White River National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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This Snake is Good!

by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR -- May, 2007

Credit: USFWS

Winning Art for 2007: Pintails in acrylic by Joe Hautman, Plymouth, MN. Credit: USFWS

I have always enjoyed reading about nature and the outdoors. As a young boy I had read many copies of Ranger Rick and would spend hours thumbing through my Boy Scout handbook reading up on everything from winter survival to campfire cooking. One of the more vivid images in the earlier handbook was a close up view of a snake’s fangs and treatment for snake bite. This image of a vicious attacking snake stayed in my mind for a long time until I read a book called, “This Snake is Good.”

The book was part of the “Young Readers Collection” and figured it had something to do with nature. As I read the book, I kept expecting to see the snake bite image from my Boy Scout handbook, but it never came. Rather this book talked of how the snake ate rodents and other pests and that it had no interest in attacking humans if left unprovoked. Before reading this book, I always viewed snakes as evil or simply the cause of a life threatening injury.

Yes, snakes will bite and every year approximately 10,000 people will be bitten by a snake. Of these bites, less than 1% of these will be fatal. Over half of these bites involved alcohol use (not by the snake) and the majority of all snake bites are on hands and forearms. Why the hands and forearms? Well, the snakes are not jumping off the ground to bite people, these bites are from people trying to play, pick up, or kill the snake. Most of these injuries occur from us provoking or antagonizing the animal.

Here’s an example. A few weeks ago I was talking on the phone with a friend and I asked what he was up to. He said, “Oh, just heading down to the creek to shoot snakes.” When he said this I chuckled as I assumed that was just an expression that meant he was just killing time. However a couple of minutes later I heard him say, “Hold on a minute” and then I heard a loud “BOOM!”

He got back on the phone and said, “Got one!” There was a moment of silence as he remembered what I did for a living and he then said, “Umm, can I get a ticket for this?” I explained that the state law states the killing of snakes is only allowed when the animal is a threat to a person or property. He stated that he was shooting snakes around his pasture to protect his livestock and to keep them out of the yard. So, technically he may be legal, but I tried my best to explain how beneficial snakes can be in controlling rodents and other nuisance pests that carry disease and act as an immediate host for ticks that carry lime disease and other viruses.

Also, many snakes are shot every year for mistaken identity. I will often ask people, “What’s the last thing a snake hears before it dies?” The answer, “Look, a cottonmouth!” Many people mistake banded water snakes, hog nosed snakes, and even king snakes as poisonous and kill them assuming the snake is a threat.

My biggest concern with snakes is not me being bitten, but rather I worry about my children playing with and picking up a poisonous snake. To prevent this from happening, I have taught my 3 year old son to identify what snakes are poisonous and which ones are not. I teach him not to pick up any snakes but to also know the difference should he ignore me and pick up snakes anyway. He has enjoyed learning about the snakes of Arkansas and I hadn’t realized how much he had learned until I took him to see a snake I saw on the side of the road.

The snake had been run over by a car and was lying lifeless on the road shoulder. My son looked down from the van and said, “Dad, did somebody run over and kill a king snake?” I was surprised he knew what it was and told him that somebody had indeed killed the snake. He said, “but, king snakes eat poisonous snakes, isn’t this a good snake?” I told him that all snakes were good and each has a purpose in life, otherwise they never would have been created. But, he was right about the king snake’s unique ability to eat other snakes, including poisonous ones.

If you’re not a snake person, this is one snake you should try to love. King snakes are ophiophagous (meaning they eat other snakes) including venomous snakes. When the king snake attacks a poisonous snake, it is usually bitten, but the venom has no effect on the king snake. Perhaps someday we will be able to study the king snake and learn why venom is not toxic to it and be able to use this to create immunity for humans from all poisonous snakes.

For centuries man has tried to exterminate various species only to later learn that each native plant and animal has a vital purpose in nature. The Great Plains use to be home to countless black-tailed prairie dogs. This species use thought to be of little use and was almost annihilated. Later we have discovered that animals like this are “keystone” species that other communities of plants and animals depend on for survival. In the case of the black-tailed prairie dog, the burrows they dig provide homes for many species of snakes, insects, ferrets, and rabbits while the churning of the soil increases plant life that establishes vegetation to sustain larger grazing herds of animals. The black-tailed prairie dog is just one example of how the elimination of a species can harbor catastrophic effects on the larger ecosystem.

So, you may not like snakes, but you may love the other species of animals and plants that benefit by what the snakes do for this complex web of nature. For instance, you may not like the color brown, but you enjoy looking at a landscape painting of a fall scene. If you were to remove the color brown from the picture, you would lose most of the image and the painting would not be complete. For many people, snakes are the proverbial brown of the color world, but without them we couldn’t have a complete picture. So we can conclude that brown is needed to paint and snakes are needed to maintain an ecosystem and all snakes, poisonous or not, are good!

Last updated: September 9, 2008