By Paula Musto
Snakes! Just the word triggers fear and loathing. Disdain for these creatures tops what people most dread ahead of rats, spiders and sharks. This is unfortunate—these misunderstood reptiles play an important role in the natural world and their declining population is cause for concern.
“They are part of nature and we should respect these animals who, like all species, serve a purpose,” says Carlton Burke, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who operates Carolina Mountain Naturalists. “Unfortunately, we judge snakes from a human perspective, but it’s a fallible one.”
Burke didn’t always feel this way. As a youngster he enjoyed the outdoors and wildlife, but was terrified of snakes. While on vacation in Maggie Valley, however, this changed. His family stopped at a roadside zoo where he learned that nearly all he knew about snakes was wrong.
“It’s a big reason why I am a naturalist now,” says Burke, a devoted advocate of wildlife conservation who often uses a snake from his collection (some 30 rehabilitated or born in captivity) for educational purposes. “People need to change their perspective and understand that most snakes are harmless.”
Of the more than 3,000 species of snakes worldwide only about 600 are venomous and only a small percentage of these are dangerous to humans. In Western North Carolina, there are 21 species of which two, the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake, are venomous.
“If you see a snake you believe to be venomous, or any snake, just stay away and it will slither off,” Burke says. “You don’t have to kill it. Snakes are extremely shy. And they have a lot of enemies.”
Lacking legs and wings, snakes cannot run or fly away from predators, which include raccoons, bobcats and large birds. As for humans, Burke says it’s a case of role reversal—snakes perceive us, big and scary beings, as the dangerous ones and will only strike if disturbed.
Yet, if snakes were in a popularity contest among other animals, they would surely lose. When I told friends that I was researching snakes, the response was almost always the same: “What! Those creepy, slimy, dangerous creatures.” Often, I heard the old adage: the only good snake is a dead snake. How untrue! Snakes fill an important niche in the natural world including:
• Pest control. Snakes eat copious amounts of insects and rodents, keeping harmful pests in check. This is especially important in controlling rats which carry ticks, a vector for Lyme Disease in humans. In efforts to control pests that decimate their crops and food supplies, farmers spend millions on chemicals that can damage the environment. Snakes provide free, eco-friendly pest control.
• Biodiversity. Snakes play an integral role in maintaining a balance in ecosystems as both predator and prey. Without snakes, not only would the number of prey species increase to unsustainable levels but predators, including birds and mammals, that eat these reptiles would struggle to find food. Snakes play a dynamic role within the food web.
• Scientific Research and Medicine. Snake venom has properties critical for the development of life-saving medications including treatments for high blood pressure, hemophilia and heart disease. Venom has proved so useful in research studies that neuroscientists credit snakes for some of the biggest discoveries related to the human nervous system. Without snakes, humans would not have a powerful medicinal tool.
Unfortunately, scientists report an alarming decline in many species of these underappreciated creatures. Habitat loss—the disappearing woodlands, prairies and swamps around the globe—is the biggest factor. Scientists warn that nearly two-thirds of snake species worldwide are threatened due to urban development and agriculture expansion. Along roadways, snakes are frequently killed by vehicle traffic and people who seek to eliminate the critters whether venomous or not.
In her book, Saving Snakes, Nicolette Cagle, a Duke University ecologist and researcher, decries the indiscriminate killing and urges urban dwellers to leave snakes alone or have them humanely relocated rather than killing them out of fear. “Snakes are in trouble,” Cagle writes. “To manage fear of snakes, we must learn to live with snakes, and perhaps even honor snakes. We must expand the sphere of our humanity to the nonhuman as well.”
As a society, we do not have to love snakes, but let’s at least respect their right to exist and appreciate their many contributions to our world.
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. To learn more or donate, visit AppalachianWild.org.