At the end of the day during aftercare, someone came running, shouting my name with such urgency that I was sure a child must be hurt. Instead, it was “Snake! Eating something!” I followed him to the pine woods where a ring of kids had formed. In the middle, writhing slowly among the leaf litter, a garter snake gripped the posterior end of a large toad. The snake’s mouth was already distended, as if it had been working on consuming this meal for some time, yet the toad moved only slightly, holding three of its legs (the fourth wasn’t visible) firmly planted as it faced forward with an incongruously placid expression. There was blood, and what might have been intestines leaking from a wound in the toad’s belly.
I braced myself for the kids’ reactions; this is about as grisly as it gets, and there was something so pathetic in the toad’s utter calm, its bright eyes, its living consumption. But there were no squeals or gasps of horror, no begging to help the toad or to force the snake to let go. There were questions: “Is it using venom to kill it?” “How long do you think it will take to swallow it?” “Is that the same toad that we found last week?” “Could it hurt us?” I wondered at the kids’ apparent acceptance of this process. Was it because they have helped me feed mice (frozen and thawed) to classroom snakes, and we casually talk about which end gets eaten first, and how fast they get to “the spaghetti part,” where just the tail is sticking out of the snake’s mouth? This protracted live-toad-eating seemed very different to me somehow. After we had watched for a few minutes, it was time to leave for carpool. I followed them out of the woods and saw several relating the snake-toad tale to the other teachers. “Oh no, how terrible!” one exclaimed, to which a child responded, “Well, snake’s gotta eat.” And another added, “Yeah, it’s kinda gross – but also kinda cool. Mostly cool – at least for the snake.”