Many snake species are known for their ability to "open wide", but for a six-foot western rat snake in Missouri, a mouth-gaping feat backfired recently when the reptile swallowed a doorknob.

Images: Wildlife Rescue Center/used with permission

We should start by clearing up that the wild snake didn't chomp the knob from a door (this isn't "home invasions of the slithering kind") – instead, it found the piece of hardware in a farmyard chicken coop, where it had been placed to act as a dummy egg. Such fake eggs can sometimes prompt new hens to lay, though in this case, the metal proxy didn't just fool the birds.

Native to southern Canada and the eastern United States, western or "black" rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletes) are apt climbers that hunt for bird eggs in the trees as well as rodents and amphibians down on the ground – so the type of wooded farmland where the doorknob incident played out makes for ideal habitat.

"The finders knew this wild snake lived around their home," explains Kim Rutledge, executive director of the Wildlife Rescue Center, who treated the rat snake. "They would occasionally 'employ' him to catch rodents in their coop. They had no idea that snakes eat eggs, and found him just as he was swallowing the doorknob."

The homeowners rushed the animal for treatment, but after the hour-long drive, the knob could only be removed surgically.

Image: Wildlife Rescue Center/used with permission
Image: Wildlife Resource Center/used with permission

Just like in humans, surgery has its risks for snake patients too. For starters, getting the anaesthesia right can be tricky, and complications from infection can be more dangerous than the procedure itself. Dr Christopher Moritz and the team at Creve Coeur Animal Hospital performed the removal – and while the surgery went smoothly, the snake had a lot of recovering to do.

"The trickiest part of recovery was getting him to eat," says Rutledge. "Wild animals are under a lot of stress in captivity and that stress can affect their appetite and behaviour. We had to give him small meals shortly after surgery so his surgical wounds would heal."

The WRC team gradually increased the size of the portions, offering up bits of frozen rodent until they could be certain their patient could stomach a regular-sized meal. After several months, the rat snake was ready for release. "It was touch and go for a little bit," acknowledges Rutledge. "It took many weeks but he got there eventually. Our volunteers, staff and everyone that helped with his rehabilitation were very relieved when that day came."

The reptile was welcomed back on its old turf, where the homeowners had prepared a newly snake-safe chicken coop. As for the doorknob? The WRC team were happy to hang onto it. 

A successfully closed wound. Image: Wildlife Rescue Center/used with permission
The snake, who came to be known as "Doorknob" (what else?) during his stay, was released back into the wild. Image: Wildlife Rescue Center/used with permission


Top header image: Wildlife Rescue Center