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“I didn’t know if it was venomous or not.”

October 11, 2017

“I didn’t know if it was venomous or not.”

How many times have I heard this? It’s got to be the most common thing I hear when looking at or listening to a neighbor’s description of a dead snake.

“I didn’t want to take any chances.”

Chances, indeed. I’ve been the resident ‘reptile weirdo’ for as long as I can remember–and I can’t tell you how many postmortem serpentine identifications I’ve performed. From blurry cell phone pictures to decapitated corpses to vague descriptions–I’ve seen it all.

Despite years of identifying snakes for friends and neighbors–only twice have I seen snakes that pose a danger to human beings, yet so many of these snakes have been dead. Why is that?

When it comes to snakes, most people’s instinct is to kill first and ask questions later. Plain and simple, snakes are scary. There’s something ingrained deep in the human psyche that makes us flinch and jump away when we catch a glimpse of scales under dead leaves, and for good reason. Venomous snakes can indeed be dangerous–or at least deliver a nasty bite!

Here’s the thing–your chances of seeing a dangerous snake are slim. The most common venomous snakes in our area are Cottonmouths and Copperheads, both of which are reclusive, nocturnal predators. Far more common are the strikingly striped Yellow Rat Snake, and the surprisingly colorful Eastern Ringneck. Both of these snakes are completely harmless, so why do they so often wind up dead?

The answer is misplaced paranoia. Most people are far more willing to see a snake and simply assume it could be dangerous rather than take the time to ID the creature and make a decision based on research. They kill the snake ‘just to be safe.’

Here’s the twist, though–killing a snake is about the least safe thing you can do when confronted with one. Research shows up to 80% of snakebites occur when someone attempts to capture or kill the reptile, while accidents involving unseen snakes are rare. You’re much more likely to be bitten by one if you’re bothering it–a snake left alone is extremely unlikely to strike.

Still, knowing a venomous snake has taken up residence in your yard can be unsettling. When in doubt, it’s ALWAYS best to leave the animal alone, but here are a few ways to ID a snake on the fly.

1- Look at the head shape of the snake. Venomous snakes in our area have arrow shaped heads and slightly upturned noses. Harmless snakes have heads that taper into their necks and flatter noses.
2- Observe body shape. Snakes that have thin necks and drastically thicker bodies are likely venomous, and most of our local non-venomous snakes have long, thin bodies that are about the same width throughout.

3- While it isn’t recommended to get this close, the shape of the snake’s pupil can indicate its species. Venomous snakes will have slit pupils, and harmless snakes will have round ones.

4- Be aware of what snakes are found in your area. Look at pictures of both venomous and non venomous snakes in your area so as to have a better idea what snake you may be looking at.

When in doubt, it is ALWAYS best to leave the snake alone. If the snake is venomous, contact animal control or a snake removal service (yes, these exist.) If the snake isn’t dangerous, be a good samaritan and leave it to go on it’s way.

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