A Manitoba garter snake researcher says he is sad, disgusted and perplexed after finding dozens of garter snakes butchered and beaten near one of their wintering dens.
"It looked like somebody had come by and purposefully killed them. Some had their heads cut off … and some were just beaten to death with rocks or stepped on — many of the bodies were mangled or smashed," said Neil Balchan.
"It was a bit of a mess. There were dead snakes everywhere. It was terrible."
Balchan, a student at the University of Manitoba who is doing honours research into how snakes move, came across the scene around noon on Thursday.
It was at his field site, a wintering den some five kilometres north of Inwood in Manitoba's Interlake region — not too far from the famed Narcisse snake pits, where tens of thousands of the snakes winter.
While Narcisse is a popular tourist attraction, the den where Balchan was doing his research is more off the beaten path, he said.
"It's a good walk into the bush, nowhere near human habitation or buildings or anything like that," he said. "So whoever did this had to go a fair bit out of their way to do the damage.
"It looked very much as though these people had just killed whatever they could come across. And they put in a lot of work to find them."
Some of the snakes were hanging from trees, others were partially buried, while still more "were very badly damaged and attempting to hide or escape," he said.
Balchan believes the slaughter happened an hour or two before he arrived, because "many of the animals were still struggling."
His first reaction was sadness. "I was a little bit disgusted," he said. "But I think I'm just bothered and perplexed."
The garter is a harmless small snake species that typically grows to less than a metre long. Many people who visit the Narcisse pits pick the snakes up.
"They don't mean to hurt anyone, they don't mean to scare anyone. They're just trying to get by," Balchan said.
"There's seven months of brutal cold coming up right away and these animals have been packing on weight all summer. They eat insects, frogs, worms, and they're really an important part of this ecosystem.
"So it really is a shame to see people do something like this out of ignorance or fear or whatever."
He gathered up several of the dead snakes and took a photo to post to Facebook, where he vented about his disappointment and about losing "a little more faith in humanity."
Although Balchan collected about 50 snakes, there were many more, he said.
"It's such a big area and they were scattered pretty widely. Who knows how many there really were in total," he said, noting the den house contains about 1,000 snakes.
"I collected them, essentially, to remove them from the site — 50 dead snakes in one area is a huge predator draw and it can attract other people to do similar types of things."
Balchan has reported his discovery to Manitoba Conservation, but a spokesperson for the provincial department told CBC News there's nothing they can do.
"We're aware of it and it's disturbing, yes, but it's not a protected species under the Wildlife Act," the spokesperson said.
He said the red-sided garter snakes in the Narcisse wildlife management area are protected, but since this incident occurred outside that management area, the snakes would not be protected.
Balchan is also looking into reporting the incident to RCMP.
"I'm not sure what abuse charge this would fall under or what kind of protections these animals warrant, but certainly this has to fall under some additional measure," he said.