Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Problem with the "Only good snake is a dead snake" Mentality

Most people feel anxious at the mere thought of a snake. Most of the snake pictures I see on my Facebook feed are of snakes without heads, usually accompanied with a claim that the snake was a copperhead (which it isn't, 95% of the time). But, with how dangerous venomous snakes are, it's better just kill any snakes you see, right? Right?! Wrong!

The Black Rat Snake is harmless to humans, but kills disease-carrying rodents and venomous snakes.

The Branding of Adam and Eve

Many of us were taught in bible school as children of the evil serpent that tricked Eve into eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, leaving us with a bitter taste for snakes. We were lead to believe that snakes were inherently evil because one in the bible did something bad. Even if you weren't raised in church, you've surely heard folk tales of crafty and evil serpents. The snake is almost always portrayed as a bad guy. Why is this? A long time ago, people didn't have the internet. Most of the population was illiterate, and therefore couldn't read any sort of identification material, and even if they could, there were no pictures, and not many artists of the time chose to dedicate their lives to snake identification. All the common people knew, was that someone in their family died from a snake bite, so all snakes were feared. This lead to the folk tales that still brand snakes as evil today. 

Why are snakes important to us?

I'm going to get hippy-dippy on you guys for a moment. Snakes are great. Snakes are an extremely important part of our environment. Snakes' most important job is controlling rodent populations. You know what rodents carry? Disease. While snakes quietly hide away, periodically showing their faces to grab a meal, rats and mice will welcome themselves right onto your counter tops and raise hundreds of babies made out of a nest of insulation. Spreading potentially deadly diseases to you, your kids, and your pets. You may never notice a single rat snake living in your flowerbeds, but I guarantee you will notice once a colony of mice has established your house as their home! Without predators to keep these guys in check and raid their nests, rodents breed unchecked, often into the thousands. Snakes are the least dangerous of those predators, next to house cats. In addition to that, several large non-venomous species, such as the rat snake, are known for eating venomous snakes, such as copperheads. As you can see, snakes don't get the credit they deserve. They do a lot for us, and we repay them by killing every one we see? It's time to stop. 

Misindentification of Snake Species

Where I live, central of the Appalachian mountain range, there are only two venomous snake species - the Timber Rattlesnake and the Northern Copperhead. While the rattlesnake is very distinct with its rattle, the copperhead looks a lot like other species we have in my area. I have lost count of how many times I have seen on Facebook "killed a copperhead!" and the picture they included was not of a copperhead, but of a harmless Eastern Milk Snake or garter snake. Or at the lake, killing Brown Water Snakes, thinking they are copperheads. These snakes look sort of similar, but it's not that difficult if you take more than half a second to make a positive identification instead of going "Ma, get the shotgun! It's onna them copperheads!*redneck voice*. Is its head in a very clear triangular shape? Is the head colored brilliant copper, like a new penny? No? It's not a copperhead, and it is harmless. Leave it alone so it can do its job!
I am no snake expert, but I have made a great attempt to educate myself on what those two venomous snakes look like. Educate yourself and take notes of your local venomous snake's features. Does it have a round or triangular head? Does it have any identifying patterns or colors? Is there a rattle? How big is the adult snake? By asking yourself these questions, you can keep yourself safe, and avoid being one of "those people" who think every snake they see is going to kill them.

But won't snakes kill my chickens?!

Snakes don't pose as much risk to your chickens as say, a hawk, or your family dog. For one, most common snakes are much too small to eat a full sized adult chicken. Snakes swallow their prey whole, so it would take a pretty large snake to eat a chicken, even a bantam. For another thing, predators don't go for the toughest prey available. If snakes bother your chickens at all, they will sneak into the coop and grab an egg every week or so, or at the very worst will grab a chick when momma hen isn't looking. Since chickens are group animals, any snake that attempts to make a meal of a chick or egg is risking being pecked to death by all the other chickens (and I've seen this happen - chickens are brutal). To a snake, mice and rats which have little defense against them are a much safer and more plentiful meal. This actually benefits you, because it keeps the rats and mice out of your feed. See, snakes are more likely to help your chickens than hurt them! Even if a snake were to grab a chick or chicken, a snake only eats one, unlike other predators, such as dogs that wipe out a whole flock. If a snake kills a chick, it won't eat again for another week, giving you plenty of time to fortify your coop so it can't get back in! Small snakes, such as house snakes and milk snakes, post absolutely no risk to your chickens, chicks, or their eggs.  

But I am afraid of snakes!

This one makes me pretty angry. Why do people think they can kill something just because it scares them? I have a fear of bridges. Can I tear down a bridge? No. Can someone who is afraid of dogs kill every dog they see? No. If you see a snake outside, and that scares you, go inside. Run away. Don't kill the snake just because you have a fear of snakes! Most of the time, a snake in your yard is just passing through, trying to find a mouse or cricket to eat, but if it chooses to make a home of your yard, don't kill it! Have someone who is a snake lover, or a professional snake handler if you can find one, catch and relocate the snake for you. The fact that you are afraid of snakes does not mean you have the right to tip the balance of the ecosystem. Human fear has destroyed many species of animals. Your fear does not give you the right to destroy more. 

Exceptions

There is an exception to non-venomous snake killing, and that is invasive species. Florida is having a major problem with Burmese Pythons establishing a population around the state. They were introduced by the exotic pet trade, both by escapees and irresponsible owners releasing their snakes into the wild once they got to big to care for. There are no predators of the snake here, so breeding populations are beginning to grow out of control. Adult Pythons are very large and dangerous, and could eat an adult dog or small child. If you see a Python, call animal control immediately, they will catch and dispatch the animal. 

Conclusion

Snakes are not bad. As for the majority of snakes, they pose no risk to people or pets and should not be killed simply because someone is fearful of it. Snakes are a vital predator of our ecosystem, and by killing them we are allowing rodents into our houses to breed unchecked, and spread disease. So change your mentality, educate yourself on snake species, and vow to stop killing every snake you see, before we wipe out another important species. 

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