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Paul Mack: The reptile we love to hate

 

Paul Mack

 

Trying to change people's attitudes about snakes is about as easy as convincing an Ole Miss fan to cheer for State -- nearly impossible. Seeing a man at the Riverwalk "subdue" a harmless (non-venomous) 5' rat snake with a large branch a few weeks back drove this point home. 

 

The snake, of course, was no match for a man with a big stick. By the time I got there the snake was not moving much, except to convulse a bit. I'm sure the man was just concerned about other walkers, thinking the snake might be venomous. You can't fault someone for trying to help. 

 

That's just it, though. There's a lot of misinformation out there regarding snakes. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not about to try to convince you that snakes can be your friends. I'm a nature lover but not insane. But maybe with a little more information people would be less fearful and a little more inclined to leave these unloved creatures alone. 

 

I tried this with the man at the Riverwalk, in fact. Trying hard not to sound like a "know-it-all" (who knows if it worked), I explained that the injured snake was actually a helpful predator of mice and cockroaches. I also pointed out that you can identify a venomous snake by its triangular head and that snakes are afraid of you and will try to leave if you just let them. To his credit, the man listened politely, regardless of what he actually thought. He did mention, though, that this snake didn't make any attempt to escape. That caused me to check what I already "knew" about distinguishing between harmless and truly venomous snakes. 

 

As it turns out, I was also wrong about only venomous species having triangular heads (see Southeastern Reptile Rescue, at snakesareus.com; no kidding).  

 

Occasionally, a non-venomous snake will flatten its head when threatened. This can give the head a triangular appearance. Conversely, coral snakes, which are venomous, do not have triangular heads. Luckily, coral snakes are also very colorful. Their red bands are bordered by yellow/cream bands, and are what's behind the saying, "red on yellow, kill a fellow." That helps some. But scarlet king snakes, which kill and eat rattlesnakes, have these same colors, just in a different order (red on black, friendly jack). Tricky. Neither head shape nor color is completely foolproof in identifying a snake as venomous. 

 

What will work for sure, I feel, is to just leave snakes alone (as long as they're not in your house). Snakes in "in-town" yards like mine are most likely just passing through, searching for suitable habitat. These are probably young ones getting established or older ones whose former "home" area was disturbed or destroyed.  

 

Probably best -- for the snake, at least -- to keep your kids and animals away until the snake has moved off. For folks in more rural areas, where snakes might not be just passing by, there are many ways to make both your home and your yard less inviting. Removing brush piles, replacing old, cracked dryer hoses, two common places for snakes to hide or enter a home, can help considerably. And, sadly, bird feeders just attract snake food. Other "snake-proofing" suggestions can be found at msucares.com/pubs/publications/p2277.pdf. 

 

For those still unconvinced, here are a few other things to ponder. First, the majority of snakes are not venomous -- only 6 of 42 species in the Southeast. Second, snakes produce more babies than can survive, so killing a snake in your yard may only create a "vacancy" for the next one that comes along. Third, about 60% of all snake bites are "dry bites" -- no venom is released (venom is "costly" to make so snakes tend to limit its use). This is partly why only 5 or 6 of the 7,000-8,000 reported snake bites each year are fatal.  

 

You're 10 times more likely to die from a lightning strike or falling out of bed. Finally, several venom proteins are currently being tested for treatment of a range of human diseases from breast cancer to Parkinson's disease. 

 

Still unconvinced? Like much of nature, snakes have a useful role to play in the environment, the same environment we humans are part of. For some reason, their reptilian form is frightening to us. Perhaps knowing more about them -- and here I'm donning my educator's hat -- we can strive for a peaceful co-existence with these key players in our local ecology.

 

 

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