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The Short, Sad Life of Snakes

By Tom Poland
web posted July 24, 2015

LIFE DOWN SOUTH – When I was the managing editor of South Carolina Wildlife a lean, tall man staggered into my office one afternoon. He wore a big cowboy hat, fancy boots, and a string tie adorned by a silver and turquoise clasp. He looked like an older version of Josey Wales. He was sun-and liquor-burnt and burning mad.
“You got to do something about folks killing snakes,” he said, red-eyed, agitated, and smelling of Jim Beam. He had just seen a car swerve across a country lane to deliberately run over a rattler. He drove into the city to find the wildlife magazine boys and state his case.

“People will run over a snake and it keeps on crawling,” he said. “They think it’s fine but all its organs are crushed and it goes off to die a long slow death. We got to stop that.” He paced about, visibly upset. I knew the source of his troubled mind. “The only good snake is a dead snake.” A Biblical fear of snakes seems to inhabit way too many people. Just the other day a fellow told me he killed a king snake in his back yard.

“That’s a beneficial snake,” I told him, “one that will run off or kill its venomous cousins.”

“I didn’t like how it looked,” he said. He paused, saying; “I don’t want any snakes in my yard.” Way too many people don’t want a snake of any kind slithering about their property. They want it dead.

Later in the week a woman emailed me a photo of a copperhead crushed by the wheels of her car. “The only good snake is a dead snake.”

Psychologists say two fears are hardwired into our DNA: a fear of heights and a fear of snakes. The fear of snakes is called ophidiophobia and it’s irrational. Snakes eat insects and rats, neither of which benefits the garden. One rodent-eating snake can wipe out a rat family in weeks.

And snakes do these good deeds without hurting the environment. They don’t damage the landscape. (Can you say that about squirrels?) They don’t hurt plants. They don’t make noise like yapping dogs, and they avoid people at all costs. Sure if you mess with one or inadvertently step on it will defend itself but by and large it will leave you alone.

Give snakes a break. The snake is the farmer’s friend, protecting his crops and feed from insatiable rats. And there’s one other reason to be nice to snakes. Snake venom is miraculous stuff. A component of snake venom has demonstrated its ability to inhibit cancer cell migration in two different cancer models. Snake venom, some scientists believe, might hold the chemical key to curing diabetes too. Save a snake and you may be saving the life of future generations.

Now I’m no different than you. I don’t care to be close to snakes but neither do I kill every snake I come across and I dare go into their world a lot. Not long ago I was in as wild a place as I’ve been in years. My co-author Robert Clark and I explored swamps and tangled jungle-like greenery. We were so deep into woods we had no cell service. We slogged through dangerous places where ideally snakes like to be. If something bad happened we would have been in a world of hurt. We made plenty of noise, a good thing. We never saw one snake but we did see evidence that they were around as you can see from the photo running with this piece.

The next time you see a snake put yourself in its place. Imagine you’re a cold-blooded animal with no way of controlling your body temperature other than using the environment. Your serpentine travels bring you to a flat warm expanse of sun-struck asphalt. It’s just what you need. You stretch out on the highway to warm yourself.

Here comes a truck and the driver veers over into the opposite lane to end your short sad life. With internal organs crushed you manage to crawl out of the road but just barely. Much to the glee of local rats and vultures, you die in a nearby ditch.

The above scenario is precisely what happened the day Josey Wales walked into my office. I remember he said a rattlesnake was one of the more beautiful creatures God created. I told him that if he would take a stab at writing an article about the good things snakes do I’d give it a chance to see print. I never heard from him again but I never forgot him.

In the middle of a busy afternoon in the city this country fellow, drunk and upset, paid me a visit. He wanted me to persuade people to quit killing snakes just because they can. All these years later, consider his request fulfilled.

Photos by Tom

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