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INSIGHT: A rattling distress call

CHICAGO -- Dozens of snakes slumbering the winter away underneath abandoned railroad tracks faced a wake-up call that could have proved fatal. A construction crew was preparing to repair the tracks near the decommissioned Zion Nuclear Power Stati...

Curator Rob Carmichael
Curator Rob Carmichael holds a handful of eastern garter and brown snakes Jan. 24 at the Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest, Ill. About 225 hibernating snakes were found near the Zion Nuclear Power Plant. The Discovery Center will keep the snakes in a wine chiller set at 48 degrees until May. (Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

CHICAGO -- Dozens of snakes slumbering the winter away underneath abandoned railroad tracks faced a wake-up call that could have proved fatal.

A construction crew was preparing to repair the tracks near the decommissioned Zion Nuclear Power Station -- work that would have disrupted their hibernation and exposed them to the frigid cold of a winter's morning.

But thanks to two biologists and a schoolteacher with a warm spot for reptiles, nearly 200 garter, brown and western fox snakes have a new temporary home -- a 6-foot-tall wine chiller in Lake Forest. The snakes now occupy the dark cool spaces usually reserved for fine chardonnays and cabernets.

"The wine chiller acts as an artificial hibernating den," said Rob Carmichael, curator of the Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest. "It can be set right at the temperature snakes need to survive in winter -- about 48 degrees."

With snake populations declining in the Chicago area because of the loss of habitat and getting squashed on highways, an unusual effort was made to save them, said Carmichael. It involved cooperation by the company handling the former nuclear plant's dismantling, state and local wildlife officials, and some dedicated snake lovers.


Snakes' plight

Chris Kubic, a Grayslake North High School social studies teacher, and his wife, Jennifer, alerted Carmichael about the snakes' plight. Kubic spends spare time hunting for snakes at Illinois Beach State Park, which is adjacent to the power plant. He was aware of the railroad tracks and had it pegged as a likely snake hangout.

"The snakes tended to accumulate around the old railroad tracks and I figured there was a den there," Kubic said.

Then one day in late December he noticed construction vehicles near the tracks and worried the repair work set to begin would disrupt the snakes.

Kubic met with officials from EnergySolutions, the company hired to decommission the power plant. They agreed to help him save the snakes.

Rescue mission

On a windy, 15-degree day earlier this month, Kubik and Carmichael joined EnergySolutions contractors on a rescue mission. They also were helped by Michael Corn, biology professor emeritus at the College of Lake County.

One by one, with bare hands, they gathered as many snakes as they could. Among the first rescued was a brown snake, a species that requires undisturbed habitat. Most were garter snakes and brown snakes with a few western fox snakes -- none harmful to humans. Put in buckets, the snakes were placed next to a warming blanket inside a car.


"The railroad workers were just amazingly cooperative," Corn said. "They could have probably done their job in several hours but they spent the whole day with us saving as many snakes as we could."

The biologists also discovered a snake den underneath railroad ties filled with hundreds of empty snake eggs.

A good sign

Corn called it a good sign.

EnergySolutions environmental specialist Angela Rappa joined in the rescue. She said she learned a great deal about snakes by talking with the biologists.

"We never knew snakes would live under railroad tracks," she said. "I learned that snakes can smell their way home back to their den, even if they are a mile away."

Carmichael, who lives at the Wildlife Discovery Center, transferred the snakes to a dark place in his basement. And on Friday, he moved them to the wine chiller.

Carmichael placed the snakes in boxes filled with leaves and soil to simulate their wild hibernation dens, about 20 to a box.


Snakes are cold-blooded and instinctively know when it's time to hibernate and look for a place where the temperature will stay above freezing. They are now in a dormant state, where their respiration shuts down almost to nothing. They also lose a little bit of fat during hibernation. If left outside in the cold weather, they would freeze solid and die.

As spring approaches, Carmichael will nudge the temperature to 60 degrees to get the reptiles ready for release. As the soil temperature starts to warm, snakes in the wild sense when it's time to head back outside.

EnergySolutions gave some of the railroad ties to the biologists, who will fashion a new nest from them.

It will be placed close to the old nest, but within the boundaries of Illinois Beach State Park.

The hope is that the snakes will mate and have young and then find a new warm place to hunker down next winter.

Helping them survive is important, said Corn, because there isn't much habitat left in northeastern Illinois to support a large number of snakes other than the park and the power plant.

Snakes are an integral part of the biological world, Corn said. They serve as food for foxes and other mammals. In turn, they eat rodents.

"If not for snakes," Corn said, "we'd be up to our necks in mice."

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