The snake, dark brown and sometimes burgundy, kills with its tail. It rises up into a hoop, its tail in its mouth, and spins forward after its prey. When it strikes, the spike at the end of its tail juts like a lance, the venom within so deadly that if it misses its prey and strikes a tree, the bark will swell, burst and peel.
Some of the earliest accounts of the American hoop snake are from 1688, according to a 1925 report in Natural History Magazine. Southerners swear they’ve seen the serpent, but scientists say it lives only in legend.
In New Mexico, this mythic snake is associated with the western coachwhip, also called the red racer. The snake is not poisonous, and it does not curl into a hoop. But it is meaner, faster and bigger than most snakes, says Mark Davis, a local snake catcher.
The red racer and other snakes began crawling around in late April. Residents around Santa Fe County have been spotting them, and one man even had to chase a snake out of his home. Experts say there will likely be more snakes throughout New Mexico this summer and early fall because of the tremendous amounts of rain the state received last summer. The rain allowed plants to grow tall, and those plants fed hungry rodents, helping their populations surge. Now, experts say, snakes — next on the food chain — are likely to follow the trend.
Davis said when a red racer is cornered, it will bite. When it crosses a road, it’s a blur. Sometimes, he said, it will grow longer than a human is tall.
“I saw a 4-foot red racer yesterday and about a 4 1/2-foot bull snake the day before,” he said. “It’s starting.”
Madeleine Carey runs every day in Santa Fe. Often, she runs on trails. The 24-year-old, who’s trained in biology, says she’s already seeing more snakes this spring.
“And they’re big,” she said.
Rattlesnakes are one of only two poisonous snakes in New Mexico, but they’re reclusive. The New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center has recorded 18 bites from rattlers this year, and the center’s doctor, Steven Seifert, said that’s likely on track with previous years. The center recorded 83 rattlesnake bites in 2015 and 74 in 2014.
Coral snakes are the only other venomous snakes in the state, and they’re only found in the southwest corner of New Mexico. And while their poison is extremely deadly, coral snakes are often too small to inject their venom in humans, experts say.
Still, Seifert urges people to be cautious around all snakes.
Residents ought to patch holes in their homes to prevent snakes from entering, the Poison and Drug Information Center says, and they shouldn’t try to capture snakes or reach into areas obscured from sight where a snake might be hiding.
But Davis, the snake catcher, said Santa Feans are unlikely to run into a rattlesnake. Most people have probably walked past one without noticing it, he said.
If they leave a snake alone, he said, the snake will leave them alone.
Many people hold false beliefs about snakes, said Patrick Maher. Take, for instance, the legend of the hoop snake, he said. “It’s complete nonsense, but I’ve talked to people who swear they’ve seen them.”
Maher, 57, was the president of the New Mexico Herpetological Society until he moved recently to Tucson, Ariz., where more reptiles live. In addition to teaching and social work, he is a “wannabe biologist.”
Snakes actually save more lives than they take, he said. They kill rodents, which in New Mexico can spread hantavirus and bubonic plague. In fact, he said, two of them are coiled around the caduceus, which throughout the developed world is the common symbol for medicine.
“Isn’t that cool?” Maher said.
In many cultures, snakes are symbols of health and rebirth, Maher said, not fear.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at 505-428-7626 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NMDanSchwartz.