How can a creature no more than 3 or 4 inches tall draw such a visceral emotion from a full-grown, able-bodied adult? The mere sight of a snake — even a photograph, and especially a video, of one — evokes abject terror in many of us.
As it turns out, we have a predisposition to fear snakes. Researchers at the University of Virginia believe our fear of snakes evolved throughout thousands of years. Humans who were more likely to see a camouflaged snake were more likely to avoid a bite. It was a survival mechanism.
For snake expert Tim Cole, owner of Austin Reptile Service, there’s another explanation: We are taught to hate them. Snakes are often portrayed as vile, loathsome creatures that have no redeeming value.
“Any time you see a snake on television, even if it’s in some Animal Planet documentary, listen to the music. It’s the same music you hear in horror movies when something bad is about to happen. We’ve been conditioned all our lives to fear snakes because you never see anything positive about them,” says Cole. “That fear is passed down from parents to children.”
Innate or learned, having that fear doesn’t mean we have to actually live out that fear. Nor does it mean we have to run for a shovel every time we see a snake. The mere sight of a snake should raise our curiosity more than our fear and hatred, says Cole.
“I’m amazed at how misunderstood snakes are. Too many people believe too many things that just aren’t true,” he says.
So what is true? Snakes just want to be left alone.
“They are a necessary part of the ecosystem. Snakes actually provide a valuable service by ridding your property of disease-harboring mice and rats,” says Georgia snake handler Jason Clark, owner of Southeastern Reptile Rescue. “You don’t have to actually like snakes, but it’s important to understand they are just as vital a part of nature as any other creature out there.”
He not only removes snakes from homes, Clark uses them in educational seminars at youth and civic groups, teaching the audience how to identify and avoid them. He also teaches them why they shouldn’t fear snakes.
“Any time I’m called for a snake in someone’s house, I take the opportunity to educate people about them. The more I talk to people the more they understand snakes, and the less they fear and hate them,” says Clark. “It’s just a matter of learning about them.”
And understanding basic risks. For instance, the odds of dying from a snake bite are ten times lower than dying from a bee sting or lightning strike. The chances of dying from a venomous snake are about the same as dying from a spider bite. Even dogs kill more people than snakes in the United States. Yes, people do get bit by venomous snakes, but in many cases, those bite victims were entirely responsible for the results.
Walk Away Unscathed
“All you have to do to avoid getting bitten is take two steps back, turn around and walk away. You’ll probably never see that snake again,” says Clark.
A study conducted by Georgia herpetologist Dr. Whit Gibbons shows how difficult it is to actually get bitten by a snake. Gibbons and his assistants not only tried to provoke a strike by stepping near venomous cottonmouths in the wild, they actually picked them up with an artificial hand. In all, Gibbons encountered 48 cottonmouths on a study site in South Carolina. None he stood near struck. Most only exhibited defensive posturing — they exposed their cotton-white mouths, vibrated the end of their tail, and emitted a foul musk from their anus. When those failed to scare Gibbons away, every cottonmouth tried to escape. That’s when Gibbons or his assistants actually stepped on the snakes to see what they would do. Surprisingly, only about 10 percent that were stepped on actually bit Gibbons and his assistants, who wore snake-proof gear to prevent any injuries. Less than half of the cottonmouths he picked up with his prosthetic hand actually bit the hand.
As one noted herpetologist once said, “Snakes are first cowards, then bluffers, and last of all warriors.” In other words, the last thing they want to do is bite something they don’t intend to eat. Doing so uses valuable and limited resources and puts them in additional danger.
“If you see a snake and it scares you, walk the other way,” says Cole. “It’s that simple. Just walk away. They won’t chase you. That’s a myth. They just want to be left alone, and their first instinct is to get to safety as fast as possible. You may be between the snake and its escape route, which is why it might seem like it’s coming after you. A snake that’s 1 inch tall isn’t going to chase something that’s 6 feet tall.”
Some people do get bit, but as Clark says, they were likely putting themselves in a situation that allowed the snake to bite. Indeed, a study that examined venomous snakebite victims in southern California found the average age of snakebite victims was 24, and 85 percent of the bites occurred on the hands or fingers. That likely meant they were handling or attempting to handle the snake. What’s more, 28 percent “appeared to be intoxicated” at the time, according to the study.
In other words, if you don’t want to get bit by a snake, don’t mess with it. As Clark says, even attempting to kill a snake can increase your risk of getting bit.
“If you are trying to kill it, you are putting yourself too close. Back off, walk away and leave it alone, and your odds of getting bit go down to nothing,” he says.
Not all bite victims had it coming, of course. Of the 7,000 to 8,000 venomous snakebite victims in the U.S. every year, some had no idea the snake was there before it struck.
“Being aware of your surroundings is one of the best ways to avoid getting bit. Most bites occur when someone puts their hand down next to a snake or they accidentally step on it, so you really need to pay attention when you are in snake country,” says Cole. “Look before you put your hand down. Wear gloves when you are working in the yard or around places that might harbor snakes and look first when you go to pick something up that might have a snake under it.”
Catch It, Kill It, or Leave It Alone?
So what do you do when you’ve found a snake in your yard, garage, or even inside your home? First, identify it. Knowing what you are dealing with will determine the next step.
Rattlesnakes are the easiest to identify. Even if they aren’t shaking their tails to warn you of their presence, there’s no mistaking the rattle on the end of that tail. Of course, the rattle on smaller rattlesnakes may not be quite as obvious, but if you aren’t sure, walk away. Copperheads have a distinct color and pattern that sets them apart from other snakes, but cottonmouths, also known as water moccasins, are often confused with a variety of water snake species.
“The best thing to do is learn the venomous snakes in your area before you need to know,” says Cole. “That way, you’ll know exactly what you are dealing with so you can take appropriate measures.”
There are a number of good resources on the internet, including state-specific snake identification pages, state herpetological society pages, and naturalist society websites. Several field guides, including Peterson’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, can help you figure out what you are looking at.
What are the appropriate measures? While neither Clark nor Cole kill snakes, even venomous ones, it might be better to kill a copperhead or rattlesnake instead of attempting to capture it to relocate it. Just make sure it’s actually a venomous snake and not a harmless one.
“Where I live, nine times out of 10, a snake in someone’s house is a rat snake,” says Cole. “It’s almost never a venomous snake. When people send me a photo of a snake they killed, it’s pretty much never a venomous one, either.”
Removing a nonvenomous snake from your home is as simple as sweeping it into a trash can and then carrying it outside, adds Cole. Small snakes can be picked up with a pair of tongs. If it’s already outside, just leave it alone.
“If you are positive it is a venomous snake, call a professional. We will get it out of your house so you don’t have to worry about it,” says Clark.
De-snake Your Property
If the thought of snakes living around your home makes you queasy, there might be no alternative when you choose country living. No matter how much you try, you’ll never rid the rural landscape of snakes. They are as much a part of the ecosystem as birds, frogs, and mice. There are, however, a number of ways you can reduce the frequency of snake visits to your property.
“When you put out bird food, you get birds, and when you attract snake food, you get snakes,” says Clark. “In other words, you want to make your yard and home as unattractive to mice and other rodents as possible. If you have a lot of mice, there’s a chance you’ll get a lot of snakes.”
First, don’t feed birds during warmer months when snakes are active. Birdseed attracts mice. Remove piles of old lumber and other debris. Mice thrive in decaying stacks of firewood, piles of discarded metal, and lumber and other debris. Abandoned buildings are also prime rodent homes. Remove as many of those potential snake hotspots as possible or at least move them as far away from your house as possible.
Clark also recommends eliminating places snakes like to hide. Trim shrubs up off the ground several inches, replace the mulch in your flower beds, and reduce the thickness of pine straw used in landscaping. Mow brushy areas close to your home.
Give ‘em a Break
Instead of eliminating high-quality snake habitat completely, consider moving it back away from your house. Snakes not only face constant persecution from those who don’t know any better, they are facing long-term habitat loss from human encroachment. Some — like indigo snakes, canebrake rattlesnakes, and northern pine snakes — are declining throughout much of their range. They need all the help they can get.
If nothing else, don’t run for the shovel the next time you see a snake. Run for a camera. Snakes have a necessary place in nature and serve a purpose keeping other animal populations in check. Enjoy them from a distance and then let them go about their business. They’ll leave you alone, too.
David Hart lives near Farmville, Virginia, with his wife, Navona. He is the father of two boys, Kyle and Matt. When he isn’t working to improve the wildlife habitat on his property, he can be found hunting or fishing.