Pennsylvania’s dreaded hoop snake

In the late 1960s my parents still owned a large amount of property, in fact they owned over 350 acres and milked approximately 75 cows per day. One summer day I came across something that I will never forget, in fact, almost 40 years later, the incident is still strong in my mind.

One lazy August afternoon I was in a field with my dad, watching him work on the PTO shaft of a tractor, when suddenly my dad yelled at me to come to him. He made me get on the tractor and listen to something. Listen to that hiss he said, listen … I’m sure I soon heard what sounded like a wolf’s call, like when teenagers see a pretty girl go by, they whistle at them, Will, this sounded like that. The noise seemed to be coming from the top of the field, which was a fairly steep hill. Dad, he said, they do it a couple of times to try to lure people out into the open, or to get close to them, before they attack.

What is it? I asked dad, a hoop snake, he answered. I have seen them twice in all my years here on the farm. Growing up to 5 feet long and thicker than a normal snake, they crawl to the top of the fields and stand there silently staring at farm animals or even humans roaming the fields below them. Once they detect a target, they will initiate a series of hisses that can mimic humans, often causing the target to zoom in on the snake to investigate the source of the hiss.

The snake will then tense its muscles and bend into a circle or hoop, and roll downhill using its body and gravity to propel itself toward its intended target. When the snake is close to the target, it jumps up and pushes its tail towards the victim, at the end of the snake’s tail there is a very sharp hook or barb that can pierce a piece of wood. Inside this barb is a strong venom, even stronger than a diamondback rattlesnake.

Dad and I made a list and clearly heard 4 different hisses coming from the field above, soon we could see a snake that was coming rolling across the field in our direction. Dad started the tractor and waited a bit for the snake to get closer, as he approached us Dad moved the tractor forward just as the snake passed and lunged in our direction. It missed both of us, but the spike on its tail had driven deep into one of the tractor’s large tires, punching a hole in it, allowing air to escape. Dad was quite upset because the tires were very expensive and often difficult to patch, so he got off the tractor and killed the snake with a stone, while it was attached to the tire. He took out his pocket knife and cut the spike for me to see. It resembled a backbone that I had seen before in bull heads and catfish.

I have never seen a hoop snake after this incident, but to this day some people in this area still mention them. I think they are now very rare and rarely seen. Like the little green grass snakes that live here, my brother and I saw a year ago, but never again. Some people say rim snakes don’t exist, well they’re wrong, I saw one firsthand and I still have the spike that was embedded in the tractor tire in the summer of 1969.

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