In the United States, nearly 7,5000 people suffer from venomous snakebites each year, with no more than 12 dying per year. While that number may be low, this time of year, from April to October, is the most common stretch for snakebites to occur as outdoor activity increases during this time.
These are the months when snakes gain their bad reputation, but for many biologists and animal rights activists, snakes are misperceived in the eye of the public as an animal that is out to get anyone it sees.
Dr. David Steen, assistant professor of biological science at Auburn University, holds the same sentiment. He has participated in the Python Challenge in Florida and has been cited in numerous publications regarding snakes and other wildlife.
In Steen’s opinion, snakes would like to never encounter a human, but sometimes that encounter does occur. When it does, some people choose to kill the snake — harming the ecosystem.
He was quick to point out that many people do not realize snakes view humans as a large predator so they “have nothing to gain from attacking a person”— especially when they have the opportunity to strike every day.
“Every once in a while we see one and think things have gotten really dangerous, but it was just the one snake that was unlucky enough to be seen when we walk by them every day with no problem at all,” he said.
According to Steen, the most dangerous snakes in Alabama are the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Timber Rattlesnake and the Eastern Coral snake. Most snakes are commonly misidentified as copperheads, which leads to a person killing the snake, Steen said.
Instead of killing snakes that people come across, whether it is in their yard or in the house, Steen said the “best long-term strategy” would be for the public to purchase field guides and educate themselves on which snakes are venomous and which ones are harmless — comparing it to a person recognizing their aunt and uncle.
“You don’t say 'Well, how long is the mustache or what is the color of the dress that she’s wearing,' because there’s always exceptions and you can’t really identify people that way effectively,” he said.
If people educate themselves on which snakes are venomous, that could have a direct effect on lowering the number of snakebites each year because people would know whether or not it is acceptable to handle and relocate a snake they come across.
According to Steen, the best thing to do if a person comes across a non-venomous snake, and they feel the need to move it, is to pick it up and transport it to the desired location. But if a person cannot confidently identify the snake, then the best thing to do would be to call animal control, Steen said, adding that most venomous bites occur when trying to harass, capture or kill the snake.
“I think that you elevate your chances of getting bit if you mess with it,” he said. “Plus, you’re teaching others that behavior and so in theory, you’re elevating their future risk of getting bitten by a snake by encouraging that behavior.”
In the case of snakes, the old adage “there’s more where that came from” rings true when it comes to finding them on a piece of property, Steen said.
“If a snake is in the area, then it is probably going to be good habitat, so there will be a population of animals there,” he said. “Snakes have a small home range so it’s probably coming from a nearby wooded area or something like that.”
Currently, evolutionary psychologists are studying why humans are scared of snakes, but the study has yet to yield solid answers. Scientists are beginning to lean toward it being an innate fear after studying primate’s interaction with snake shapes.
While there is the possibility that fear of snakes is innate, Steen also believes there is a social aspect to it that can be passed down from generation to generation. He said he began to notice this when parents and children would attend environmental shows.
“The kids always run right up to the snakes. It’s the parents that ... sometimes scream and carry on, and the kids see that and then get scared,” he said. “So I think it’s a combination of things.”