Wednesday, August 17, 2016


"When is it okay to kill a person?"

I was helping to teach a concealed carry class. I'm not a certified instructor but as a successful graduate of the course and a CCW permit holder I'm a qualified range officer.

"When you're in fear of your life," came the rote response, a chorus in six-part harmony.

"Any other ideas?" I asked.

They came up with a good list. If you're helping a police officer in a gunfight. If you're protecting someone else. If you're a designated security officer for your church. If it's a terrorist attack. To stop looting. If it's war and you're a sojer.

They came up with quite a few more.

The list they came up with was a laundry list of legal and moral/ethical justifications for the taking of human life.

But that wasn't what I asked for.

Most of the four or five readers of this blog have served in the military, and are probably familiar with the phrase RTFQ.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Now you could argue that my question was a trick question. We were, after all, at a CCW class, where there is a proper emphasis on the legality of the use of justified force.

But if you're an American -- a real American rather than someone who happens to live here -- you have to believe in all those stupid old white-guy words from the Declaration of Independence. It's not optional. That's just the way it is, no matter how twaumatized and victimized the tee-vee says it should make you feel.

So what's the answer then? When is it okay to kill a person?

And that's not what the rest of this post is about. It's just food for thought.

A good time for thinking, IMO, as the rest of the nation prepares to appoint Clump (CLinton-trUMP) dictator.


I'm blessed to live in the wide open spaces of the Nebraska Panhandle, and I'm a lottery winner in the sense that I'm one of the relatively few Americans who own a substantial chunk of land.

I get to not only visit nature on a daily basis, but to control how humans tread the ground there. Our ranch exists pretty much unchanged from the way nature put it together, so it makes an excellent classroom for observing, learning and discovering nature's manifold wonders.

You don't have to be a rancher to experience and enjoy nature though. Nature is everywhere, even in the heart of burned out dee-troit. And quite often the interface between human and non-human nature is fascinating.

A lot of people seem to think that nature is supernatural and shot through with mysticism and magic. You can use those words as colorful adjectives when writing about or describing nature (as indeed I do from time to time), but there is nothing mystical or magical or supernatural about nature. Nature is natural.

But enough of that.

Yesterday was hot and muggy. I wasn't feeling all that great, a little creaky, a little weary. I had a lot of chores on my plate and a lot of little things needed adjusting or addressing or fixing.

As I was driving through the farmyard a familiar shape caught my eye.

Pituophis catenifer sayi. Bullsnake.

A big healthy one. Just a skosh more than four feet long. He was basking in the morning sun, soaking up warmth to rev up his ectothermic metabolism.

I grabbed my camera and snapped a couple of pics but he quickly slithered off into the kochia. I'd have liked to grab more images but nature seldom puts my desires first, so I tipped my hat to the snake and got on with the day.

In the evening, about 6:30, my brother showed up. He was passing through on a mission to relocate his son from summer employment to kollidge dorm and planned to borrow a pickup and trailer.

I saw him coming down the lane from the county road and walked out to greet the arrival, but for some reason he stopped his car. After a few moments his stepson Austin from Boston (That's a reference to Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H. The book, not the anti-American screed of a television show) stepped out of the car.

At about the same time I saw the reason my brother had stopped. There was a bullsnake crossing the road.

Bullsnakes are pretty snakes. They are long and proportionally slender, particularly when compared to rattlesnakes, which are short and fat. The ones I've seen are creamy yellow underneath and have big ovalish blotches down the back and sides. The blotches are black, olive, russet, and often have a splash of dusky red. Near the tail the blotches become circumferential bands of black, giving the last 6-8 inches a striped appearance. The tip of the tail is pointed and black and, of course, completely lacks rattles.

The bullsnake's head tapers to a smooth, blunt point, unlike the rattlesnake which has a triangular head that is thicker at the base than the diameter of the body. The bullsnake has eyes placed more on the side of the head than the rattlesnake, which has its eyes placed in a more forward location. This makes sense, if you think about it, because the rattlesnake has to make precision strikes and thus needs good near vision with excellent depth perception. The bullsnake has round pupils, while the rattlesnake has vertical slit pupils. The bullsnake also lacks the characteristic facial "pit" characteristic of pit vipers.

Superficially the bullsnake looks a little bit like a rattlesnake. The patterning is rather similar but only at first glance, and the coloring of the patterns is quite different. Other than similar patterns and the complete lack of legs, the two are quite different.

Bullsnakes are colubrids, which comprise the largest family of snakes. They are non-venomous. While they have teeth, sharp and angled to the rear to assist in swallowing prey, they do not have the hinged fangs of viperidae such as rattlesnakes. Rather than using venom to immobilize their prey, bullsnakes are powerful constrictors. They grab their prey and wrap themselves around it, squeezing until the prey suffocates.

When confronted with humans, bullsnakes behave very differently than rattlesnakes. Bullsnakes take an active -- seemingly aggressive -- defensive posture, rearing up, hissing loudly, and lunging in mock strikes if the human approaches too closely. The bullsnake will also hold its tail to the ground and vibrate it which can produce a sound similar to the rattle of a rattlesnake, particularly if the vibrating is done in dried grass or leaves. This exaggerated posturing appears to be an attempt to imitate the rattlesnake and fool potential threats into believing the bullsnake is more dangerous than it is. It's a good tactic.

In contrast the rattlesnake generally raises it's tail in warning, and rattles it if it senses a threat. The rattlesnake will coil and raise its forward third into an "s" shape as it prepares to strike, and this is a posture that the bullsnake often imitates.

Austin and brother Matt were both quite pleased to see the snake. As Austin watched me fish out my camera and take pictures, the big snake slithered directly toward me. As he approached, he reared his head and hissed, and all the wile he was vibrating his tail madly. Even though the intellectual part of my brain understood, expected, and was prepared for the snake's behavior, the primitive part of my brain experienced a real chill of fear.

After demonstrating his aggressiveness, the snake seemed to calm down a bit and seemed to relax as we moved a bit closer to take pictures. He kept a close eye on us but seemed to be comfortable coiled in the short, freshly mowed kochia. Mom joined us, and though she generally dislikes snakes, opined that it's nice to have a bullsnake around to keep the mice in check. She thought he was a pretty snake too. For a snake, anyway.

"This is the first snake I've ever seen," said Austin. "Well, besides a dead one."

I thought about that, and about how blessed we are to live surrounded by plain nature rather than the artificiality of human building.

We strolled over to the garden and admired healthy vegetables, along with a thriving crop of healthy "weeds." I kept an eye on the snake and after a few minutes he slithered across the farmyard, heading toward the area where I'd seen a bullsnake in the morning. Most likely it was the same snake, as both bullsnakes and rattlesnakes are rather territorial.

The territoriality of such snakes is interesting, for when winter approaches and cold weather sets in, they will all den up together until spring. Bullsnakes, rattlesnakes, gartersnakes and others.

When they den up, they'll be joined by their offspring, the young snakes which came into being this season. Rattlesnakes bear live young in June and July, while bullsnakes lay eggs which hatch in July and August.

As the sun began to sink in the west and the air temperature began to fall I felt a warm sense of satisfaction and happiness. It was a good day.


  1. It's never "okay" to kill someone. Sometimes it's necessary, sometimes its justified. But it's never "okay." Just my two cents.

    Great snake story. I had no idea that bull snakes mimicked rattlesnake behavior. Very nice adaptation. Nature is brilliant. By design.

    1. I just get the feeling that not many people actually believe, let alone have thought about, the first principle.

      Nature's amazing. But wtf was she thinking when she overclocked our processors?

  2. A right nice post.

    Paul L. Quandt