by Whit Gibbons

August 19, 2007

News stories during the past month have reinforced the point that human foolishness and ignorance about reptiles cause far more harm than simply leaving them alone. The problems were created by unnecessary actions of someone trying to kill animals, two snakes and one turtle, that didn't need killing.

One story was of a man in the state of Washington who killed a large rattlesnake with a shovel and then proceeded to pick up the presumed-dead snake. Wrong move. The snake reflexively bit the man on the finger, sending him to the hospital. Then, last week in Massillon, Ohio, a man was arrested for shooting himself in the foot while trying to kill a turtle.

The other snake story is a far more tragic one of a five-year-old boy who was accidentally killed by a stray bullet that ricocheted from the surface of a lake in Oklahoma. A policeman across the lake was shooting at a snake in a tree. The snake was a harmless rat snake according to the police chief I spoke with. The answer to the question of whether the policeman or the boy would have fared better had the snake just been left alone is obvious.

The turtle story may make a little sense if the man was planning on eating the turtle and was simply trying to kill it as swiftly as possible. If he did it just because he wanted to kill a turtle, he should take up a new hobby. Meanwhile, the two snake stories reveal that many people are still afflicted with an anti-snake attitude that serves no one well. The fact-based reasons not to kill or harass a snake that is not posing an immediate danger to children or pets are many. First of all, any snake in America, including rattlesnakes, that can readily get away from a human will do so. No U.S. snake will chase a person, despite many people's claim that they know someone this has happened to.

The Washington rattlesnake incident reminded me of a talk I gave about snakes in which I used a live diamondback rattlesnake. I noted how they typically bit people when they felt threatened and did not actively attack unprovoked. When I finished the talk, a man approached and shook hands with me left-handed. His scarred right hand was a gnarled set of immobile fingers. He said he agreed with me that most serious bites by U.S. snakes are caused by someone picking up or trying to kill the snake.

Holding up his right hand as an instructional prop, he told me how he and some friends had encountered a huge diamondback rattler in the sandhills of southern Georgia. As even rattlesnakes will do, the snake retreated immediately, going down a gopher tortoise burrow. As the snake crawled down, a third of its body was still extending from the burrow when the man picked up a large stick and whapped the snake. The stick unexpectedly broke, the man accidentally fell forward, and the rattlesnake, which had turned in the burrow to face outward, immediately struck the hand, in a defensive move.

Killing a snake is almost always completely unnecessary from a safety standpoint. If you see the snake, you only need move away to be safe. And if you give the snake enough berth, most will move away. A legitimate snakebite is one in which a person unintentionally and unknowingly provokes a venomous snake and is bitten. The odds of being in a car wreck are thousands if not millions of times greater than the odds of receiving a lethal legitimate snakebite in any year in the United States.

In dispelling unnecessary misgivings and trepidation people harbor about snakes, an email photo attachment that has been making the rounds deserves comment. A man in a blue shirt is holding a dead western diamondback rattlesnake. The photo is not a hoax, but when the email message says it is nine feet long, it becomes one. The snake may be six, possibly seven, feet long. Anything larger for that species would be a record. Don't believe everything you read on the Internet, and learn to enjoy snakes without killing them. It's the safest approach.

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