by Whit Gibbons

August 25, 2003

"We recently found a copperhead in our driveway. I am interested in ecology and conservation and would not let my husband kill it. The snake crawled away toward the nearby woods. However, with a child and two dogs, did we do the right thing?"

The answer to this perennial question has not changed since last spring when I wrote about how to deal with snakes in the yard . But because I receive so many emails similar to this one, particularly in spring and fall when snakes are most active, revisiting the issue seems worthwhile.

Unfortunately, no perfect answer to the venomous snake issue exists for people who have strong commitments toward their family and pets and yet want to conserve wildlife. Three obvious choices are (1) leave the snake alone; (2) kill the snake; (3) transport the snake to another location. With a venomous snake, each of these has a certain level of risk. Of course, before you contemplate any action be sure you are not dealing with one of the many harmless species.

The risk involved in option 1, leaving a venomous snake to depart on its own after you bring children and pets inside, is that it might disappear but not actually leave your yard. Snakes have no interest in staying around people and most will retreat to a wooded area if given an opportunity, but a hiding place might be found under or around a house. If you let a venomous snake leave on its own, you should keep a watchful eye to make sure it indeed departs. A snake in a suburban yard may just be passing through or may be returning in autumn to what was its original den site, before the house was built.

Option 2, kill the snake, is 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 cause thousands more injuries in the United States each year than do snakes. Also, the risk in trying to kill a venomous snake is higher than that of leaving the snake alone. Many snake bites occur because someone gets too close while attempting to kill a snake or picks up a still-alive snake believing it is dead.

Many conservation-minded people 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.

Capturing and transporting a large venomous snake requires extreme caution. The process can sometimes be accomplished safely by using a garden tool to guide the snake into a container, such as a large 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, and preferably 4 to 5, miles away from the capture point. And 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."

Autumn, like spring, is snake season, 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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