A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why don't snakes die right away after I cut them in half?

September 1, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

My back yard is home to some black-striped garter snakes. I know the things are relatively harmless, but they scare the bejeezus out of my wife anyway. Accordingly, being a loyal husband, I run them over with the lawnmower whenever I happen to see one. I would have thought that a guillotine would kill any animal in a fairly swift and efficient manner. However, not so with these suckers. After I chop the thing in half, the head lives on for ten or fifteen minutes. During this time, it writhes and tries to slither, without much success. Consequently, I feel like some kind of a sadist.

My questions are:

    1. Why does the snake live for so long after you cut off its head?

    2. Does the snake feel pain during this slow death?

    3. Is there a more humane way to get rid of these things?

Let's take this line by line.

"I know the things are relatively harmless"

Make that "completely harmless".

"but they scare the bejeezus out of my wife anyway. Accordingly, being a loyal husband, I run them over with the lawnmower whenever I happen to see one."

You're not likely to encounter much support for your approach from anyone who does not share your wife's phobia. Those garter snakes are probably eating many insect pests in your garden, so objectively you're better off having them around, whatever your wife's opinion may be.

"After I chop the thing in half, the head lives on for ten or fifteen minutes. Consequently, I feel like some kind of a sadist."

As you should. It is sadistic to inflict that kind of suffering, especially to a harmless, beneficial animal. I doubt you'd continue to do it if snakes had vocal cords and could scream.

"My questions are:

"1. Why does the snake live for so long after you cut off its head?"

Because it takes a snake a very long time to bleed to death--cold-blooded critters don't pump blood around as fast as mammals do.

"2. Does the snake feel pain during this slow death?"

Yes, there's no doubt that it does.

"3. Is there a more humane way to get rid of these things?"

You have a pair of those heavy-duty gardening gloves? Pick up the snake without crushing it, put it in a brown paper bag, and take it somewhere and release it. Simple. Sure, it's more effort, but the humane thing is not to kill them at all.

You ASKED.

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