QUESTIONS COME WITH SPRINGTIME
by Whit Gibbons
March 20, 2005
I sat on the back porch and watched a sign of spring: lightning bugs flitting
through the tops of the hickory trees. This morning I sat in the same
spot and listened to another sign of spring: a carpenter bee looking for
a place to drill a hole in the rafters. Along with these harbingers of
spring come flowers, migrating birds, and questions about the environment.
Following is a question I answered after I waved goodbye to the carpenter
Q. From Hawaii: Aloha. I am about to move to a cabin on five acres in
Yucca Valley California, with plenty of rattlesnakes. I also have seven
grandchildren. Do you have any advice about how to repel snakes, including
but not limited to modern snake fences and perhaps other deterrents such
as electric fences or chemicals?
rattlesnakes out of an area is difficult, and can never be achieved if
you want your five acres to remain as natural as possible. No chemicals
(despite advertising claims by some companies) will repel all snakes from
an outside area without causing enough of a smell that people would also
be repelled. No repellent will selectively keep snakes away. Anything
you hear to the contrary is a scam. Electric fences would probably cause
more difficulties than solutions and would certainly present their own
hazard for small children.
As far as
putting up snake-proof fences around a five-acre tract of wild land, how
do you know you would not be enclosing rattlesnakes that would otherwise
leave? And a fence probably would not keep out all snakes because of underground
burrows that might surface on both sides of the fence. If you want to
retain the natural beauty of the as-yet-undeveloped areas of California,
you may have to accept a few possible hazards, weighing the assured benefit
of one against the rare and unlikely potential cost of the other.
As I have
said before to other parents and grandparents with similar concerns, in
a few rare instances in the United States, a bite from a venomous snake
can be lethal. Yet, in most years, fewer than a dozen of the more than
250 million people in the country die from snakebite. In addition, in
at least a quarter of the bites by U.S. snakes, the snake actually injects
no venom or very little. Hence, many bites, even from big snakes, are
not serious. So by using a little caution and some common sense, we are
not likely to suffer a severe snakebite.
most snakes will not bite when someone is standing beside them or in many
instances even when stepped on. Most try to escape. As many as half the
total number of U.S. snakebites result from someone trying to kill or
pick up the snake. When you put all the probabilities together, the danger
from snakes is greatly overrated, especially when compared to some of
the other activities of everyday life.
country, parents and their children deal daily with far more dangerous
situations than encounters with snakes, such as traveling in automobiles.
Parents put their kids into cars almost every day, and when they do, responsible
parents expect their children to put on a seat belt. Children can just
as readily be taught to watch where they step or put their hands when
outdoors. And anyone should be able to learn never to pick up a snake
unless someone present is absolutely certain it is harmless, as most snakes
are. Snakes in the United States bite people only as a last resort; most
Americans who get bitten have picked up the snake.
relish the arrival of spring and all its flora and fauna. Others find
it a bit disquieting because snakes emerging from hibernation are among
the gifts of spring. If you are among this latter group who doesn't like
such presents, 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. So relax and enjoy all the glories
you have an environmental question or comment, email