Snakes Alive!

By Mark Goodman | April 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2004

An August day at my parents' cabin along Big Creek in Wayne County offered summer fun at its best. Mom and Dad had invited my family and my two sisters' families out for the weekend. I rose early and hunted squirrels in the cool of the morning. At midday, we all played in Big Creek and tried our luck at fishing. I helped my older sister's step-grandson catch his first smallmouth bass. I even found time for an afternoon nap.

After supper,my wife, Lisa, and I took a short walk down the county road that leads from the cabin. The clay and gravel road winds through a sizable expanse of hilly hardwood timber. As we chatted and walked, I stopped periodically to listen for the sound of squirrels cutting hickory nuts. The sound, a sign of coming fall, was one I had not yet heard this season. I was eager to hear it. My wife is patient, but the fourth time I motioned for silence, she gave me a look that said,"Mark,that's enough."

We had just resumed our walk when my wife stopped and drew a quick breath. Ahead, in the middle of the road, 50 yards away, lay a large timber rattlesnake.

"Whoa! That's the biggest rattlesnake I've ever seen!" I exclaimed.

Cautiously, I approached the rattler while my wife kept her distance. From about 10 feet, I stopped and studied the snake. It was at least four-and-a-half feet long and an easy 4 inches across the back at mid body. The snake remained motionless. In the timber, against a background of leaves, rocks and trees, remaining still would have helped the snake go unnoticed. Against the red clay of the county road, however, the tan and brown bands looked brilliant.

While I watched the snake, I heard the grind of gravel from an approaching vehicle. I grabbed a long oak limb from the ditch and pushed the snake off the road. Instead of crawling away, the snake coiled, raised its head and rattled menacingly.

The grind of gravel grew louder.

"Come on, snake," I thought. "Your instincts aren't serving you well today." After several shoves, the rattler finally uncoiled and slithered across the road and out of sight.

The vehicle, an old pickup, rounded the corner. I waved to the young man behind the steering wheel. He had not seen the snake, but he and his wife looked concerned about the stranger in the road with a long, thick oak limb in his hand.

I pitched the limb in the weeds. Lisa and I returned to the cabin, where I related our run-in with the rattler. No eyebrows were raised. My family knows my attitude toward snakes. I consider them an interesting part of our natural world - animals that deserve respect.

Many people disagree with this view. They see venomous snakes as a threat. A careful analysis of snake behavior, however, reveals that snakes pursue only two groups of animals - prey and mates. Humans fit neither category.

At first, the rattler that my wife and I encountered instinctively remained motionless to prevent detection. When I attempted to push the snake across the road, it coiled and rattled to warn. Had the snake intended to bite, it would have rushed me and tried to do so. Of course, that did not happen. Most snakes avoid confrontation with large animals, including humans.

Like many Missourians, I grew up fearing venomous snakes. Over the years, however, I have grown to see venomous snakes as part of what I sought on weekend retreats to Missouri's remote reaches. I like to spend time in places where I hear no road noise; where at night, the only light outside comes from the moon and stars; where when I walked afield, I need to watch out for venomous snakes.

At most of the places I visit, a copperhead might be coiled by a pile of rocks, or a cottonmouth might be dozing in a tangle of streamside brush. They are part of the wildness that I seek, and so I appreciate their presence.

I raised my children to hold these same values. Several Aprils ago, my son, Michael, then a grade schooler, and I were hiking behind my parents' cabin. As we picked our way along the edge of a rocky, south-facing slope that flanked Big Creek, I warned Michael to walk close behind me and to watch where he put his feet because venomous snakes could be about.

"Are you afraid of them, Dad?" Michael asked.

I told him that I didn't fear them, but that I respected them. I explained that venomous snakes are well equipped to defend themselves. We walked a little farther along the rocky slope, then turned up a draw that would take us back to the cabin. As we passed a downed rotten log, my son stopped and exclaimed, "Look, Dad! Here's a big snake skin!"

I stopped and picked it up. The skin was old and torn, but the faint color pattern was unmistakable. It had once been attached to a timber rattler. We both marveled over the discovery. Back at the cabin we showed the skin to family. Grandma gave Michael a clear sandwich bag to take the skin home so he could show it to his grade-school classmates.

Finding that snake's skin turned our hike into a memorable event, a chance to witness what is still wild in Missouri. triangle

Avoiding Venomous Snakes

Missouri is home to five species of venomous snakes: copperhead, cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake and massasauga rattlesnake. All are shy and normally avoid people, but when cornered, they are capable of defending themselves.

Medical literature reveals that most people are bitten by venomous snakes while trying to kill or handle them. If you come across a venomous snake or a snake you can't identify, leave it alone. In areas that harbor venomous snakes, wear protective footwear and always look where you put your hands and feet. Do not straddle logs or rocks. Step on them, then step over.

A bite by any of Missouri's venomous snakes warrants immediate medical attention. However, no human deaths from bites by native venomous snake have been recorded in Missouri in more than 30 years.


Killing a Snake: IS THAT LEGAL?

Chapter 4 of Missouri's Wildlife Code, rule 3 CSR 10-4.110 reads:"No bird, fish, amphibian, reptile, mammal or other form of wildlife, including their homes, dens, nests and eggs in Missouri shall be molested, pursued, taken, hunted, trapped, tagged, marked, enticed, poisoned, killed, transported, stored, served, bought, sold, given away, accepted, possessed, propagated, imported, exported or liberated to the wild in any manner, number, part parcel or quantity, at any time, except as specifically permitted by these rules and any laws consistent with Article IV, sections 40-46 of the Constitution of Missouri."

This inclusive piece of legal prose recognizes the importance of all wildlife. It prohibits all use of wildlife, unless specifically permitted by a rule in Missouri's Wildlife Code. Only under very limited circumstances is it permissible to kill a snake in Missouri. Rule 3 CSR 10-4.130 establishes provisions for capturing or killing wildlife that is damaging private property. A black rat snake that is beyond a reasonable doubt eating your chicken eggs would be an example of a snake damaging your property.

Missouri's Wildlife Code provides broad protection for wildlife and encourages a common sense approach to wildlife problems and management.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler