Monday, May 23, 2011

The Only Good Snake is Dead Snake Pt. 2

My wife and I went camping and hiking at Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg, Texas this weekend. As I walked across the parking lot I noticed a group of adult scout leaders pointing at something in a tree. Another man from their group was rushing toward the tree with a bundle of tent poles. I knew what they were gawking at before I even heard the word, "snake." Several kids were admonished for not keeping their distance.
I slipped in behind the group, who were almost all in agreement that it was a diamondback rattlesnake. They were looking at it with the same disgust usually reserved for drug dealers or child abusers and the plan to kill the snake was clear.
"It's a Texas rat snake," I said, "totally harmless." They whirled toward me and I thought for a second that they might beat me with the tent poles for suggesting that the snake was anything less than the devil's avatar on Earth.
"It doesn't matter! It's alive," said the guy with the poles. He assembled them into a long rod and started swinging into the tree. The snake climbed higher.
I tried to encourage them to leave it alone, to explain it's role in the environment as a voracious eradicator of rats. But that old mantra reared it's head: "The Only Good Snake is a Dead Snake." 
Finally a compromise was reached: I would wait for the snake to come down and take it away from the campsite. It almost worked, too. After they backed off, the rat snake slithered down the tree and ALMOST right into my hand. That's when a park ranger approached, tipped off by a band of excited boys. The men, wanted her to "do something" about the snake. To which she replied, "there's not really anything I can do. We're in the outdoors, there are snakes!" She explained that they weren't allowed to go all lynch mob and kill any of the animals in the park. They looked genuinely surprised.
I offered her the same solution—I would remove the snake—under the condition that she wouldn't give me a citation for disturbing the wildlife. She agreed and left the area.
The snake never did come down while I was there and I went back a couple of times to look for it. Tent-pole man said he didn't see it again.
I'm really disappointed by the behavior of the adults from that troop. You guys should be ashamed! That was a perfect opportunity to teach those boys about a vital part of the ecosystem. Isn't that what the Boy Scouts/Cub Scouts are all about?

As a footnote, I want to tell you a little about the Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta linheimeri)
It's one of the most commonly encountered snakes in Texas, whether in the wild or climbing the sides of houses. They grow to around 6 feet or so, but reports of larger ones aren't unheard of. Coloration is tan to brown with darker saddle-shaped blotches and usually has a gray head. It avoids humans and will try to escape, but if you grab it, it will usually bite. The bite may bleed a little, but is little more than a scratch. 
The Texas rat snake eats rodents, birds, eggs and lizards. It's ability to consume large numbers of rodents is probably it's biggest contribution. Aside from keeping the rattlesnake population in check by competing with them for food, the reduction of rodents serves to protect humans from infestation. Rats and mice destroy crops and property and they spread disease. 
"But I don't have rats! My house is clean. I'm not in danger of getting a disease from rats." Guess what: you don't have to come in contact with a rodent for disease to spread. Rodents and other small mammals are just vehicles for the real vectors, fleas. You can catch all sorts of fun stuff from flea bites, my favorite of which is plague! No, it wasn't wiped out. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cases of plague are still reported every year around the world including in the United States!

So here's what you do when you see a snake: leave it alone. It's just doing it's job.

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