Ice House

How to Tick Off Texas Readers: Accidentally Confuse a Coral Snake for a Milk Snake

An egregious error and its aftermath

By Scott Vogel April 10, 2017 Published in the May 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

0517 coral snakes illustrations yzolt7

Left: no. Right: yes.

Among the many promises we made upon the founding of this magazine, four short years ago, there was none more important or sacred to us than this: We will not kill readers. Call it a cynical business decision if you like, but it is a known fact that dead readers buy, on average, far fewer magazines than living. Motives aside, our simple pledge has brought us a readership vast, growing, and conspicuously not-dead. A few trees have perished for the cause, but no people.

Along the way, many readers have acquired a similar sense of mission. Hence the flood of calls and emails we received mere minutes after a recent Houstonia hit newsstands.

“The snake pictured on page 45 in the February 2017 issue would not be a coral snake,” wrote reader Margaret Coleman of the Heights. Ms. Coleman was referring to “Wild Wild Life,” a short article on Buffalo Bayou’s animal dangers, one that offered what we thought was an adorably cute illustration of a coral snake. Fanciful and entertaining though it was, the illustration was also anatomically incorrect. The reptile’s infamous red-yellow-black-yellow banding pattern had been wrongly rendered as red-black-yellow-black.

“That would probably be a scarlet king snake, which is harmless,” continued Ms. Coleman, once more flexing her herpetological muscles.

A second complainant was more venomous. “If you are going to show a poisonous coral snake as something to beware of,” read the anonymous missive, “you should not show what appears to be a milk snake, which is a coral snake mimic”— and also harmless.

“Please inform your readership of the mistake,” pleaded a third respondent, Dorena Battaglino. And so we have. (See above.)

Are there lessons to be learned from this error? Yes. As a general rule, artists from Los Angeles should not be trusted with coral snake illustrations. More broadly, never underestimate the power of rhyme.

It was in 1862, allegedly, that a man by the name of Jack Loticus—or “Fat” Jack as he was apparently known to his, um, “friends”—invented what is possibly the most important rhyming couplet in all of human history. It was catchy, it was unforgettable, and it may well have saved thousands of lives: 

Red and yellow killed a fellow

Red and black: safe for Jack

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In the flesh

Image: Brad Glorioso

“Venom lack” is a common Texas tweak to that final phrase—that’s how Ms. Coleman remembers it—but there are countless variations. Yes, some are ungrammatical (“yellow touch red, you be dead”), others needlessly prolix (“red and yellow cohabitate, soon you will suffocate”), while others lean overmuch on product placement (“red on yellow, legs turn to Jell-O”). The message is always the same, however, and always reliable.

Except when it isn’t.

Heaven forbid that Ms. Margaret Coleman of the Heights should find herself on a trip to South America someday. There, foraging among the Peruvian marshlands, as she is wont to do—yes, artistic license—she may well encounter a tricolored snake. Will her trusty chant offer protection then? Not according to a recent issue of Reptiles magazine (look for the one with “25 Best Skinks” on the cover), which reveals that the number of coral species inhabiting our neighboring continent is exceeded only by the ring patterns found therein.

Be that as it may, our latest brush with serpent shaming came courtesy a Splendora reader, whose simple yet direct voicemail—“call Meryl Hanson”—filled us with no small amount of trepidation. A phone message from Splendora generally does not bode well. Still, we would call Meryl Hanson.

“Oh yeah,” she said with a weary sigh. “Hold on.” Ms. Hanson put down the phone. There was a pause, and another pause after that. At last she was back. “On page 45….” Yes, yes. “That is not a coral snake.” No, we replied. No, it isn’t. Our apologi—


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