Saturday, August 11, 2012

Missouri State Fair---Discovery Room

Each year in August the Missouri State Fair runs for 10 days. It is a huge festival-like atmosphere complete with pig races, funnel cakes, corn dogs and musical entertainment. The Missouri Department of Conservation has a building on the fairgrounds that is used to educate the visiting public about various aspects of nature. There are huge fish tanks with numerous native fish swimming in them. There are a variety of native snakes and frogs on display and then there is the discovery room that allows hands-on activities for families.....with a focus on children. There are also daily live demonstrations that might include fishing cleaning and cooking, bald eagles, outdoor native gardening, etc . MDC employees and volunteers staff both areas of this facility and speak with thousands of guests over the 10 day event.

As a naturalist I was given the task of educating our guests about some of Missouri snakes. With a speckled kingsnake (borrowed from the Chillicothe, MO office) and a red milksnake as my constant companions many people were drawn to my table to see these amazing animals up close. Most wanted the opportunity to touch a snake, many for the first time. The laughter and squeals of delight were music to my ears. I love such excitement over an animal that is often feared or loathed. I must say the majority of our guests had nothing but good things to say about our snakes. We had a few people who refused to come near the snake, or that uttered under their breath "the only good snake is a dead snake" or "I kill everyone I see". I chose to ignore those offensive comments and chalk them up to ignorance and the poor teachings of their upbringing.

I received many questions about Missouri snakes and they ranged from......

"What kind of snake is that?" (I think I answered this question no less than 1,000 times)
"Is it poisonous?" (I had to respond to this one hundreds of time with "No this snake is not venomous.")
"Do they bite?" (My response: "Anything with teeth can bite, but this snake will only bite if we threaten it or hurt it.")
"Can I hold it?"("No, but you can touch it")
"Can't you tell how old a rattlesnake is by counting the rattles?" (No this is not an accurate way to age a rattlesnake, as rattlesnakes generate a new rattle each time they shed and they may shed up to 3 or 4 times a year depending on how much they are eating.)
"Is it legal to kill snakes in Missouri?" ( No it isn't, we do not have a snake hunting season and all snakes are protected, whether they are venomous or non-venomous)

I also heard many stories, and I must say this is my favorite:

A woman told me that if you cut a rattlesnake in half and bury one half in the front yard, and the other half in the back yard the snake will grow back together and leave." I had heard this myth before and it has persisted for well over a 100 years. I explained that it was physically impossible for a snake to regrow half its body once it had been severed. She was persistent that it did indeed happen to her mother. After her mother killed a snake by chopping it in half with a shovel, they buried half in the front yard and half in the back yard. The next day the holes were empty. I explained to her that if that were the case then predators are probably to blame. Coyotes, foxes, raccoons and even neighborhood dogs would absolutely dig up a freshly killed rattlesnake and consume it. She did not seem convinced and I believe she left my table thinking I was a lunatic for not believing her completely rational story. 

Another story:

A woman came to my table with 4 or 5 young boys and told me that when you kill a rattlesnake it is important to place the head in a jar. This protects you from the snake who can still kill you. I know what she was trying to say....that even after death the rattlesnake can and will deliver a venomous bite if handled incorrectly.  I told her the best thing to do is to leave the rattlesnake alone and then no one will get bitten.

Another Story:

This story I heard from 2 different men, at two separate times on Friday. They both described a large snake resembling a black snake, but it had a pattern. They said the snakes were well over 6 or 7 feet long and as big around as a mans forearm. They explained that the snakes were after their fowl. The first man claims the snake was in his hen house and was wrapped around an adult chicken trying to kill it. He wanted to know what it was. I said it sounds like a black snake, but black snakes won't kill something that they cannot eat, and a black snake cannot eat a full size adult chicken. He insisted it wasn't a black snake, and he killed it and threw it in a ditch. At this point I didn't know what to say so I responded...."well if you are sure it isn't a black snake then perhaps it was someones escaped pet like a large boa or python. If they are large enough, they can certainly eat an adult chicken." He seemed happy with that answer and left. Two hours or so later another man described the same type of snake and it was after his guineas. He was from a completely different county than the first man. He said he pulled a baby guinea out the snakes mouth and saved it. He captured the snake, and had his wife take a picture of him holding it. He explained that the snake had a pattern and didn't look anything like a black snake. He claimed he found two dead adult guineas and he was blaming the snake for their death.  I asked him if he could email me a picture, and he said I have the camera with me and I can show you! I looked at the pictures and it was clearly a black snake with a pattern. I explained that some black snakes, for unknown reasons will retain their juvenile pattern into adulthood. I showed him a picture of a juvenile black rat snake and the pattern that it has, and he said "THAT'S IT!" This snake was indeed huge, well over 6 feet in length. I asked him if he had actually seen the snake kill his adult guineas, and he said no that he did not. I explained that most likely what had happened was that the snake was attracted to the food and water available in the area where he keeps the guineas, and that while the snake was attempting to eat the young, smaller guinea it would be physically impossible for it to eat an adult, so my suspicion was that the older guineas succumbed to heat exhaustion. He seemed somewhat satisfied with that answer. I asked him what he did with the snake and he said he did not kill the snake, but instead relocated it further away from his home. I found it extremely strange and ironic that not one, but two individuals had the same story to tell. I still say the first mans snake was a large black snake that had retained its pattern...and unfortunately for that snake it did not survive the mans ire.

These questions and stories just reinforce in me the need for education when it comes to snakes. Many of us grew up on the fears,  myths and old wives tales handed down to us by our parents and grandparents as well as other well meaning adults. These myths and tales often do more harm than good. We learn to fear animals that deserve our respect. We kill out of fear or misunderstanding, or sometimes out of hate alone. Our next generation will hopefully come to realize through education and hands-on moments like these; the importance of these animals and learn to understand that the tales told to them by their adult counterparts, may be just that ....tales.

My two days at the fair were long, fun-filled days. I was able to share with our guests some of my favorite animals and teach them a little about their diversity and importance to the ecology of the lands around us. As well as why it is vastly important that we exercise tolerance and acceptance when it comes to these animals, we truly do not have to like something in order to recognize that it is wrong to destroy it. Kudos to all the kids (an adults) that ventured over to my table and touched a snake or allowed their children to do so even if they couldn't bring themselves to do so. Fascination is often the first step towards conservation. 


  1. A wonderful post, but you got one thing wrong. Snakes are like all predators in that, they will kill any prey item that they are able to subdue, whether or not they are able to swallow it.
    It is like a weasel in a hen house, it kills all the chickens, every time. Predators do not have an off switch when the prey cannot escape.

    1. That is not exactly true. Most predators do not act that way. They eat only what they need to survive or to care for their offspring. Snakes have very slow metabolisms and do not require frequent meals. They can consume small meals more often or large meals less often, but they do not go around killing willy-nilly.

      Even most large predators like coyotes, bobcats, etc only kill what is required to survive. It makes no sense as a predator to kill every animal you see just because it is there, sooner or later you would destroy your food source. Humans are the worst culprit for that mentality. I can't begin to tell you how many people needlessly kill snakes, turtles, hawks, vultures, etc. just because they wrongly assume these predators are hurting the animals they (The human) like (i.e. deer, birds, fish etc). While it is true those animals feed on those prey items, they certainly do not wipe them out. This is their food source, after all they can't go to the local Wal-mart like we can. Ecosystems devoid of predators is a sad, ill ecosystem, that will fall apart.

      Weasels, and minks are devilish little critters and I know in a hen house they often go on a rampage. It is not clear why they do this, but one could assume it is for sport. Or perhaps the brains, and hearts of the chickens are the tastiest part to a mink. It would take a lot of hearts, and brains to fill up a hungry mink. They have extremely fast metabolisms and need to eat often.