Sunday, May 17, 2009

This Article is Not for Ophidiophobiacs

or, In Defense of Snakes

Lately, as the weather warms up and our cold-blooded reptile friends come out to bask in the sun and rise above their cold-weather induced state of hibernation, I am reminded again of how many people just hate snakes. Yes, I understand that some people dislike them because they make themselves a nuisance about eating things they shouldn't - poultry, small animals, the songbird chicks you anxiously awaited the hatching of, etc.
However, it seems to me many people are indiscriminately thrown into a state of hysterical blood thirst at the sight of something that even slightly resembles a snake. And since I have appointed myself champion of this widely disliked creature, I've decided to expound on the subject.
I believe this desire in so many people to kill anything that has scales and moves is inspired by terror. Most people are terrified of snakes, and it's easy to see why. From my several stints of working at a mobile petting zoo, I've seen how this indoctrination occurs.
At these events I would usually post myself somewhere with a medium-sized ball python, and wait for people to jump when they suddenly realised the girl was holding a snake. (It's great fun). I must appear so harmless, people would absently meander towards me and not notice I wasn't alone until they were a few feet of away - then came the shock factor. The almost uniform reaction was for the person to: jump out of their skin, or; do a double take, and then jump out of their skin. Some people screamed, and I say 'people' because men did it as often as the women did.
Then, after asking me the usual questions (why are you holding that thing? Doesn't it bite? Has it ever tried to strangle you?) the next thing was to drag over any children in their party and tell them with the greatest of gravity:
"You see that thing? That's a snake. It'll bite you, and you'll die."
The few intrepid children who continued to pooh-pooh these warnings, and pet the snake, usually excited shrill noises of disbelief from the less daring adults. Of course, for every two mothers I'd see who were determined to instill a deadly terror of reptile into their offspring, there was one who would show their children that snakes aren't so bad, and would lead the way in snake-petting.
Of course if it had been a king cobra I was holding, I would have been the fool, and everyone else would have been quite right. But even a ball python at it's largest can't harm a human. Very few snakes can kill a man by constriction, and often the man-eating-snake accounts one reads in the news are contested or proved as hoaxes later.
Most snakes kill their prey by some form of constriction, however. In the Southern states we have only three venomous snakes (to my knowledge): the copperhead, the rattlesnake, and the cottonmouth (also known as the water moccasin).
Of these snakes, I have only encountered a cottonmouth twice: once a baby one, and another time I can't really remember very well. It was a summer or two ago and I only remember messing with it because I wanted to make sure it was a cottonmouth. I do remember, though, that it was extremely hard to get the animal to become aggressive. (I believe I was leaning off a low bridge, and I know I was using a stick). It was sluggish, hence the reason I was able to get it to open its mouth before it got away. (The insides of the mouth is pure white, hence the name). The whole thing is rather blur, although it shouldn't be, since I have a misguided infatuation with messing with venomous snakes.
Last year there were copperheads everywhere, which is unusual. The closest encounter I had with one was when I ran barefoot around a bend in a trail, colliding with the snake, which was coming down the trail.
This gave me a good chance to observe what most people take to be threatening behavior in snakes: the copperhead pulled it's head back close to it's body and either let out a gasp of air or breathed sharply in - it didn't really sound like a hiss, although I guess that's what most people would call it.
The snake actually retreated - even though I'd almost stepped on him, and my foot had really, really been in his face. They usually do try to get away first. This is a logical decision on the part of the snake, a survival instinct. Imagine yourself a creature without arms or legs. As a human, if somebody hits you (or steps on you, kicks you, stomps you, attacks you with a hoe, what have you), you can use an arm to shield yourself, fight back, or both. A creature who can only defend itself by putting it's head in the line of fire will usually choose retreat. It's a matter of self-preservation.
Which is what this venomous snake tried to do. He had the power to bite, and it's not as if the animal doesn't know it. So I retreated, too, but my aunt's dog did not. I saw him leaping around and all over the frantic snake, who still just wanted to leave. I wasn't exactly attempting to tear the dog away, since I knew with my luck I'd probably be the one who got bitten and end up dying on my way back to the house or something. So I screamed for the dog until he was bored of tormenting the snake and came back.
The copperhead had not bitten him. It could have if it had wanted to, he's a big target, and he definitely wasn't trying to elude the reptile. I say I absolutely would have bitten him, if I'd been the snake, but perhaps they really were made to prefer going on their way without making enemies.
I've never seen a rattlesnake in the wild, although I've heard they're malicious creatures thirsty for the blood of man. However, I've also heard this about the copperhead and my (favorite, non-venomous) native snake, the black ratsnake. So I don't put much faith in the statement's veracity.
Black ratsnakes are often referred to simply as blacksnakes, but I usually call them ratsnakes, hoping to slyly endear them to the rat-fearing public, which seems to despise rodents almost as much as is does reptiles. Yes, ratsnakes eat rodents, and also other venomous snakes. (This fact usually makes people warm up to them a lot more). They're usually plain black with a white belly, but oftentimes I'll find one with a lovely checkerboard pattern on their underside, and I usually have to catch it. Here I have some examples:
Here is a marvelous picture of a healthy adult, in what I would interpret as a mildly harassed or surprised posture. (I've deduced it might be the result of a camera stuck in his face :D) Ratsnakes do resemble kingsnakes, but they are different. Kingsnakes are more of a yellow where the ratsnake would be white, and they aren't as common, in my experience.

Here is a beautiful little juvenile ratsnake, never to be confused with the Southern copperhead, which looks vastly different:

This picture truly doesn't do the snake justice. However, the color and pattern of the snake is very vivid, and almost unmistakable. If you aren't quite sure, it's probably not a copperhead. I have seen some copperheads from other states, such as Florida, that look less vibrant - it could have to do with diet. But North Carolina copperheads are copper in every way! It's a very beautiful snake, but its bite is unpleasant. The good thing is, bites usually occur when people are trying to kill or catch the snake.

Copperhead young, which are just as poisonous as their adult counterparts, can be easily distinguished by their yellow tails.
Copperheads can, and do, sometimes take to the water, but usually for very specific purposes. It isn't their optimum element so they will try to avoid it. There are some brown water snakes that faintly resemble copperheads - the imitation is a natural defense. But the chances of encountering a copperhead in the water are very slim, and water snakes themselves are very shy and elusive.
I've always given water snakes a wide berth, for reasons I'm not quite sure of, so I can't say much about them, except that they seem to come in amazing diversity. They're usually a brown color, but may be solid or patterned, and come in many different shades. Some species, such as the Northern water snake, share winter dens with black snakes and copperheads. (This seems to be the one time that they call a truce and refrain from eating one another).

One way to tell if a snake is venomous is to look at its eyes - non-poisonous snakes have very round or oval eyes, whereas poisonous snakes have a flattening at the top which results in an "angry" or "evil" eye. Most people are unanimous in their desire to never get close enough to a snake to check out its eyes, however. And this trick only works on North American snakes.
So, while I understand a dislike of pet or livestock eating snakes, and also agree with the necessity of removing venomous snakes from, say, children's' play areas, otherwise I've found them to be a rather non-confrontational, laid-back sort of animal. I've only been bitten twice, both times intentionally, and I have not died. (I just wanted to see what it felt like. It's like being poked with a needle).
All snakes have a fascinating internal organ arrangement. Their hearts are able to move around, as a protective measure for when the snake is swallowing large meals. This feature can make the snake troublesome to evolutionists, since snakes would have needed these manoeuvrable hearts instantaneously, to prevent them from suffering heart damage every time they eat a meal.
Their left lung is borderline non-functional and sometimes not present at all, owing to the elongated, slim shape of a snake. They don't have a colenary bladder or lymph nodes. They aren't slimy or slippery - many people are very surprised to find them smooth, very dry, and sleek. They don't have eyelids or external ears, which distinguished them from legless lizards.

They move around quickly and capably, most using something called terrestrial lateral undulation - they move right and left, in that well-known 'S' mode, using their amazing muscles. If you feel the side of a fit snake it will be as hard as a bone, because the muscle is so strong and powerful.
Snakes practically never get sick, but when cut or injured they usually take a while to heal. And while they don't have the cerebral capacity for "human" emotions, such as love or anxiety, they are still very intelligent, cunning creatures, able to adapt amazingly and instantaneously to life in or out of the wild.
Overall the snake is an amazing creature. It survives without arms, legs, claws, or teeth. The ones that do have venom use it more often to kill or paralyze their food, than in self-defense. When you really think about it it's amazing that snakes are still around, but they are - perhaps even protected, somewhat, by the awe people seem to hold them in.

However, a word of comfort for those who are still afraid of snakes: it has at least been proven that fictional characters with this affliction can function in a reptile-infested world: Indiana Jones was a ophidiophobiac. ;-)


  1. Duck eggs Kaley, we weep over many poor little wretched duck eggs. Any advice on how to catch one of these black rascals?
    Aunt Mel

  2. Yeuhh, about that. . . Grab it behind its head and don't take too long about it. But it doesn't hurt TOO awful bad when you're bitten. . .