It’s time to stop hating on snakes

Educate yourself on the benefits of snakes so you can appreciate instead of hate serpents

 

|  STORY BY MEGHAN MCMAHON |

Snakes are like the Rodney Dangerfield of the animal kingdom — they don’t get no respect.

Sure, you probably know people who don’t mind snakes, or even love them. But it’s certainly not hard to find people who would scream at the sight of one (this author included) or avoid them at all costs. Snakes are among the most feared and despised creatures on Earth.

Suzy Lyttle, an interpretive naturalist at the Forest Preserve District’s Plum Creek Nature Center, said she frequently asks visitors why they are afraid of snakes. Oftentimes, the answer is that they don’t know why, they just don’t like them. She has some theories, though, as to why so many people seem to dislike snakes. To start, snakes throughout history has been depicted negatively in literature as well as cultural and religious stories. And fear can be a learned behavior, Lyttle said, so parents who are afraid of snakes may unintentionally or unknowingly pass that fear onto their children.

 

And because some snakes are venomous and dangerous to humans — although none that live in Will County — the fear may be human nature. “Humans have natural fight or flight instincts when it comes to things that could be dangerous to us,” Lyttle said. 

Finally, snakes are so unlike humans that they may just be too difficult for some of us to relate to. 

“Snakes can’t blink, have no arms, no legs and nothing fluffy,” she said. “I think humans do better when they can relate to an animal, and snakes at first glance can be hard to relate to.”

Whatever the reasons, the negative connotations and attitudes about snakes make it more difficult to advocate for their protection and conservation, according to Advocates for Snake Preservation. It’s harder to garner support for animals that aren’t cute and cuddly or widely celebrated or at least understood. 

And snakes sometimes pay the ultimate price for the negative attitudes and perceptions about them, Lyttle said. 

“The really unfortunate thing is that we still see snakes that get killed just for being a snake,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking to me that this happens.”

So, with that in mind, it’s time to flip the narrative on snakes. Instead of dwelling on the negative connotations, let’s focus on the positive.

Here are some reasons why you should love snakes: 

They play an important role in the food chain

Photo: Smooth green snake via Shutterstock

Snakes are in the middle of the food web, which means they eat other creatures lower on the food chain but they are also eaten by animals above them on the food chain. In addition, many snakes are a part of two habitats, such as water snakes that live both on land and in the water. 

“This is important because they can contribute to energy in both places, making both habitats stronger,” Lyttle said. 

The animals that occupy these middle spots in the food web are important because they make the web stronger for all species.

“Think of a metal chain,” Lyttle said. “If you take out one link in the middle, what happens? The chain weakens and breaks.”

The same is true if you remove animals from the middle of the food web. Without snakes, the populations of the animals they eat would boom, potentially damaging the habitat. And the animals above them in the food chain, the ones that eat snakes, would have fewer food sources. 

“Basically, at the end of the day, everything in nature is connected,” Lyttle said. “If you want to see your cute and cuddly animals, you need to thank snakes for keeping that ecosystem a well-oiled machine.”

Snakes eat a lot of other creatures we aren’t big fans of 

Photo: Common garter snake via Shutterstock

Digging a little deeper into their role in the ecosystem, snakes are mostly carnivorous, and many of the animals they prey on are animals most people aren’t huge fans of. In particular, snakes eat a lot of rodents.

Consider this: Medium and large snakes can eat as much as 9 pounds of mice and rats each year, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. That might not seem like much, but it’s enough to fill a king-sized pillowcase. When you consider the snake population, the impact of snakes on the rodent populations is huge! So if you enjoy your little corner of the world without it being overrun with mice and rats, you have snakes to thank, at least in part.

Snakes don’t just eat rodents. They feast on a variety of smaller animals, including insects, amphibians, birds and small mammals. Some snakes even eat smaller snakes!

They don’t want to hurt you

Photo: Eastern fox snake via Shutterstock

Although no snakes in Will County are harmful to humans, it’s true that some snakes are venomous or otherwise harmful to people. Even so, for the vast majority of snakes, the old adage that “it’s more afraid of you than you are of it” is true. 

“Snakes are not out to get you,” Lyttle said. “If anything, they are afraid of humans. We are huge giants compared to them, looking over them and making all sorts of loud noises.”

Most snakes aren’t aggressive, but some have clever tricks to keep humans and potential predators at bay. Take the fox snake, which is among the snakes that live in Will County. A fox snake is not a rattlesnake and isn’t venomous, but it will rattle its tail as a decoy when people and other animals get too close, Lyttle said. 

So what should you do if you see a snake?

“Don’t panic,” Lyttle said, adding this is a great opportunity to appreciate snakes for the role they play in the ecosystem. “Snakes want to be left alone, so after you are done saying hi, give it room and let it be.”

If you see a snake on a busy bike trail or path, Lyttle suggested treating it as you would a turtle. If you can find a stick nearby, very gently tap its tail to help move it along, sending it off in the direction it was headed. 

Snakes are beautiful

Photo: Northern water snake courtesy of Darek Konopka‎

OK, snakes might not be conventionally beautiful, like a striking butterfly or a brightly colored fish or bird. But they are beautiful in their own right, Lyttle said. 

“They don’t have big, puppy dog eyes, but they do have shimmery scales and bold patterns,” she said.

Snakes are probably at their most beautiful just after they shed their skin, when their colors are fresher and brighter. Many of the snakes that live in Will County are more muted colors, like tan, brown and black, although some are bright green. 

Sometimes the beauty of snakes is subtle, held in the patterns on their backs.

“Take a look at the patterns,” Lyttle said. “Some are striped, some are polka-dotted, some have saddles, some have a mix of a few patterns. These can help with being a master of camouflage.” 

They have personalities

Photo: The ball python at Plum Creek Nature Center by Chad Merda

This might seem silly, but wild animals have personalities just like people and pets do.

Take the resident ball python at Plum Creek Nature Center. Penny loves to explore, Lyttle said. However, the previous ball python that lived at the nature center, Bud, wasn’t much for exploring, but he loved to snuggle. 

These personality traits extend even to snakes in the wild. Lyttle often picks up wild snakes for programs at the nature center. Sometimes the snakes she finds are relaxed, but others are more fearful, she said. 

Just like people, snakes have all manner of personalities, so that’s one way we can try to relate to them.

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(Lead image of a queen snake courtesy of Darek Konopka‎)

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