by Whit Gibbons

February 24, 2003

"What do I do when I find a rattlesnake in my yard like we did last year? I have become interested in conservation and would prefer not to kill even a poisonous snake, but we have two small children and a dog. Spring is coming. What do we do?"

I receive similar queries every year, especially in spring and autumn when snakes are most active. Unfortunately, no perfect answer exists for people who not only have strong commitments toward their family and pets but also want to preserve and protect wildlife, even venomous snakes. Three choices are obvious to most people, depending on the circumstances: (1) Do nothing, and let the snake leave. (2) Kill the snake. (3) Transport the snake to another location. With a venomous snake, each of these has a level of risk that cannot be avoided entirely but can certainly be minimized. Of course, before you contemplate any action regarding the snake make sure it is not a harmless species such as a kingsnake, rat snake, or racer.

The risk of leaving a venomous snake to depart on its own, after bringing children and pets inside, is that it might disappear but not actually have left your yard. Although snakes have no interest in staying around people and most will usually retreat to a wooded area if given an opportunity, a hiding place might be found under or around a house. Someone who takes the option of letting a venomous snake leave on its own should keep an eye on the process to make sure it indeed departs. Snakes found in suburban yards may just be passing through but they may return because the house has been built in the snake's original home range.

Option 2, kill the snake, seems like a rather brutal way to deal with a species that causes far less harm than other animals people tolerate in their neighborhood. For example, no one kills dogs that cross their yards, yet dogs not only kill people but cause thousands more injuries in the United States each year than do snakes. Also, the risk to someone trying to kill a venomous snake is higher than that of leaving the snake alone. Many snake bites are a consequence of someone being inept and getting too close while attempting to kill a snake or picking up a still-alive snake believed to be dead.

Many conservation-minded people today prefer option 3, removing the snake, because it eliminates the safety hazard to people in a neighborhood while giving the snake a chance for survival.

Moving a large venomous snake requires extreme caution during the capture and transport stages. The process can sometimes be accomplished safely by using a garden tool to guide the snake into a container, such as a large, flat-sided garbage can, and then carefully putting the lid on. Never pick up a venomous snake.

W. H. "Marty" Martin, a West Virginia herpetologist who has studied timber rattlesnakes for many years, says, "The best thing for the snake is probably to move it a short distance (no more than half a mile) away from your yard. However, if you want to be reasonably certain that it does not come back, the snake should be transported to a relatively wild area at least 2 miles and preferably 4 to 5 miles away from the capture point. After this, what have you accomplished? Several studies have found low survivorship in rattlesnakes that were transported outside of their home range. Because of increased overland movements in unfamiliar territory, the snake has a great chance of being taken by a predator or run over on a road. Or it may fail to find a suitable refuge or den for the winter. However, you may have bought the snake some time, and it may live another year or part of a year [and be able] to reproduce."

Snake season will soon be upon us, which some people find more exciting than an amusement park and others find a bit disquieting. If you are among the latter, just remember that most snakes are completely harmless; venomous snakes bite people only as a last resort; and most Americans who get bitten by snakes first pick up the snake.

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