Gizmodo, involved children running to the police to let them know the local river was teeming with crocodiles. “The body they brought was a crocodile, but it had escaped from a local man’s garden, ”writes Esther Inglis-Arkell of Gizmodo. “It turned out that the wild crocodiles that choked the rivers were snakes and lizards mixed with children’s imaginations.

It’s pretty exciting, after all, to think of a huge beast lurking a few feet under the sidewalk you’re walking on, or floating just below the surface of a city stream. There are an entire website devoted to the mythology of the sewer alligators (whose founder, unfortunately, refused an interview).

“There is a curious relationship between urban legend and truth: an implication when it is said that a legend somehow reflects a fact, however extraordinary the elements of the legend may be. ” writes folklorist Bonnie Taylor-Blake. The point is, we share even the most artificial of habitats with all kinds of wildlife, but they’re not exotic. They’ve been there from the start.


I first saw the snake years before the police chase – on Instagram – and couldn’t believe it. My friend Pat had taken a picture of it, a massive, oily black, hanging from a tree as he walked his dog on one of the trails in Frick Park. It took a moment, especially on a small screen, to distinguish the snake from the winter-bare branch it was resting on, being roughly the same color.

Pat and I were both born and raised in the Point Breeze neighborhood, spent our childhoods playing under the canopy of this park and our teens drinking below, and the idea that we could have shared this seemingly safe space. with a real live snake longer than my whole body and as thick as my thigh was beyond my ability to comprehend.

Frick Park is a wild place. It’s not a Central or a Millennium or a Golden Gate. It’s a forest in the middle of town, lined with old steel baron mansions and quiet residential streets. It’s packed with the type of wild animals you would see in a Hudson School painting, chipmunks, groundhogs, deer, and hawks, sometimes with black or brown bears walking through. This snake looked like it escaped from all of Anaconda, like an Amazon predator lost in the Appalachians.

beautiful big trees in yellow, red and orange tower on a cycle path with a rider on it
A cyclist on a trail in Frick Park on a sunny fall day in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Althom / Getty Images

I had to see it for myself. This snake has become my personal Moby Dick. I found more evidence on Instagram: A photo a mountain biker took when an identical-looking snake slipped down the dirt road in front of him. I wandered the park looking for it and brought in old friends, boyfriends, and my parents to help me in my quest. In four years, I was never successful and I didn’t hear about the snake from anyone else until I saw it on the local news earlier this year.

But snakes are by nature elusive and good at going about their business undetected by humans. David Steen, ecologist and head of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, built an important Twitter account responding to thousands of requests for snake identification and other information about them. One of the most common questions he receives, which is covered in his book Snake secrets, is “Why is this a bad year for snakes?” ”

“Usually when people ask this they see a lot of snakes,” he told me over the phone. “For me, a bad year is a year where I see few.” But the increase in snake sightings doesn’t mean there are more of them in the area than before. It could just mean that people are more aware of their presence, so they seek them out and report their sightings.

People are generally afraid of snakes, and this fear often leads us to harm them – to the point that we will deviate from the road and run into them with our cars if we see them rolled up by the asphalt, as shown in the picture. experiments with rubber serpentine decoys. This fear is linked to a mythology, perpetuated through the generations, that snakes carry a certain ill will, a desire to attack humans.

“I like to remind people that snakes are just little animals,” Steen says. “They have nothing to gain from fighting with you. They just want to go about their business. And I hope people can understand that even in these relatively urban areas you have wildlife by your side, and I think that’s pretty special.

Beyond open attacks, one of the biggest threats humans pose to snakes is habitat loss. A new development, with its brush clearing and construction, will repel all the snakes that live on these lands to more forested areas nearby. (And if they find themselves on a road looking for shelter from certain trees and shrubs, God help them.) But often these more overgrown sheltered areas are home to humans and their unfounded fears.

A large, healthy rat snake, like the one seen in Frick Park, is a sign of a thriving ecosystem – a term that certainly hasn’t always been applied to historically polluted Pittsburgh. This means the trees are blooming and mice, chipmunks and rabbits make their homes in their hollows.

He is not a mutant or a monster. He has no ill will towards you or me. It’s just trying to make a house where he won’t be disturbed. This region has been so inhospitable to so many different lifestyles for so long that we don’t even recognize our own neighbors – we think they are invaders, come to wreak havoc on our civilized homes.

I hope the snake will show itself to me someday, when I walk under the trees of Frick Park, but I’ll understand if it doesn’t. He has every reason to fear me.


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