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A slithering fear of a reptile

Photo by Jeff Tome Garter snakes are one of the most common local snakes, and quite harmless.

As I walked into a room with several of Audubon’s animal ambassadors, the two turtles were clearly visible in their containers.

However, the animal in the bottom was hidden and one of the first things I heard was “I hope it’s not a snake!” This particular phrase is pretty common whenever I find myself doing a program with live animals. Many people have a negative perception of snakes. They are afraid of them or think the snakes are going to hurt them. This is largely untrue of most snakes, especially around here. As with most animals, unless they feel threatened in some way or have been otherwise largely disturbed, they are not going to bother you.

While snakes are a pretty classic example, they certainly aren’t the only animal that has developed a bad reputation from stories, fables, movies or just misconceptions that have been passed around as facts. Much of the time, these animals are either labeled as dangerous or creepy or they are associated with death or something gross. Sometimes a fear of an animal is learned, taught to you as a child when someone else in your life reacted negatively, or perhaps you grew up in a place where many of the snakes were venomous and you were taught to avoid them. For others, it seems like that fear was always there, even as a small child. Both are hard to unlearn.

That’s not to say this fear is not entirely unfounded. There are plenty of venomous snakes in the United States. We have very few in Western New York and, most frequently, the snake you see will either be a garter snake or a non-venomous water snake, not to be confused with the venomous cottonmouth. While on the subject, there is a difference between an animal that is venomous and one that is poisonous. Although you probably won’t be faulted if you use them incorrectly, it is more accurate to say that snakes are venomous. This means they have venom that they inject into other animals. On the other hand, an animal that is poisonous has some sort of toxin in its body that will harm whatever animal is eating it.

Another thing that lends to so much fear around snakes is the difficulty of snake identification. There are so many snakes in the world and the subtle differences in colors and patterns can make it difficult to correctly identify them. Rattlesnakes and venomous water snakes are talked about so often that sometimes people assume that the snake they saw must be one of these, especially if the colors or patterns are at all similar. If you are not sure, definitely give the snake a wide berth, but it is also helpful to figure out what snakes are local so you are prepared when you run into one.

So the question you might be left with is why should we even care? What’s the problem if you kill a few snakes? Snakes are just as important as those fluffy mammals to the health and stability of many ecosystems. They are in the middle of multiple food chains, so they are both predator and prey to many other animals. They help to keep populations of rodents, including those who carry ticks, under control. They are prey to foxes, coyotes, birds of prey like hawks, raccoons or even other snakes.

Lately there have been some smaller garter snakes hanging out near the front entrance at Audubon. Garter snakes, sometimes called garden or grass snakes, are harmless. They do not have venom harmful to humans. As the sun comes out and the temperatures rise, snake encounters such as this are bound to increase. Since snakes are cold-blooded, also known as ectothermic, they rely on outside temperatures to maintain their body temperature and fire up their metabolism. As long as you give them their space and leave them alone, there is nothing to fear. Just make sure you are keeping an eye out if you are walking along a trail this summer so you don’t accidentally step on one of those basking serpents and spook both yourself and the snake.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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