Monday, November 14, 2011

Snakes make me feel safe

A black racer slithers across the lawn

Simply Living
November 14, 2011

I was about to enter the porch from outside when a long, black snake slithered by.

"The black racer's back!" I shouted to Ralph as I stepped back to let it pass. "It's heading toward that hole underneath the addition."

Ralph and I share our yard with a number of non-venomous snakes, and the black racer is one of our regulars. We have what I like to think of as a symbiotic relationship. In exchange for a yard filled with snake-friendly hiding places, these slithering cords of bone and scale keep the rodent population in check. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Although many people would shudder at the thought of coexisting with snakes, I find it comforting. Snakes make me feel safe because, although I seldom see them, I know they are out there patrolling the ground around my house. I don't love mice, but snakes do. They love them to death — a good thing because the fewer mice there are to sneak into my house, the happier I am.

My affection for snakes is not new. I've felt this way since childhood, which is somewhat surprising since I grew up with a parent who abhorred snakes. My mother was so frightened by long, squirmy creatures that even an earthworm could trigger a trembling frenzy. Looking back, I can see how my mother's irrational fears might have prompted my own positive attitude. I like snakes in part because I know how misunderstood and underappreciated they can be.

Of the 50 snake species in Florida, only half a dozen are venomous, and two of the six (Southern copperhead and timber rattlesnake) are not even found in the central part of the state. Every year, venomous snakes bite about 8,000 people in the United States, but an average of only six people die from those bites. Nine times as many fatalities occur annually because of wasp, hornet or bee bites. The number of snake-related deaths is far too small to warrant such widespread paranoia.

Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how few dangerous snakes there are or how rarely snakebites result in death. Snakes remain one of the most maligned animals on the planet. All members of this beneficial species receive universal hatred and fear.

It's odd that creatures that do so much good are the subject of such loathing. Without snakes, mice and rat populations would get out of control, causing disease-carrying rodents to run rampant in yards, barnyards and houses. Fortunately, snakes don't let that happen. Unbeknownst to most humans, snakes go about their business of silently stalking and devouring prey. No dangerous poisons are necessary when snakes are on the job. No-pest control companies are involved or dollars exchanged. Snakes work for food and, luckily for us, the foods they prefer are the animals and insects we least want around our houses.

When I chanced upon a black racer as I was about to enter the porch, my reaction wasn't fright but delight. I hadn't seen the snake in a while, but the black racer was there all along. It was just doing what snakes do — furtively stalking sources of food and absorbing heat from the sun.

In a perfect world, people wouldn't react with irrational fear to animals that do more good than harm. They wouldn't go crazy at the sight of snakes. The vast majority of snakes in Florida present no threat to humans, yet people kill them indiscriminately. My yard is far from ideal, but when it comes to snakes, it is a perfect haven.

"I'm going to run inside to get the camera," I called to Ralph after I saw the snake. But by the time I returned, the black racer had disappeared into the hole. Fortunately for me (and for the snake!), there will be a next time.


  1. I tell people that the back snakes will keep the coral snakes away. I don't know if this is actually true but I believe it anyway.

  2. When I was a boy growing up in the Illinois countryside we would find a place in the field where the garter snakes lived. Each spring, on the first warm day, dozens would come up out of the ground. We kids would sit quietly in the grass and the garters (both big and little ones) would crawl all around us. It was so amazing to us then, to me now.
    Thanks for you column.

  3. You're sharing your garden with black racer snakes? I can't imagine myself doing the same as I have pet dogs and cats... especially from the fact that they swallow their preys alive, I can't risk my pets' lives.