SPRING MEANS SNAKE SEASON

by Whit Gibbons


March 28, 2004


As usual about this time of year, a word needs to be said in behalf of the most mesmerizing, yet maligned, wildlife group--the snakes. Most people today have an awareness of and concern for the welfare of all wildlife and natural environments. Part of that process must include accepting the snakes, the martyrs of the natural world.

You need not touch snakes, keep them as pets, or even look at them if it makes you uncomfortable. You should, however, accept their right to exist in the natural world. Like other wildlife, snakes should be allowed to live in peace in their native habitat.

Evoking both fascination and fear, snakes serve as a barometer of regional environmental attitudes. The extent of misinformation and inappropriate attitudes about snakes unquestionably exceeds that of any other group of animals on earth. An ecologically educated community accepts snakes as an integral component of natural environments.

U.S. snakes are highly overrated as a human threat. Of the more than 50 native snake species in the East, only 7 are venomous, the rest harmless. Bites of the copperhead and the 2 small rattlesnakes (massasauga and pygmy) are rarely if ever lethal to humans. The large pit vipers (diamondback, timber or canebrake rattler, and cottonmouth) and the coral snake can be potentially hazardous, but only on rare occasions.

Venom of the coral snake, a cobra relative, can indeed kill an adult human if enough venom is injected. But coral snakes are small, rare, and unlikely to bite a person unless picked up. A person has a diminishingly small chance of being bitten accidentally by a coral snake. Perhaps the greatest danger is to children who might pick up a brightly colored red, yellow, and black snake.

Children should be taught never to pick up any snake without supervision by a knowledgeable adult. They should also be taught that snakes only bite humans in self-defense and that all snakes deserve our respect. Children should learn that many snakes will strike out when cornered, but they do not come looking for you. No U.S. snake will intentionally pursue a person with intent to harm. No herpetologist has ever verified the "chased by a snake" phenomenon.

My reptile-hunting associates and I have seen or captured thousands of snakes from the Atlantic to the Pacific. None of us has ever seen an American snake chase someone. I specify "American," because some zookeepers and herpetologists say that African mambas and Asian cobras can take offense at a person's presence and actively attack. Maybe they will, but no evidence of such aggressiveness exists for North American species. The last thing a snake, even a rattlesnake, wants to do is bite an animal too big to eat. Biting, a last resort when escape seems impossible, can be costly to a snake by resulting in broken fangs and lost venom needed to capture prey. A rattlesnake that keeps you away by vibrating its tail is better off than one that has to bite you.

A legitimate snakebite is one in which a person unintentionally and unknowingly provokes a venomous snake and is bitten. The odds of being struck by lightning or being in a car wreck are hundreds of times greater than the odds of receiving a serious legitimate snakebite in the United States.

When someone sees a snake and then tries to catch, kill, or handle it, the bite is illegitimate. Hospital records show that many snakebite victims actually picked up the animal first. We can't place blame on the snake in such instances. Copperheads are one of the few venomous snakes in the country that often bite people who may be unaware of the snake's presence. But copperhead venom is less potent than that of most species, and a bite usually causes minimal damage to the victim.

Snakes are a natural part of the world; therefore, snakebite is a possible--though highly improbable--hazard if you venture outdoors. Anyone interested in snakes, which includes almost everyone in one way or another, should check out two Web sites: www.parcplace.org and www.uga.edu/srelherp. Either will teach you a lot about snakes and also link to others on the topic. Thus you can keep informed about what many consider to be America's most prepossessing creatures.



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