Good things about snakes
By Scott Shalaway
SNAKES evoke strong emotional reactions from the general public. Few love and appreciate them. Many fear and loathe them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people, including more than a few little old ladies, brag about chopping them to bits with a shovel or hoe.
That’s too bad because snakes earn their keep by eating mice, chipmunks and other small mammals. Smaller snakes that eat insects, earthworms and other smaller prey go largely unnoticed. But larger backyard snakes bear the brunt of the typical ophidiphobic’s rage.
Fear of snakes can be eased if done sensitively, but sometimes even the best intentions go awry. My wife, for example, has always been repulsed by snakes. Intellectually, she understands their role in the environment, she just hates the way they slither and stare. They slither because they are legless, and stare because their eyes are protected by transparent scales rather than moveable eyelids.
Many years ago, I tried to ease Linda’s fear by having her handle a particularly tame and docile black rat snake. She completed the exercise admirably, but it didn’t change her mind about snakes; she still makes me relocate any that appear near the house. (I don’t even mention the shed skins I occasionally find in the basement.)
I didn’t want my daughters to inherit my wife’s attitude toward snakes, so I worked with them early. Nora was 3 when I caught a small milk snake and let her hold it. It slid through her fingers and flicked its tongue, searching for odors, in her face. Twenty years later, Nora has no fear to snakes.
Emma, six years younger than Nora, got her lesson at age 7, with quite different results.
The “X” factor in handling snakes is that each has its own temperament. Some are nice, and some are nasty. I had Emma hold an 8-inch Ringneck Snake. It was pencil thin, and the orange ring around its neck was absolutely stunning. Emma was spellbound until the Ringneck bit the tip of her little finger.
Now, a Ringneck Snake’s bite can’t even break the skin of a little girl, so the bite was harmless. But the tiny teeth got stuck on Emma’s finger tip, and she panicked. It took me a few seconds to calm her down so I could gently work the snake’s teeth from her skin. To me, it was a non-event — no blood, no marks. To Emma, it was a big deal. Even today, 11 years later, she loathes snakes even more than my wife.
One theory explains human fear of snakes as having ancient evolutionary origins. Poisonous snakes and large constrictors were threats to early man, so fear and spotting snakes before they could strike was advantageous. Thus snakes helped drive the development of larger human brains and keen vision. Any snake that you might encounter in a backyard setting is likely to be harmless, though perhaps disconcerting.
Garter Snakes (seldom longer than 36 inches) can be recognized by three longitudinal stripes that run the length of the body. The aforementioned ringneck snake (up to 20 inches) is charcoal gray with a bright yellow or orange ring around its neck.