Saturday, December 17, 2011

When is it OK to kill a rattlesnake?

Many would argue that ANYTIME is a good time to kill a rattlesnake. After all they are venomous, and definitely have the potential to cause grave harm if you are bitten. It seems when it comes to snakes they have more enemies than friends, and many are willing to prematurely end the life of a snake without pause, this seems to be doubly so for the venomous variety. Why? Where does this desire to kill these creatures come from?

We know from studies that have been done that humans are not born with a fear or hatred of snakes. So how do we go from such trusting children with the capacity to love all creatures to a snake killer? Simple. It comes from our parents, grandparents and other well meaning adults in our lives trying their best to protect us from a perceived danger. They in turn inherited their fears and hatred for these creatures from their relatives.....and so on down the line.

We may also carry this fear around with us for another reason-----perhaps you were scared or startled at a early age by the behavior of a snake; i.e. one fell out of a tree and landed in your lap. This is the scenario that played out for my husbands aunt. She was a young girl helping her mother feed the farm hands. She sat down in the shade under a large tree to enjoy her lunch when...PLOP! Right into her lap fell a large black snake. She is in her 60's now and still terrified of snakes.
My husbands grandmother reached her hands into the hen's nest to gather the eggs when she was a small girl, only to have a black snake wrap itself around her arm. She was unable to loosen the snake from her arm, and it so terrified her that to even look at a picture of a snake in her adult life would send her into fits of terror.

We can also blame Hollywood for feeding our fears by creating such wonderful movies as:
 Snakes on a Plane; Boa; Anaconda; Boa Vs. Python and the all time favorite Raiders of the Lost Ark. These movies play on the human fear of snakes to make a profit. The directors want to scare us and they use the one thing guaranteed to accomplish this....snakes!

SO we can begin to understand where the fear comes from, but what about the hatred? Why do some people vehemently claim "I AM NOT SCARED of snakes, I just DON'T LIKE THEM!!!!"  Once again we can thank those closest to us. We as children watch our relatives and family friends and look to them for advise and guidance. If we witness the people that we love and respect killing snakes out of misguided hatred, there is a pretty good chance we may repeat the behavior.

At some point the cycle is broken and a child comes along that refuses to see things the way his relatives do. Instead they see snakes as interesting and incredible creatures. Snakes to these unique children are something to be studied and kept in aquariums to enjoy each day. I was such a child. My parents were terrified of snakes, and each of my siblings were also afraid....but for some reason I did not inherit the "fear factor" gene. I have had a passion for snakes since I was very young and currently keep six snakes as pets. I am fortunate in my job to be able to educate children about snakes and their importance in the ecosystem. My hope is that by providing them with the proper knowledge they will make wiser choices than their parents and other well meaning adults in their lives where these animals are concerned.

But, when is it OK to kill a rattlesnake, or any snake for that matter? 

That is sometimes a difficult question to answer. You see, for someone like me that deeply loves and respects these creatures, there is never a good time to kill one. I see each encounter as an opportunity to learn something. I am happy to relocate them to a safer location and provide them the chance to continue on with their lives. But, not everyone thinks or feels like I do. Many people do not feel comfortable relocating a snake, especially the venomous kind. It is hard to find people willing to come and do it for you, and even if you have someone in your area who can and will relocate them, often it takes them a while to show up. Many fear that by the time help arrives the snake will be gone,and out of sight, which is scarier to them than knowing right where it is.
If you have small children or grandchildren you may fear for their safety. After all it is easy for a child to assume any snake is safe and be bitten. Perhaps you have pets that you are afraid will be bitten and possibly seriously injured or killed. These are all valid reason for killing a rattlesnake, or any venomous snake for that matter. While I do not advocate killing a snake, I certainly can respect anyone who is doing it with the intention of protecting their family.

An example of such a killing is one that was told to me just today. A blogger friend of mine from southern Missouri  has had a few timber rattlesnakes show up in his yard over the past 16 years. He is a naturalist and respects all nature, and does his best to educate the public and preserve all creatures. However, these snakes on occasion show up on his back deck, near his garage and other undesirable locations. His wife is concerned for her own safety and that of their beloved dogs. Back in September a timber rattler showed up in their driveway. His wife secured the dogs and brought a gun to her husband and insisted it be killed as the snake was decidedly close to the open garage door. She was afraid if the snake entered the garage they would not be able to locate it again which posed a danger to her ( and him too).

 (Timber Rattler shot in Southern Missouri)

He is quick to relocate them when he is able to do so, but in certain situations that is not always possible and quite frankly not at the forefront of your thoughts when faced with a potentially dangerous animal sharing your personal space.

A neighbor of mine has one or two timber rattlers show up on his back patio each summer. In spite of the fact that myself and a volunteer I work with reassuring him that he can call us and we will remove the snake and take it somewhere safer, he still insists on killing them. The reasoning behind his actions are a genuine fear for his grandchildren. He is not willing to risk their safety while he waits for either one of us to get there and take care of it for him. While I do not like it, I can understand it.

So any person can begin to understand that sometimes it is necessary to kill these snakes, or at least that is the way the person doing the killing sees the situation. We now have a little bit of understanding for when it is OK to kill a snake. NOW......lets talk about when it is NOT ok to kill a snake.

Some snakes are killed by a simple case of mistaken identity. Many non-venomous snakes closely resemble venomous snakes. They will even rattle their tail in leaf litter to sound convincingly like a rattler's rattle. This is no mistake, these are mimics of venomous snakes. Presumably if you look like a rattlesnake and you sound like a rattlesnake you will be safer from predation. In some respects this works, but more often than not it is a death sentence. Remember many humans are quick to kill and ask questions later when it comes to snakes. If it looks and acts like a MUST be a rattler!
Next time you are faced with this situation (a snake), take a deep breathe, and try to identify what it is that you are looking at, often it will be a harmless non-venomous look alike.

(Rattlesnake mimic---this is a Diamondback Water snake, and they are often mistaken for Cottonmouths or even the rattlesnake that goes by the same name)

This is for the people who insist that any snake crossing the road is fair game for road kill. Many snakes traveling across roadways, highways and other right-of-ways are merely "migrating" to their hunting, basking or hibernating locations. They pose no threat to you as a person or to anyone you care about. You cannot use the excuse that you are protecting your family, if you are 15 miles from home as you squish the snake under your 3 ton SUV!

(Roadkill Timber Rattler)
 (Roadkill Timber Rattler)

Any native non-venomous snake should be left alone. They cannot cause you bodily harm. Yes, they can bite, but the bites are superficial and will not cause lasting damage, beyond a scratch that resembles a cat scratch. Simply wash the wound well with soap and water to remove any bacteria that may be present and viola you are good to go.

 (Black Rat Snake attempting to protect itself by biting)

These snakes are far more beneficial to you alive than dead. They consume vast amounts of rodents, keeping your home safe from these four legged invaders. Mice are known carriers of disease, they contaminate food with their urine and feces. They destroy stored items and turn it into nesting material. The bacteria left behind by their feeding habits can make us sick. Not to mention their incessant chewing and scratching will drive you up the wall when it wakes you up in the middle of the night. Snakes are the ultimate mouse trap.

Venomous snakes should be left alone in all circumstances, except the aforementioned situation of protecting yourself, your children or your pets. Venomous snakes are protected in Missouri as well as in many other states. The unlawful killing of a venomous snake may result in fines or even time served in a local jail. These snakes under normal circumstances pose no threat to you. They will quickly try to escape if approached. Even those snakes that stand their ground are reluctant to bite, after all you are not food, why waste venom on you? If you persist in bothering the snake or try to handle it expect to be bitten. If you simply walk away, everyone is better off. The snake gets to live another day, and you get to live to tell about it.

Snake venom is designed to subdue their prey and kill it quickly. They are expert hunters and trackers. The mousey victim does not get far before the venom takes affect, and the snake is able to smell the combo of its own venom mixed with the smell of the rodent to accurately locate its prey. While the venom is designed to kill small rodents, it is powerful enough to make a human very sick. Several thousand people are bitten each year by venomous snakes, but fewer than 10 die. Being bitten by a rattlesnake or any other venomous snake in North America is not necessarily a death sentence, it is however a serious situation and should be treated as such and immediate medical attention should be sought. Most people that are bitten are individuals who handle snakes on a regular basis such as those individuals who milk snakes for venom, or who do field studies. Another segment of the population that sustains bites frequently are those individuals bent on showing off for their friends. They want to exhibit their "snake wrangling" abilities and ultimately get bitten in the process. Many times alcohol is involved as well. Drinking and venomous snakes do not mix. Not only are your reflexes dulled, but alcohol causes the venom to course through your system much faster creating a potentially more serious situation.

Besides the fact that venomous snakes are awesome creatures, and beneficial in the rodent control they provide, there are other reasons to let them live. Their venom is used in the making of numerous life saving drugs, such as blood pressure medicine and some cancer medicine. If we as a race destroy these potentially "life saving" creatures we may well have to learn how to survive without the venom they produce which ultimately has the power to save many more lives than it will ever destroy.

Each one of us has to make choices in life, and often those choices directly affect those around us. If we choose to be intolerant of the snakes that sometimes share our world, then we will most likely raise children with the same degree of intolerance. I say we are better than that, that we are capable of great compassion even for creatures we do not like or that scare us. We can teach respect and tolerance for all living creatures; instead of teaching our children to kill those things that we do not understand, we can strive for understanding. Ultimately the world will be a better place for us and for our children, and I am sure the snakes will thank you too.


  1. Another well done article! It's amazing and kind of sad that at one point a water snake's mimicry of rattlesnakes would have been life saving and yet is now practically a death sentence. Young burrowing owls will use their voice to mimic the sound of rattlesnakes to ward off predators. I cannot help but wonder if that ever backfires on them when dealing with humans.

  2. One thing we have noticed studying the timbers here in NW Missouri is that they are not rattling unless severely disturbed. I can't help but believe that they are evolving into a more silent snake in order to save their own neck. The old timers around here talk about how in their younger days the rattlers were quick to rattle, and of course this would almost always lead to their death or at the very least near death at the hands of a human. Many would argue that rattlers would have to acknowledge that a near death situation nearly happened because of their rattle and then NOT rattle in the future. They question whether the snake is smart enough or evolved enough to make that connection. I say it is the only thing that explains the change in behavior over the past 30 or 40 years. Mimics were traditionally one step ahead in the game of avoiding predation....but now I am not so sure. Many snakes are often mistaken for venomous snakes and killed needlessly. I have people bring juvenile black snakes into my office quite frequently convinced it is a baby rattlesnake because they heard it "rattle" its tail. It is almost comical to watch these individuals as I reach my hand into whatever container they have brought the "baby rattler" in and grab the snake and begin to explain to them that this is not a venomous snake, but rather a harmless snake trying its best to mimic one. They always breath a sigh of relief. My hope is that if they encounter one of these babies again, they will remember it is harmless and leave it alone. I did not know that burrowing owls were capable of mimicking the sound of a rattlers rattle, that is interesting. It would be a great study to do to see if it has ever led to their death.

  3. Im one of those strange people who would feel blessed to have occasional visits from rattlesnakes I dont get to see them in the wild very often but I generally feel that getting to safely visit with them in their own habitat is quite the blessing.