PEOPLE DESERVE IT WHEN SNAKES STRIKE BACK
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
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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