Avoiding Snakebites: A guide to co-existing with snakes! By Matt Ellerbeck (A.K.A The Snake Man) – Snake Advocate & Conservationist
Snakes are among the world’s most misunderstood and feared creatures. However, the horrible reputation that snakes have is not deserved.
Snakes will not make unprovoked attacks on people. When a person comes in contact with a snake, the animal’s first instinct will be to rapidly flee the area and find shelter. If the snake doesn’t do this, it may just stay perfectly still to try to blend in with the surroundings.
Even if the snake is captured, it may still not resort to biting – proof of its gentle demeanor. The snake has several harmless tactics it can resort to as an alternative to biting. The snake may hiss, make mock strikes with a closed mouth, or flail around to try and escape. This is the snake’s way of saying just leave me alone!
Milksnake photograph taken by Matt Ellerbeck
An account of the true nature of snakes can be found in a study done by University of Georgia Professor Dr. Whit Gibbons. The following excerpt from Dr. Gibbons’ study speaks for itself:
All the snake species tested have had the same initial response to human presence. If given the opportunity, they escape–down a hole, under a ledge, or in the case of cottonmouth snakes, into the water. Escape is even the standard behaviors of enormous diamondback rattlesnakes, which will immediately disappear if they have enough warning before they think a person can reach them. The snakes just want us to leave them alone.
Snake bites on humans usually only happen when someone is deliberately trying to provoke or harm a snake, and the animal bites purely in self defense. According to NC State University, almost 80% of snake bites happen when someone is trying to capture or kill the snake. All these facts show that snakes are not aggressive or evil animals. If you provoke and capture a wild animal, what can you expect but to be bitten since the animal is going to try to defend itself?
The key to being safe around snakes is to simply leave them alone. The following excerpt from the book ‘Dangerous Snakes of Africa’ by Branch and Spawls (1995), speaks volumes: Snakes never make unprovoked attacks.
Edward R. Ricciuti’s The Snake Almanac (Lyons Press 2001), states that venomous snakes do not look for people to bite and Mark O’ Shea’s Venomous Snakes of the World (Princeton University Press 2005), proclaims that people must realize that snakes are not out to bite them but prefer to be left alone.
Queen snake photograph taken by Matt Ellerbeck
Sometimes hikers and campers will encounter a snake when the animal is out basking in the sun or forging for food. When startled, the snake may slither rapidly towards the direction of shelter (like a burrow or under a rock). When the snake darts suddenly, it may give the illusion that it is chasing after you. This is not true though. Sadly, people’s anxiety in such a situation only fuels the belief that the snake was pursuing them.
It is also important to remember that most snakes are completely harmless. In fact only around 13% of all snake species are venomous. Of this small number, even less are equipped with venom that is strong enough to seriously harm a human being.
If a venomous snake does bite a person, often no venom is injected into the bite. This is called a dry bite. Snakes have venom first and foremost as a means to quickly subdue their prey. The venom also helps the snake digest its meal, as it aids in breaking down the prey internally. This is important as snakes do not chew their food but swallow it whole. As humans are too big for snakes to eat, they will not want to waste their precious venom on us.
If the snake does inject venom, proper medical treatment and anti-venom can usually save the person’s life. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, only about 0.2% of people bitten by snakes in United States actually die from the bite. According to the University of Melbourne’s Snakebite Mortality In Australia’ (2003), death from venomous snakebite in Australia is relatively uncommon. Ontario is home to just one species of venomous snake, the Massasauga rattlesnake. It is a shy species that prefers to avoid people. There have only been two fatalities in Ontario linked to snakebite ever, and in both cases the victims did not receive appropriate medical treatment which almost certainly would of saved their lives.
Rattlesnake photograph taken by Matt Ellerbeck
It is very easy to co-exist with snakes, especially since they do many useful things for people. First of all, snakes are great controllers of rodents like rats and mice. Without snakes, rodent populations would serge and these creatures would destroy crops, affecting our food supply. Rodents also spread harmful diseases which can seriously affect our health. Snakes are great at hunting rodents because they can crawl into small burrows and other areas that rodents use as shelters. These places are too small for other predators to get into.
Snakes also help stop the spread of Lyme disease. According to a study conducted through the University of Maryland, a single Timber Rattlesnake eats up to 4,500 ticks a year! Small rodents often carry the bacteria (genus Borrelia) that produces Lyme Disease. When ticks bite these rodents, they can later drop off and then spread the disease to humans or pets. Luckily, snakes prey heavily on rodents, and then in turn the ticks attached to them! Therefore, snakes are extremely useful to people, as they help stop the spread of this disease.
Furthermore, snakes are saving the lives of countless numbers of people every year. Snake venom is being used in the medical field to treat all sorts of serious ailments like heart and stroke disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, blood clots, and many more.
Despite these benefits, countless numbers of snakes are killed by fearful people every year. We must look past our fear and ignorance and see snakes for what they really are – interesting creatures that play very important roles in the eco-system. A fear of snakes can be a learned behavior, so we must learn not to pass our irrational fears onto our children, but teach them to respect wildlife.