Tag Archive | animals

Little Garter Man: a tale of Thanksgiving

For many of us, Thanksgiving and other “family holidays” are days just like any other (granted, with a slightly higher chance of having to reach for an antidepressant or a stiff drink), and the less said about that the better.

My friend J., another “Holiday Refugee,” put it most eloquently this morning in her email to me: “If my sister puts up some [Facebook] post about being thankful for her wonderful family, I’ll have to puke.”

baby garter

Little Garter Man in the collecting box.

Anyway, I woke up this morning with no agenda other than getting through the day, getting a bit of work done, and maybe watching The Hobbit again tonight.

And then I got The Text that Changed the Day: my downstairs neighbour, K, had been doing a load of laundry and found a baby snake in the laundry room.

It was too fast for her to catch, or even to see what kind it was, so I gathered my tools (flashlight, stick, collecting box) and headed down to meet her for a second try at rounding up the critter.

She was already there when I opened the door, and wordlessly pointed to a tiny little streak of darkness (maybe 5 inches long, as thick as a well-cooked spaghetti, if that), huddled miserably by the wall under the window.  We crouched carefully on either side of him, ready to nab him, and within seconds I had him safely in my collecting box (which sounds very fancy, but is really just a large Tupperware container with holes poked in the lid).

Finally relaxed enough to explore a bit. “Hey cool! I have a pool!”

Finally relaxed enough to explore a bit. “Hey cool! I have a pool!”

My plan was to make a little home for him (aspen shavings, like my ball python Boyd has, plus a hiding box and a dish of water) and put him somewhere quiet while I called Reptilia (reptile zoo/emporium north of Toronto) to find out what species he was and figure out what to do with him.  We passed a neighbour out in the hall who took a look (and a whiff) and said it was likely a garter snake; they are notoriously stinky when distressed, and this guy, while cute, reeked to high heaven.

Back in my place, I made up a “hotel room” and got my guest settled. Comically, his guest spot was on top of Boyd’s cage — it’s dark and warm and quiet there. Boyd had no idea he had a guest in the penthouse suite. (Many of my friends asked if I’d introduce them, but no: it likely would have been a quick introduction, followed by lunch. Not something I wanted to facilitate!)

I left a message for the Reptilia staff and Googled “baby garter snake,” just to see. Yup, bingo.

“You know that this is for the best, right?” *sniffle*

“You know that this is for the best, right?” *sniffle*

I did a bit of work and had lunch, leaving Little Garter Man well alone to settle down after his stressful morning. After a while, he “unfroze” and began exploring his new digs. First stop was the little water dish, where he had an enormous drink of water. Then he spent a happy couple of hours climbing all over his hide box, stretching out along the edge of the water dish (many snakes love to “soak”), and just trying to figure out how the heck to escape, most likely.

I called Reptilia back and, having ascertained that it was, indeed, a garter, asked whether it would be OK to release him into the wild this late in the season, as he was clearly just a baby. The man on the phone said that would be perfectly fine; many baby garters are born at this time of year and go on to hibernate through to spring.

I confess, it was tempting to keep Little Garter Man. One does get attached. But I already have one snake (the lovely Boyd), and another snake means more expense and more room given over to cages and housing. And, most importantly, garters are native to Ontario (where I live) and are wild animals (whereas Boyd was captive-bred and so knows no other life than one in an enclosure). It would have been wrong to keep him in a cage, plain and simple.

Ready for deployment.

Ready for deployment.

So I knew what I had to do. With a surprisingly heavy heart, I got out a smaller Tupperware, poked a few holes in the lid, and brought Little Garter Man’s bigger box out to the kitchen. I opened the lid and we had a little chat about what was best. He agreed. I transferred him into the carrying box, affixed the lid, and we set out for the valley.

There were a surprising number of people about, and all of them looked at the tiny box I was carrying; I suppose some of them must have thought I was burying a tiny pet or something.

It was a warm, sunny day, so I had no qualms about finding a nice place to release him. I had just the place in mind: a rocky, wooded area close to the river, with lots of stones and leaves and underbrush where garters love to hide.

I chose my spot, set the carrying box down on the leaves, and got out my camera. Then I opened the lid. Little Garter Man immediately poked his head over the edge, and then hung there for quite a while, sniffing the air and having a look-see. After a time, he scooted down and zoomed into the leaves. Garters move amazingly fast; Boyd, on the other hand, is quite leisurely when he travels.

Little Garter Man in the collecting box.

“OMG! The world is so big!”

And then something interesting happened. Little Garter Man stopped and turned right around, rested his little wee head on a stick, and seemed to look at me for a very long time. I leaned in close with the camera and he wasn’t fazed at all. He flicked his tongue at me a few times, and then he turned again and was gone.

I confess I cried when I said goodbye. I have a very, very soft spot for animals (as you may have noticed…), and I really hope this little guy will be OK.

And so ends the tale of Little Garter Man, who, all unknowing, helped turn this Thanksgiving day from “meh” into something much nicer — tears and all.

If you need me, I’ll be over here hugging my cat and cuddling Boyd (yes, he cuddles). And maybe having that stiff drink after all.


Goodbye, my friend.

Goodbye, my friend.

Larger photo gallery, if you’re interested.


“Autistic aloneness”

My horoscope for July 10 says “Your no-nonsense approach will cut through all the emotional garbage that others are trying to lay on you. You don’t care about feelings, you care about facts; and if the facts say “so long” you’ll happily cut the ties that bind.”

Some people would say that describes me to a T (whatever that means…what is this T thing? A T-square?) and to a certain point that is true. I don’t like drama (which is what people typically call big displays of emotion or neediness), and I am very uncomfortable when people become needy with me and seem to want me to be their Mom or their wise big sister or whatever. I think people mistake my aloofness for wisdom sometimes, or my sense of humour and affable “office face” for “warm fuzzy person,”  usually with disastrous results.

People also ask me why I don’t date. I am what the autistic community calls “high-functioning,” meaning that I have crafted a pretty decent “exterior” for myself, my “persona” if you will. So, besides being able to function reasonably well at my job, to many people I also look like a good catch romantically. I’m funny, I can be friendly, I don’t look like a troll (much) and I’m smart.

The truth is, though, that although I make a good first impression, I can’t actually sustain the illusion much longer than that. The conundrum, of course, is that I do tend to crave more than an arm’s-length superficial relationship with other humans (to know/understand someone else, and to be known/understood), but I can’t do it. For me at least, I think that’s the crux of the “autistic aloneness” that researcher Leo Kanner described when he first coined the term “autism” back in the 1940s.

Aspergians are prey animals.

Temple Grandin describes this push-pull/approach-avoid feeling very well in her autobiography, Emergence: Labelled Autistic. As a child she craved human touch, but simply could not stand the “engulfing” feeling that body contact produced. As a small kid she would get under the sofa cushions & have family members sit on them, and the squishing feeling gave her a feeling of calm and connectedness. Later she built her famous “squeeze machine,” modelled after a cattle chute on her aunt’s ranch, and she still uses a modern version of that today to calm herself.

(I have never tried this because I don’t think I’d like that much weight on me, or the feeling of being confined. Like most people on the autism spectrum — and like the prey animals Grandin compares us to — I loathe “light” or sudden touch and am more comfortable with a heavier touch, if anything at all, but I think the squeeze machine would bother me. I calm myself with exercise, routine, or by being around animals and nature.)

Like many autistic people, Temple Grandin has decided to be celibate, an arrangement that works for her. Other people with autism and Asperger’s manage to date and have relationships. John and Chris, whom my friend “Dr. Smiter” wrote about in another article on this site, both date. Daniel Tammet is in a relationship and John Elder Robison is married with a son.

I have tried dating, and been in some relationships. But they always end, and they usually end the same way – misunderstandings, fights, cold silences or screaming matches, bad feelings and resentment all round.

Fully functional.

Someone asked me not that long ago (really, the things people ask) whether the problem was sex, whether I can “do” sex. Well, in the words of  Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, “I have been programmed with multiple techniques and am fully functional.” So, no, that is not the problem.

(And obviously if I knew what “the problem” was, I’d be a very rich person, and probably would not have Asperger’s. )

I guess it comes back to that push-pull/approach-avoid. When I experience an “attraction” to someone, whether it’s a crush or simply a desire to be friends, it is usually on the basis of some sort of shared interest. I won’t say that I’m indifferent to looks or how a person carries themselves — I can appreciate a nicely sculpted body as much as the next person, and people who don’t know how to behave in public make me cringe. But mostly I like the idea of having someone to do things with: hiking, biking, collecting things, playing board games, watching TV or movies, interacting with animals.

And, somewhat surprisingly, I actually like having another person to sleep with at night. Probably the same way that wolves & puppies like to “den up” and cuddle next to each other. Maybe the darkness makes others less threatening. Who knows.

Unfortunately, in my experience, these things always blow up in my face once the dynamics turn to serious romance: once things move to a “deeper” level, with a lot of give-and-take expected, then misunderstandings and thwarted expectations rear their ugly little heads, and pretty soon the whole thing is wrecked.

I HATE this game.

To me it feels like the person has asked me to play Monopoly: I love board games, but Monopoly is a game I happen to hate — it makes me nervous and irritable, and I end up angrily walking away from the table. It’s almost like things are better as an anticipation for me, a romantic dream or a what-if, rather than trying to negotiate my way through the (for me) pointless minefield of human interaction. I just can’t do it.

Sometimes I wonder if people see me as the Snow Queen or something. I seem to intrigue others (and a couple of people have confirmed this), but I don’t — can’t — let them in over the “drawbridge,” beyond a certain point, that point being simple friendship. I don’t do this on purpose, obviously, or with the intention of hurting people; I am not a mean person, although some thwarted suitors and friends certainly have described me as a bitch, unfortunately.

I think it stems more from the “prey animal”-esque need to protect myself — Temple Grandin argues that all people with autism are prey animals, programmed to flee, because of the way our brains are wired, and I tend to agree. I used to get this feeling when I was in high school and someone would invite me to a dance: I would want to go, want to be part of the fun, but I can’t dance and crowds and noise frightened me, so I would make an excuse and not go, and then feel lonely and kind of stupid all night.

From what I understand, people without Asperger’s and autism also feel these sorts of things. A lot of people nod their heads when I talk about such things and I think partly this is because they can relate to (empathize with) similar experiences in their own lives.

But for me this is almost the definition of Asperger’s: I am a prey animal at heart, and more than anything, I need to keep other humans at arm’s length, where I can see what they’re up to.

That’s all for now.