ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Andrea Bathje found the first snake in her home in April 1999. She freaked out, screamed for her husband, George, and refused to take her eyes off him or the snake until he had taken it outside.
Little did she know that was just the beginning. Andrea and George bought their northwest Rockford home in December 1998. This fall, as they mark six years in the well-kept, brick home, they estimate they've removed 100 snakes from inside their house.
"People say, 'they're only little garter snakes,"' said Andrea. "But when they're inside your house, they're huge."
The Bathjes live in a section of Rockford that seems to be unusually popular with garter snakes. Residents frequently find them in their yards and, not infrequently, inside their homes.
Jeff Moorman, who operates Wildlife Removal Specialists, said he's had 24 calls for snakes in the past two years. Half of them came from the northwest Rockford area and others from throughout the Rock River Valley.
One northwest neighborhood story claims the garter snake population boom began in the 1940s when Victory Gardens were abundant in the area. Supposedly, someone brought in garter snakes to eat insects that damaged the plants.
That's probably a myth, said Richard B. King, a herpetologist and professor in the biological science department at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Some species of snakes do eat insects, but garter snakes eat worms or slugs, occasionally salamanders or frogs, he said. Most of their diet consists of earthworms. The larger ones may eat mice.
Garter snakes do eat a lot of insect larvae, which could benefit a garden, said Armour Peterson, an environmental health practitioner for the Illinois Department of Public Health in Rockford.
Thanks to Andrea Bathje's sense of humor, George's bravery and their three sons' matter-of-fact attitude toward the garter snakes, the Bathjes still enjoy their home. Especially in December.
"That's the only month we've never found a snake, Andrea said.
The first snakes showed up in the spring of 1999, once while they were holding a home blessing. Fortunately, the snake was in the basement and the 100 guests were upstairs. Their first inclination was to call an exterminator who told them he'd kill any bugs or mice in the house.
"No food for the snakes, no snakes," the Bathjes reasoned.
That theory didn't work. It did kill some snakes, which they found in the basement. Apparently the snakes died from eating poisoned mice. But over the years, the snakes kept coming.
The Bathjes tried products that are supposed to repel snakes. They put mothballs around the perimeter of the house. They're making plans for new windows, some supposedly snake-proof. They've plugged up every hole and crack they can find in their concrete-block foundation. First they used steel wool and caulking. It became dislodged or disappeared. Now they're using concrete whenever they spot a tiny opening and think they may finally have a solution.
"This has been a good year," Andrea reported. "We've only found about 10 so far, and just two since we switched to concrete."