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What is it about snakes that frightens people so?

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From the time I learned how to walk I could never keep my hands off a snake. If I happened to see one, which for most people is a rare event, I had to touch it.

I’ve always liked snakes – all snakes – and that’s where problems arise for youngsters who might not know the difference between a harmless black snake and a copperhead that might hurt a child who will not give up trying to get close to the serpent. I used to be one of those youngsters and I was mighty lucky never to have been bitten even though I must have handled hundreds during my growing years.

However, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) puts to rest a lot of the myths that surround snakes. “Snakes have been the focal point of folklore for centuries,” said a recent communication from the VDGIF. “From the ‘legendary’ hoop snake that sticks its tail into its mouth and rolls after you, to snakes that hypnotize their prey. No other group of animals has suffered more from negative misinformation than snakes.”

How true. My mother-in-law, a good woman who is no longer with us, used to tell me that as a child in the Blue Ridge Mountains she actually saw a snake doing that – roll like a hoop. Okay, so she had a great imagination, and that’s how tall tales get started.

The wildlife experts in the Old Dominion no doubt are joined by their peers in every state where the reptiles exist when they say that snakes are some of the most fascinating and beneficial creatures on the planet. The benefits range from simply spotting one and admiring its graceful movements, to snakes consuming thousands of rodents that may potentially cause millions of dollars in agricultural damage every year.

It is the latter part — the damage the rodents cause — that make it illegal to intentionally kill a snake in Virginia – any snake.

Snakes usually are reclusive and timid creatures and the VDGIF says many species will not even attempt to bite when handled. Of the 30 different types of snakes found in the state, only three are venomous: the copperhead, cottonmouth and timber rattlesnake. But all three are generally docile, unless provoked. “Copperhead bites are by far the most common venomous snake bite in Virginia, but in the 30 years that the Virginia Department of Health has been keeping records on venomous snake bites, no one has ever died from a copperhead bite,” said the VDGIF.

Apparently, copperhead bites result in mild inflammation and discomfort, but in the very great majority of cases nothing worse happens. It should be needless to remind anyone to simply leave a snake alone when it is encountered in the wild. The snake prefers to get out of your way, if you don’t do so first. Snakes do not chase people. It’s a complete myth that some of them do.

How to avoid even the slight possibility of an up-close encounter? Always watch where you place your hands and feet when you sit down on a fallen tree or on a pile of rocks. Take a good look first. Other than that, try not to capture a snake. It is foolish to attempt a capture. Finally, on the extremely rare chance that you are bitten by a venomous snake, the state says to stay calm and seek immediate medical attention. “None of Virginia’s venomous snakes are considered to be highly lethal, but medical attention is necessary for all venomous snake bites,” said the VDGIF.

A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia, one of the Department’s most popular publications, has been reprinted and is again available. This 32-page full-color booklet, co-authored and illustrated by wildlife diversity manager Mike Pinder, presents all of Virginia’s 30 species of snakes in an attractive and educational “field-guide” format. It also includes snakebite information, provides answers to frequently asked questions about snakes, and suggests what you can do to protect or control snakes in your yard and home. Single copies of the guide can be picked up free of charge at VDGIF regional offices.

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