Why do we Kill Harmless Snakes?

Authored by Todd Cornwell Unique Birthday Party Parties for Kids & Reptile Rescue

Why do we Kill Harmless Snakes

Snakes do so much good, many species eat rodents, meaning they’re also consuming ticks and other zoonotic disease carrying animals. The average gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) will consume 35 – 60 (assorted sizes) rats or mice a year. Just killing one snake can increase the rodent population in the area by 70,000 in a year! (No one knows for sure, as rodents are on the bottom of the food chain, but just take a look at this graph of the potential offspring from ONE pair of rats)

Rat Population

Considering this, I think you are more likely to be eaten by rats, than you are by snakes. (Hirschhorn and Hodge (1999) studied 622 rat bite cases on record in Philadelphia from 1974 to 1996. The study found that rat bites primarily affected children age five and younger, with a range of less than 5 to over 75 years of age.) Wild rats can carry a lot of diseases, the ticks on them carry Lyme disease, hantavirus, arenavirus, bubonic plague, and many other zoonotic disease vectors, I won’t list them all, but you get the idea.

Fear of Snakes

So why do we kill snakes? Fear is the main culprit. Almost every movie, or TV show with snakes in it, the snakes are portrayed as bad, evil, etc (except Kung-fu Panda…), so any natural fear, is exponentially enlarged by our viewing of TV. As so eloquently said by Baba Dioum

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”

The fear of snakes is believed to be a carried instinct from our ancestors. As hunter-gatherers they would encounter snakes both venomous and large constrictor like snakes so they learned to fear snakes. This ‘instinct’ was then passed on. That’s one thought process, another is we have no basis for context of what it means to be a snake. We identify with things to which we are similar much easier than things which are dissimilar to us.

For example animals with four appendages appeal more to most than those with more or less appendages. This topic and much more was covered in-depth with interviews from Dr. Barbara J. King a renowned Primatologist and author of How Animals Grieve? (highly recommend) and many other scientists you can find them all in The Reptile Living Room. Fear of Snakes: Dr. Barbara J. King

Snake Encounters in the Wild

Gopher snakes, (like most snakes), are afraid of anything larger than themselves this is the most basic instinct of survival in the wild. ‘If it’s bigger than me, then it’s probably going to eat me.’
(*Editor’s Note: This concept of the snake understanding a larger animal presents a threat shows the snake is a cognitive animal.)

This fear turns into an instant defensive display behavior called mimicry which involves them puffing themselves up to be bigger, curling into an S shape, striking out, hissing, and shaking (rattling) their tails. All of this to invoke our image as well as other would be predators of a rattlesnake. The word display here is used in the context of the gopher snake being a non-venomous and non-lethal snake to humans. If handled, they may bite, sometimes repeatedly. These bites, while drawing blood, are usually inoffensive beyond the possibility of a tooth breaking off under the skin, and becoming infected. They will also musk which is basically a wet snake fart for lack of better terminology.

Other snakes use color patterns known as Batesian mimicry. This can be seen in the Milksnake’s (Lampropeltis) imitation of the venomous Coral snake (Micrurus fulvius). Other snakes use actions as seen above, a lot of harmless snakes will mimic venomous snakes so you will leave them alone. This in turn, triggers our own flight or fight instinct.

Generally, rattlesnakes, unless specifically disturbed, don’t act aggressive at all. Preferring to blend in and stay unnoticed, this ‘behavior’ is known as crypsis. Studies show most rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) bites happen either to the hands/forearms, or to the ankles/lower legs and most venomous bites occur when trying to kill the animal, (or take drunk selfies). A 1988 USC Medical Center study resulted in a profile of the average snakebite victim. It found that 44% of snake bites were accidental, more than half resulted from the victim handling a snake, 28% of the victims were intoxicated, and 90% of the victims were male, most of whom were in their 20s. I recently had to relocate a northern pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus), and a pacific gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer). You can see both of them in my rescue bucket in this below

Rattlesnake (Crotalus sp.) and Gopher Snake (Pituophis sp.) rescue by Todd Cornwell

Rattlesnake (Crotalus sp.) and Gopher Snake (Pituophis sp.) rescue by Todd Cornwell

As you can see, the gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) was raring to go, the rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) was like “whatever dude”. When you “know” what you can do, minor annoyances don’t mean a lot. It’s like getting a flat tire, as a teen driver, you might panic and cause an accident, when you are older and experienced, you calmly pull over. Either change the tire, or call a tow truck to help. But you know what to do.

So in the case of the gopher snake and often times many other species of harmless snakes, what might save their lives in the wild using mimicry (acting venomous), in our world gets them killed. We react in fear, before we get all the facts, assuming the snake who is acting up, is in fact a potentially lethal creature. But truth be told, the snake you just killed, might have already saved your life as seen above.

The other issue needing to be raised here is the venomous snakes who are also encountered also play the same if not an even more important role in the biological diversity of their range. This goes without mentioning the fact that as of this publication numerous drugs for various serious human ailments have already been manufactured and are in distribution saving lives every day. All of them based on the venom of reptiles. These drugs are outside the antivenom that is incredibly limited to do the incredibly limited talent such as Kentucky Reptile Zoo and the skill it takes to milk venomous reptiles while maintaining the vast array of habitats needed to house the numerous species involved. Contrary to thankfully unpopular television shows like the recently cancelled Discovery debacle milking venomous snakes is not a profession of vast profit margins and world travels. It’s a labor of incredible passion and quite possibly one of the most risky professions. For more on this you pull up a chair into the Reptile Living Room with Carl Barden.

For more information on the Pituophis genre drop by our colleagues site Reptile Talk

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