Snakes are not bad guys. They are small, reclusive, shy creatures that quietly play a very important role in maintaining the health of our natural world – and believe it or not, these unappreciated reptiles are an important component in maintaining human health. Why then do we tend to unappreciate them to death?
When talking to people anywhere about snakes, inevitably someone in the group is going to say that “the only good snake is a dead snake”. Although I always anticipate this comment – I know it’s coming – it still makes me sad every time I hear this. That particular mindset is very unfortunate – for both the person who refuses to see the beneficial aspects, and sheer beauty of these unique animals; as well as the snake that may one day have the misfortune of crossing the path of someone with this rationale. Thousands of harmless snakes are ruthlessly killed every year due to this simple lack of understanding.
I’ve heard many stories through the years – often while leaning over the cold dead body of some 1/2 pound snake stretched out in the bed of a pickup truck – about how many whacks it took to chop the head off of the thing with a hoe, or shooting it full of holes, or running it down with the lawn mower while it tried desperately to get away.
Regrettably, the popular consensus concerning these animals is based solely in fear. We humans tend to fear what we don’t understand, and often times we try to eliminate that which we fear. It leaves to reason that by increasing our understanding of these animals, we thereby decrease our fear… thus creating a better relationship between snakes and people – which ultimately will benefit both creatures.
In primitive cultures, where people were more closely tied to our natural world, snakes have always been revered for their agility and prowess; and respected for the benefits they provide to the environments they occupy. In fact, a left-over snake icon from ancient times still brandishes our modern world today as a symbol of healing. Doctors all over the country still proudly display the traditional medical symbol, the rod of Asclepius, which indicates a serpent wrapped around a staff – and which dates back to around 300 BC.
I think the most common reason for hating snakes is the fact that they may bite. Well, I’m here to tell you that any animal with teeth can bite – including that adorable 3 year old human born into the most prestigious of families. There is no reason to kill them all based on a slight possibility of being bitten. In fact, the overwhelming majority of snake bites happen to people who are trying to either pick up or kill the snake. You have to get much closer to a snake to kill it, than to simply observe, identify and appreciate it.
Put yourself in the snake’s shoes for a minute… oh wait, you can’t. Snakes have no feet, or legs, or arms for that matter. They’re what the Native Americans called “Earth Bound” – they’re sentenced to a life of slithering on their bellies, squeezing into crevices and remaining as elusive as possible to avoid predators – humans being their main predatory adversary. Well then it certainly makes complete natural sense that the poor little creatures, if harassed by a 150-pound giant, would use what it has to try to defend itself from harm. This sort of self defense is fair in the natural world.
Snakes are not malicious. They will not hunt you down, chase you and corner you just to sink their teeth into you. In fact, most all snakes, even the most aggressive, will issue a visual warning before getting close enough to bite you. If that warning is not heeded, and you still threaten them, then they may provide a bite to deter you while they try to slither fast away to safety.
Venomous snakes are even less prone to bite. You have to figure – if you have no arms and no legs, yet you have to catch your own food to survive, your venom is a most precious commodity. It is not in the snake’s best interest to waste it in self-defense when she needs it to purchase her dinner. Most venomous snakes, when forced to use a bite to deter a predator too large to eat, will strike with a “dry” bite first in order to save the venom for obtaining food. It can take up to 48 hours for a snake to restock its venom supply once it is used. Inflicting a venomous bite on a creature that it cannot eat can be counterproductive to its immediate well-being.
Understanding more about a snake’s natural behavior and habits is the first step to live in harmony with any that you may stumble across. You now know that snakes don’t want to have a confrontation with you, it’s quite the opposite indeed. They are reclusive creatures who enjoy a life of solitude. Their business is with their food. They are designed in their most particular way in order to go into the little places where mice, lizards, frogs and insects hide.
This is fortunate for you if you live anywhere there are little creatures that snakes would like to eat. Snakes eat critters that can, and do, spread illness to humans. Yep. There are nearly no disease processes that snakes can spread to humans, but between insects, mice and rats there are multitudes of transmissible diseases that can make you very ill or even end your life. Snakes are immune to these, and they do one better – they keep populations in balance so that disease cannot run rampant.
If you kill a rat snake on your property, unless you now devote part of everyday searching out and killing rats, you will have an immense problem before too long. One healthy rat snake on your property will see to this job for you. And just so you know, a pair of common brown rats can produce upwards of 2000 descendants in one year if left with no predators to keep their activity in check. I personally would rather host a snake or two (that will politely and quietly avoid me) than 2000 rats running a muck on my property, in my walls and in my cereal boxes!
There are even snakes that keep snake populations in balance. King snakes eat other snakes… including venomous species. My heart breaks every single time I see or hear about a slaughtered king snake. These seem to be one of the most often victimized snakes in the southeast, which is heartbreakingly sad – though it does bring a hilariously ironic consequence for the ignorant killer. People, who hate and fear snakes, need not ever kill a king snake. They’re cursing themselves by opening up that niche to a more dangerous species who may want to come to that territory now that the ever-watchful king snake has been relieved from his guard duty.
Here are a few fun facts about snakes – that hopefully will help replace the sense of fear with the sense of wonder that these reptiles deserve:
- There are more than 40 species of snakes found in Georgia – only 6 of which are venomous. (Diamondback Rattler, Pigmy Rattler, Timber Rattler, Coral Snake, Copperhead & Cottonmouth)
- There are 5 species of non-venomous water snakes in Georgia – only 1 “water moccasin”, the Cottonmouth, which is venomous.
- A cat bite is more apt to require extensive medical care than an average snake bite.
- More people die from bee stings every year than snake bites.
- All snakes except venomous ones are protected by law in Georgia.
- Snakes smell with their tongues – the “fork” allows them to smell in different directions for a 3D effect, which also translates into a form of “tasting” the air.
- Snakes are deaf – but are extremely sensitive to even very slight vibrations.
- A snake’s jaw is bifurcated, allowing the animal to swallow prey animals that are even larger than the snake’s head.
- Some snakes, like Garter snakes and Water Snakes do not lay eggs – she holds the eggs inside her body until they hatch and then essentially gives birth to live young.
- The Cottonmouth is the world’s only semi-aquatic viper.
- A venomous snake appears to have large “cheeks” that protrude behind their eyes where they store their venom. A non-venomous snake has a very small and sleek head-shape in contrast.
- Rattlesnakes are generally nocturnal hunters.
- One of the most common snakes to encounter in Georgia is the Garter Snake – They mostly eat amphibians but will eat fish and soft invertebrates as well.
- Hog-nosed snakes will flatten out their necks, turn upside down, twist up into strange positions and pretend to be dying when threatened. They dine on toads which they dig up with their upturned snout.
- Many species of non-venomous snakes have learned to mimic rattle snakes when threatened – they will rattle their tails to pretend to be more threatening than they really are.
- Venomous snakes pose very little threat to humans who leave them alone – the vast majority of snake bites result from attempting to capture, harass, or kill them. (GA DNR)
Please take the time to enjoy the video and slideshow above – these will help you learn to identify some common species of snakes located throughout the Southeast. The more we learn about these valuable creatures, the more prepared we are if we happen upon one – and the safer you AND our snakes will be!
To learn more about these amazing animals, visit the following links:
The Center for Snake Conservation
GA DNR – Snake Fact Sheet
Is It A Water Moccasin?
UGA Savannah River Ecology Laboratory
Southeastern Reptile Rescue
*I would like to express a special thank you to Cameron Young, Tim Warfel, & J.D. Willson of the Center for Snake Conservation for their valuable information, beautiful photographs and the terrific work they are doing for snake conservation.
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