Why Snakes Aren't So Scary

Keep Calm and Learn Your Species

Even if a snake is dangerous, killing it is the worst way to protect yourself. "The vast majority of snake bites occur when people attempt to capture the snake, grab it and kill it," Steen says. "It's often a chaotic, panicked event, and that's dangerous if the snake is venomous."

Instead, he recommends, prepare by learning about the local species — which you do have, even if you live in a city. Some kinds of snakes are good at coexisting with us, mostly by not being seen. "We walk by snakes every day without knowing it," he says. "We only see a very small fraction of the snakes that are out there. So when we do see a snake, it doesn't mean things all of a sudden got dangerous; it just means that we happened to see that snake."

There are common tricks for recognizing which snakes are venomous, but Steen says that they aren't as easy as they sound — it can be harder than you think to decide, say, whether a snake's head is triangular enough, especially when you're feeling stressed. You'll be more confident if you recognize the particular species you're looking at. So get a field guide, do your research and familiarize yourself with your snake neighbors.

"With a little effort, you should be able to learn to identify the six or seven snakes you're most likely to encounter in your yard pretty confidently, and then you'll probably be able to identify 90 percent of the snakes you see," he says.

How to Solve a Snake Problem

While most snakes generally pose no danger, as with any other wildlife, you should still keep your distance. If you have a snake in your yard that you can't live with, venomous or not, call an expert to remove it. Steen says that if you're concerned about the welfare of the snake, they can sometimes be successfully relocated if you hire a trapper who's knowledgeable enough to put it in the right habitat.

That's likely to be a temporary fix, though, because if snakes like the habitat in your yard, more will come. That isn't necessarily bad: snakes can be good to have around because they eat other creatures that are more of a problem. "Rodents are vectors for Lyme disease — ticks use rodents to transmit it," he says. "Snakes play a lot of important roles in that ecosystem and a lot of those roles can be benefits for people."

Not convinced? Then you need to change what's attracting the snakes. "I would focus on two things: The snake is either looking for a place to hide, or it's looking for something to eat," Steen says. "As far as hiding spots, keep your lawn mowed, make sure shrubs don't reach the ground — trim so there's a gap between the shrubs and the ground — and keep woodpiles and brush piles away from the house."

Also make sure that your yard isn't attractive to tasty rodents: Secure the garbage, and recognize that if you're trying to attract more conventionally appealing wildlife, others may follow. "Something to think about is bird feeders — if there's a lot of seed being spilled all over the place, that's going to attract rodents, and that's going to attract snakes," he says.

Snakes at Home

Even if you appreciate snakes, it can be a different story if they get inside. "I can understand why people might throw their environmental ethic out the window when there's a snake in the house," Steen says.

The majority of snakes that make their way into homes in the United States are harmless garter or rat snakes looking for rodents to eat — or even bats, so you may find them in your attic. "Rat snakes are exceptional climbers — they eat bats and bird eggs, and that requires them to scale trees," he says.

Again, if you're comfortable identifying those species, the situation will be much less stressful. If you have them removed and want to keep them from coming back, find openings to the outside of your house (even the smallest ones) and seal them up, the same as if you want to discourage mice or bats. Steen says, "Snakes are pretty tricky because they can squeeze into very small areas."

But one final thing to consider is that snakes are good to have around even if you don't like them. "Some snakes eat the venomous snakes that people don't want to have around — king snakes and indigo snakes are famous for eating rattlesnakes and copperheads," he says. "So if you have a whole healthy ecosystem of predators and prey, the benefits outweigh the costs."

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