Yikes! A Snake!

By Debbie Kutzleb

Why are so many people afraid of snakes? Is it because a snake (the devil) tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, or have we been trained to fear snakes by Hollywood and childhood stories? Most of us have heard stories of dramatic snake encounters where someone was surprised by a snake; almost stepping on a snake; finding a snake in the garage; seeing a snake while canoe- ing or fishing . . . While such stories can be entertaining, they also reinforce our fear of snakes. The truth is that there are very few species of poisonous snakes in the U.S. and most people have no personal adverse experience from a snake encounter—other than fear. Snakes have been revered and worshiped in mythology around the globe in India, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North American Indian societies. Pharaohs of Egypt wore snakes on the headdress with the belief that they were protective. Greeks thought snakes had healing powers, and American Hopi Indian mythology describes a “yellow-snake-with-rattles” suddenly becoming the loveliest and fairest of maidens.

While ancient mythology is hardly a reason to abandon a fear of snakes,
the truth about snakes may help “set you free” of fear. Within the United States, approximately 7,000–8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year, and about five of those people die. In Maryland there are 27 species of snakes, only two of which are poisonous: the Copperhead and Timber Rattlesnake, and there are no Rattle- snakes anywhere near Piscataway Hills. Contrary to popular opinion, there are no Water Moccasin / Cotton Mouth snakes in Maryland. Copperheads account for more cases of venomous snake bite than any other North American species; however, their venom is the least toxic, so their bite is seldom fatal. According to Maryland Poison Control Center, only two to six people are bitten in Maryland by poisonous snakes each year, and when bitten even when untreated, death is very, very rare. Compare snake bite fatalities with other risks facing Marylanders. Each year in Maryland, 500 people die in traffic accidents; 70 drown, and 50 die from fire injury. If the fear of snakes was rational, who among us would have the courage to leave the house? In the famous words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

In the seven years I’ve lived in Piscataway Hills, I’ve seen dozens of snakes while working in the garden, paddling the creek, or tromping in the woods. Most of them have been Eastern Rat Snakes or Northern Water Snakes, but I’ve been lucky to also see a Northern Rough Green Snake, Common Ribbon Snakes, Eastern Garter Snakes, and Northern Brown Snakes, and have been especially pleased to have seen an Eastern King Snake. Although other neighbors have reported seeing Copperheads, I have never witnessed a Copperhead in Piscataway Hills. Why am I so sure? I’m usually looking for any creature great or small, and Copperheads are easy to identify. Compared to most other Maryland snakes, Copperheads are stocky, heavy bodied snakes. They have a distinctive brown hour glass pattern, and like all poisonous viper snakes, their head is significantly broader than their neck. Copperheads often have a copper colored head and can be brown, yellow brown, pale tan, or grey.

Enough already about a snake seldom seen. Regardless of the species
of snake, all snakes are beneficial and rarely a pest in Maryland. Without snakes, it’s likely the woods would be overrun by rodents: moles, voles, mice, and rats. A single rodent-eating snake (Eastern Rat Snake) can wipe out a rat family in a matter of weeks. Rodents (particularly mice) are the source of spirochetal bacteria that is the cause of Lyme disease. That’s right, deer are not the source of Lyme disease; they are merely the last host in the life cycle of Lyme disease- infected ticks and play no role in infecting ticks with Lyme disease bacteria.

Besides helping control Lyme disease (too bad snakes don’t eat deer), snakes are great garden creatures. They don’t dig holes, although they can often be found in holes dug by other animals. Several small snakes can control the grasshopper population in a small garden, and the best cure for a chipmunk infestation is a snake. Unless harassed, snakes don’t make noise, and usually the only evidence of snakes in your garden is an occasional snake skin.

Snakes do not carry or transmit rabies, fleas, mange, or skin fungus,
and generally do not transmit diseases, although there are rare cases of salmonella infections from handling snakes. So next time you see a snake, don’t pick it up. Instead, give it a wide berth as they are mostly afraid of humans, and give thanks for all the good it does for our ecosystem.