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Snake bites rare unless provoked

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Several snakes were shown to students at Horace Mann Elementary School during a presentation on Friday, April 23, 2010. (Kristina Barker/Journal staff)

Recent news of a copperhead bite on a Rapid City man is enough to make most people a little wary of snakes. However, the snake's horrible reputation is not deserved and people truly have nothing to fear from these gentle animals.

Snakes are very shy, timid, secretive, and generally docile creatures that try to avoid conflict when ever possible. Snakes will not make unprovoked attacks on people. When a person comes in contact with a snake, the animal's first instinct will be to rapidly flee the area and find shelter. If the snake doesn't do this, it may just stay perfectly still to try to blend in with the surroundings.

Even if the snake is captured, it may still not resort to biting. The snake has several harmless tactics it can resort to as an alternative to biting. The snake may hiss, make mock strikes with a closed mouth, or flail around trying to escape.

A study by University of Georgia Professor Dr. Whit Gibbons found that all the snake species tested have had the same initial response to human presence. If given the opportunity, they escape - down a hole, under a ledge, or in the case of cottonmouth snakes, into the water.

Escape is even the standard behavior of enormous diamondback rattlesnakes, which will immediately disappear if they have enough warning before they think a person can reach them. The snakes just want us to leave them alone.

Snake bites on humans usually only happen when someone is deliberately trying to provoke or harm a snake, and the animal bites purely in self defense. According to North Carolina State University, almost 80 percent of snake bites happen when someone is trying to capture or kill the snake. If you provoke and capture a wild animal, the animal is going to try to defend itself. The key to being safe around snakes is to simply leave them alone.

Most snakes are completely harmless. Only around 13 percent of all snake species are venomous. Of this small number, even less are equipped with venom that is strong enough to seriously harm a human being.

If a venomous snake does bite a person, often no venom is injected into the bite, these are known as dry bites. Snakes have venom first and foremost as a means to quickly subdue their prey. The venom also helps the snake digest its meal. As humans are too big for snakes to eat, they will not want to waste their venom during defensive bites.

If the snake does inject venom, proper medical treatment and anti-venom can usually save the person's life. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, only about 0.2 percent of people bitten by snakes in the United States actually die from the bite.

It is very easy to co-exist with snakes, especially since they do many useful things for people. Snakes are great controllers of rodents, and they can crawl into small burrows and other areas that are too small for other predators. Furthermore, snakes are saving the lives of countless people every year. Snake venom is being used in the medical field to treat all sorts of serious ailments like heart and stroke disease, cancer, Parkinson's, blood clots, and many more.

Despite these benefits, countless snakes are killed by fearful people every year. Hundreds of snake species are now in need of conservation if they are to continue to survive. Currently, over 450 snake species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

We must look past our fear and ignorance and see snakes for what they really are: interesting creatures that play very important roles in the ecosystem.

Matt Ellerbeck is conservationist and snake expert who lives in Kingston, Ontario.


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