July 2008

The Care and Feeding of Lowcountry Wildlife

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: Dana Rose

Helpful hints about how to handle wild alligators, wild raccoons, wild snakes, and wild older gentlemen in a bar full of 20-somethings: The operative word here is “wild.”

Those of us who have lived in the Lowcountry for several decades (or were born here), sometimes forget that newbies to the island don’t know the difference between a King snake (good) and a Coral Snake (bad), let alone what to do if a glazed-eyed deer starts running alongside your car (slow down, they are suicidal) early one morning on Cordillo Parkway. Our Hilton Head Island founding fathers (and mothers) had the right intentions about preserving the environment and ecology of the Lowcountry. Few have done it better. But with every “right intention” there is always, it seems, an “unintended consequence.”

Take alligators. When it comes to astrophysics, membership in MENSA or understanding DNA structures, alligators are as dumb as a box of rocks. But when it comes to toy poodles wandering near our lagoons with their intolerable yapping, alligators are sharp, cunning (possibly useful) and scary. When the lagoon systems around Hilton Head were created, they became an ideal habitat for our leathery neighbors. There may now be more alligators on Hilton Head Island than in pre-development days.

Care and feeding? NEVER EVER feed a ’gator. It will think you’re a food source. And take care if you hear a loud hissing noise. You’re in the vicinity of an alligator having a bad hair day.

It was a revolutionary (at the time) concept by Sea Pines founder, Charles Fraser: man and nature could live side by side. And the concept would sell real estate. What Fraser did not put into his equation was the naiveté on the human side. For example, Rocky Raccoon is susceptible to rabies. For those who don’t know, rabies is a viral disease that causes acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and death. Yuck.

The “unintended consequence” of living with nature is that nature, in the form of Rocky (and his rabies) can crawl right up into your backyard. A few months ago, a cute, cuddly baby raccoon was “adopted” by well-meaning folks on Hilton Head. What with all the cuddling and kissing (!?), thirty plus people and their pets were exposed to Rocky. Something like $43,000 later (the cost, DHEC figures, for all the testing required for both people and pets), everything seems to be fine. (Except for Rocky—he had seizures and was euthanized. He tested positive for rabies.)

Care and feeding? Don’t.

Blame it on the Book of Genesis (3:1). Snakes always seem to get the shaft. Take a look: “snake in the grass,” “snake oil,” “Snakes on a Plane.” That first Indiana Jones flick didn’t help much either (remember the snake pit?). Here in the Lowcountry, it seems that when a snake is spotted, the next thing someone says is, “GET A SHOVEL!” (A shovel seems to be the weapon of choice to “euthanize” snakes.)

Virtually all snakes in the Lowcountry are rather shy and, while we do have venomous types (copperhead, water moccasin, diamond back rattler, coral), getting up close and personal with one is rare (and that usually makes the newspaper). Also, they are essential to our ecosystem. For example, many of our snakes love rodents—nature’s way of controlling the mouse and rat population. Better yet, the common king snake (harmless) eats other snakes, even the pit vipers mentioned above.

Snakes are as much a part of our fauna as our alligators. You just don’t see them mentioned in real estate ads. The “unintended consequence” is that our much-touted “lush vegetation” makes a perfect home for a nice little family of reptiles. Oh yes, the Beaufort County Animal Control number is 785-6100, just in case.

Care and feeding? “Let ’em live” and they’ll find their own food.

Possibly the most curious forms of island wildlife are older gentlemen who hang out at local drinking establishments where the usual patrons are 20-somethings. This is the “unintended consequence” of deciding, along extraordinary environmental sensitivity, to put in a few golf courses on Hilton Head. Possibly because Mr. Fraser was not a golfer, he did not realize that like lagoons attract alligators, golf courses attract golfers. And while the vast majority of these golfers are rather shy, non-venomous, and seldom rabid, a few continue to give snakes a bad name.

The 50-plus “married-with-children” golfer to look out for is “perched” on a barstool, usually alone. He (it is always a he) is wearing what local ecologists refer to as a “golf shirt.” Shirt colors vary, though puce, lime green and bright yellow seem to be favored. He feeds on bar snacks and Jack Daniels, mumbles such things as “lipping out” or “duck hook.” The most often heard expression is “on in regulation, then I three-putt.”

While the “golfer” is a relatively harmless form of island wildlife, when his interest in “picking up” (also a golf term) one of the local fauna gets out of hand (i.e., after the fourth Jack Daniels and unwelcome pawing), most locals know what to do. The keyword is “hair,” as in, “My goodness (the epithet is usually much stronger), you’ve got more hair growing out of your nose and ears than on the top of your head, you old …” Or words to that effect. That is usually the “off switch” for the overly amorous “golfer.”

Care and feeding? Make sure the snack bowl at the bar is always full and, when he falls off his perch, call a cab. Hilton Head Islanders, old and new, are known for their humane treatment of wildlife.

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