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Let venomous snakes be

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POSTED: November 10, 2013 5:00 p.m.

I prefer fact-based decisions. Results of decisions based on facts seem to have less unintended consequences than those based on emotion, faulty logic or what a revered ancestor did.
I was looking online for information on reptiles and found Dr. David Steen’s blog and was particularly taken with the entry, “The only good dog is a dead dog.” Steen has applied logic and fact to a very emotionally charged subject — snakes.
Steen received his Ph.D. from Auburn University, his M.S. from the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry and his B.S. from the University of New Hampshire. He researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at www.LivingAlongsideWildlife.com.
I contacted him for permission to share it here. This is a reprint of that blog. The complete article is too long for my space here, so like Gaul, it is divided into three parts. You can find the cited references at www.livingalongsidewildlife.com/2013/10/the-only-good-dog-is-dead-dog-why-it.html.
We have often discussed here on this blog how and why killing snakes whenever and wherever you see one is a questionable land ethic. But, in the past I conceded that I understand why people would kill venomous snakes when they are found in their backyards because of the perceived threat to their families. Prompted by some comments left on a recent blog post, I’ve reflected on this a bit more and have come to the conclusion that I think I was wrong: It does not actually make sense to kill venomous snakes in your yard.
My reasoning is the topic of this post. That said, I can’t possibly predict the outcome of every wild animal encounter and I can’t tell you what is the safest thing to do in any specific situation. I can, however, speak in general terms. I hope you will take this information and decide for yourself what the proper course of action may be when you find a venomous snake.
Many people kill all the venomous snakes they see in their yard because they feel this makes their property safer for themselves and their family. These killings are the topic I’ll be discussing below. This isn’t a post about saving snakes and being a tree hugger, it’s about reducing the chances that a venomous snake will bite you. I will attempt to make the following points:
Killing venomous snakes around your property in an attempt to make your property safer does not make sense because:
1) The risk of being bitten by a venomous snake when you are not harassing that snake is extremely low and,
2) The risk of being bitten by a venomous snake when you are trying to kill it is relatively high, therefore,
3) The act of killing a venomous snake increases your personal risk disproportionately to any potential decrease in the probability that the snake will bite you or someone else in the future (I don’t actually have the statistics to prove this point, but I feel it is a common sense conclusion given the information I summarize here).
4) A venomous snake on your property is probably there because you are in or around good snake habitat, therefore there are likely to be multiple future encounters with additional snakes, leading to multiple dangerous encounters if they are all killed as they are observed.
5) Teaching and encouraging others to kill snakes increases the chances that they will mimic that behavior, thereby increasing their risk of snakebite.
6) Finally, you unlikely do anything about the many other things that are around your property that are more likely to kill you than snakes.
First off, do snakes deserve their deadly reputation? In the United States, there are about 7,000-8,000 recorded venomous snakebites a year. Of all these bites, on average only about five result in death (1). Although there are a fair number of snake bites each year (and a few deaths), this number includes all the drunk knuckleheads that are showing off with a snake they caught; it includes all the people at rattlesnake roundups holding rattlesnakes and letting them strike at their boots; all the religious snake handlers proving their faith; all the people who keep venomous snakes as pets; all the wildlife researchers who handle live rattlesnakes as part of their job; the pest control workers that remove venomous snake from their hiding places; all the Steve Irwin wannabes that harass venomous snakes for no particular reason; the people who work with rattlesnakes to extract their venom every day; and all the people who use shovels or other hand tools to kill snakes in their yard.
You can dramatically decrease your chances of being bitten by a venomous snake by promising not to be any of those people. It is very unusual for a person minding his or her own business to be bitten by a venomous snake. Depending on which study you’re looking at, many if not most of all the snakebites in the United States occur when attempts are made to capture or kill a snake (and many of these attempts occur when under the influence of alcohol, e.g., Morandi and Williams reference below, 2).
Killing a snake with a gun does not carry the same risks as killing a snake in hand-to-serpent combat with shovels or sticks because you can be out of the snake’s strike range when you pull the trigger. But firing a gun may not be legal or advisable in your backyard or around houses.
Even being well-trained with a firearm is no guarantee tragedy won’t occur, just ask the Oklahoma police officer that in 2007 shot at a Ratsnake in a yard and killed a 5-year-old boy fishing with his grandfather in a nearby pond. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether using a gun to kill a snake is a reasonable option, but just remember that no matter how the snake is killed, it can still envenomate you if you handle the corpse.
Assuming you’re not using a gun, just by deciding to not capture or kill venomous snakes (especially after you’ve been drinking), your chances of being bitten by one drops dramatically. Let me summarize this to make the point very clear. If nobody tried to capture or kill venomous snakes in the United States, probably about two people would die a year, on average, from a venomous snake bite. That doesn’t mean that even a single death isn’t a tragedy, but it needs to be put in perspective considering there are nearly 314 million people living in the United States.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series. Gardner lives in Keller and is the UGA extension agent for Glynn County, serving South Bryan.

 

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