DO YOU DO WITH THAT SNAKE?
by Whit Gibbons
February 24, 2003
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.
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.
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."
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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