by Whit Gibbons

March 3, 2002

Along with the many other great natural events associated with springtime come the snakes. Snakes are among the last wildlife to be viewed as an acceptable component of our native habitats, so attitudes about them are a gauge of public sensitivity toward wildlife and our natural environment. Their presence is a sign of environmental health, and we seem to be reaching a progressive stage of conservation in some regions. As evidence of this, most snakes I am asked to identify these days are alive rather than in several pieces.

Many natural environments include snakes, and all come with a simple natural law that anyone can follow: the fundamental rule for someone who does not like snakes is to leave them alone. No U.S. venomous snake will attack a person without provocation. If we continue to teach this elementary wildlife fact perhaps we can counter at least some of the ignorance and irrational fears that are still prevalent.

I do not tell people they should never kill a snake. I can certainly envision situations when eliminating a snake might be advisable. But we should not accept wholesale destruction of any kind of wildlife due to someone's ignorance. Most people who become familiar with snakes, or any other group of animals that they fear, can learn to appreciate them. But for some people, the lessons are hard-learned ones. Steve Bennett of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources collects stories about human snake encounters. The following four provide evidence for why at least some people should have curbed their distaste for snakes.

One story involved a man armed with a rifle who encountered a snake in a forest. Apparently not wanting to waste ammunition on so lowly a creature, but nonetheless wanting to kill it (never mind that there is no rational reason for killing a snake in a forest), the man began crushing the snake's head with the butt of his rifle. A dying snake of course begins to thrash and curl around. As the snake squirmed, its tail reached the trigger and squeezed. To paraphrase the famous editorial maxim: Man shoots snake is not news. Snake shoots man is.

Another incident occurred in Mississippi. A man with a double-barreled shotgun saw a snake crawling around one of his outbuildings. As the snake slid alongside a box in the doorway, the man pulled the first trigger of the shotgun. He did not need to pull the second trigger. The snake was dead. The man was dead, too, and the building was gone. The first shot had detonated a case of dynamite the snake was crawling beside.

Another widely publicized incident took place in Alabama, where two alcohol-laden citizens played hot potato with a canebrake rattlesnake by tossing it back and forth to each other. The rattlesnake crawled away safely after biting one of the participants, who died before proper medical treatment could be administered.

Some people may prefer the outcome of the last story because no people were killed. Believing her mobile home was infested with snakes, a South Carolina woman decided to sprinkle sulfur around the area to keep snakes away. As far as I know, no credible evidence exists to show that sulfur is a deterrent to snakes, but she put the smelly stuff out anyway. She even decided to go one step further by filling pots with sulfur, placing them under the trailer, and then setting them afire. Now sulfur stinks without any help from fire, but burning sulfur smells like rotten eggs.

I doubt if snakes care much one way or another about the smell of rotten eggs, but can you imagine what the mobile home smelled like? In fact, had she not accidentally burned the trailer to the ground, the snakes would probably have continued to live there, even though no person would cross the threshold while the smell of burning sulfur lingered.

People who conquer irrational attitudes about snakes and other wildlife enjoy the outdoor world far more than those who live in fear of stepping outside. It bears repeating that no U.S. venomous snake will attack a person without provocation, and the fundamental rule for someone who does not like snakes is to leave them alone. Surely the stories recounted above - all true-offer proof that "live and let live" is often the best policy.

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