Mary Harris, 62, drew up a sign Monday and placed it in her front yard that says “Snake-free zone. Could we pleeze have our mail?”
Since the end of March, Harris said her mail delivery has been spotty and she has gone almost 10 days without getting a single letter because her mail carrier is afraid of the garter snakes that have made a home on her block.
“There’s nothing showing up, no bills, no fliers, nothing,” she said. “This is the first time we have ever had this big of a problem.”
In the three decades that Harris has lived on West Chase Avenue, she said she typically spots as many as five garter snakes per summer, usually in the backyard under rocks or soaking up the sun on the concrete walkway.
Harris said she isn’t the only person on the block not receiving mail. About 10 other neighbors wrote in response to a neighborhood email that their mail also wasn’t being delivered. Harris said that when she stopped the carrier and a supervisor earlier this week to ask why, the mail carrier said she is deathly afraid of snakes and refuses to deliver her mail until they’re gone.
Harris said the supervisor told Harris that her yard, and any other yard with snakes, is a safety issue and that she and the other property owners are responsible for fixing the snake infestation.
“It’s not an infestation of snakes. It is a normal amount of snakes,” Harris said. “They are just as happy to see the sunshine as we are, and if you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.”
Mark Reynolds, spokesman for the Postal Service’s Chicago district, said mail carriers have the right to determine if an environment is unsafe and, if so, they are not forced to deliver mail to that area.
“In this case, the woman is terrified of snakes. When she saw them she freaked out,” he said. “It is irrelevant if the snakes are dangerous or not. Our employees’ safety is the utmost priority.”
Reynolds said a supervisor has been assigned to walk with the carrier from door to door to assess the situation for the next week or so.
“We are currently monitoring the situation to see what happens,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts to change a mail carrier, so we are trying to figure out what the best option is for everybody.”
The mail carrier could not immediately be reached for comment.
Bonnie Wagner, another resident on the block, said Thursday that she has seen the supervisor walking alongside the mail carrier the past three days. “When they get to a house, he goes in front of her, and then signals to her with his hand that the coast is clear.”
Wagner has lived on the block for more than 40 years and said the snakes have never stopped her from getting her mail before.
“Our problem isn’t so much with the mail carrier,” Wagner said. “I understand people can have phobias, but it’s the way that the post office just dismissed it, and said, ‘It’s OK, she doesn’t have to deliver your mail.'”
Chris Anchor, senior wildlife biologist for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, said garter snakes are the most common snakes in Chicago and are nothing to fear.
“Snakes want nothing to do with us. They are horribly frightened of people,” Anchor said.
Garter snakes are attracted to places where they can find cover and food, Anchor said.
“The Chicago urban area is so challenging that we don’t have a healthy snake population because they don’t have the room or the environment to exploit to actually survive. It’s just a few areas that provide enough cover and enough food that these animals are able to maintain their toehold,” he said.
On the block of West Chase Avenue, snakes can usually be found on a sunny day lying along the concrete sidewalk, in the patches of dirt or in the grass.
A Tribune reporter walked up and down the block Thursday for about two hours and saw four snakes, including one that was dead on the brick edge of a garden and one in Harris’ backyard.
Railroad tracks sit at the end of the dead-end block flanked by large rocks, which Anchor said is a great place for snakes to seek shelter when it gets cold outside.
“What’s happened there is the snakes probably found a good place to hibernate,” Anchor said. “If it’s cold, they can quickly freeze up and die.”
He said garter snakes are not harmful to humans, and they prey on what we consider pests, such as mice, slugs and insects.
Anchor said having garter snakes in a person’s yard is actually a sign that the environment is doing well, and says they shouldn’t be removed.
“The more native species that you have, the healthier the support system is, and the support system in this case is the environment that we all share. It’s a very good thing,” he said.
Harris said she has never wanted to remove the snakes in her yard, and no amount of missed mail will change her mind.
“They are beneficial. It’s never been a question of removing them,” Harris said. “I might be afraid of them, but I know they’re not a danger. I just want my mail.”