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Earth Matters The feared, misunderstood, snakes

July 29, 2018

In 2009, workmen were digging a foundation hole at our house to support a new bedroom. A milk snake poked through the loose soil. One of the workman saw it, took a shovel and cut it in half.

It is a nearly a decade later, but I still remember how decisively he struck at the snake — which was absolutely harmless, and very beautiful — and how clearly he thought he’d done a good deed. Snakes are wicked. They should be killed, no questions asked, no quarter given.

Why? Biblical myth. We know Lucifer chose to be snaky when he tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. She and Adam partook of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. God henceforth banished us all from Eden to a life of sweat and toil. In Adam’s fall, we sinned all. Get to work, you nogoodniks.

Semi-religious folk myths. St. Patrick of course, drove the snakes from Ireland, which is why there are none there today. (Ssssh!!! There were never any snakes in Ireland. There are no kangaroos in Ireland either. We note St. Patrick never took credit for that.)

“The Judeo-Christian world has not been supportive of snakes,” said Theodora Pinou, a herpetologist who is a professor of biologic and environmental science at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.

There’s pop culture.

“Look at Indiana Jones,” said Ann Taylor, executive director of New Pond Farm nature center in Redding.

Our forbearers probably brought snake fears with them to the New World, Pinou said. They got passed on.

“There are Old World vipers all around the Mediterranean,” she said. “There are poisonous snakes in a lot of places.”

And yet, if you forget about the talking snake, and St. Patrick ensuring the snakeless Emerald Isle would be overrun with mice and rats, and Indy in a tomb of vipers, there is this: Snakes are fascinating.

They are also environmentally useful — they kill and eat rodents.

And in Connecticut, they are almost entirely peaceable and without sin.

There are 14 snake species in the state. A good guide to all of them is at: www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/nongame/snkwebview.pd

Only two — the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead — have poison in their fangs.

The timber rattler is so rare in the state, that it’s considered endangered and in need of protection. In the western half of Connecticut you’ll almost certainly never see one unless you’re clambering in the Northwest Corner’s rocky cliffs.

Copperheads are more common. Jenny Dickson, senior wildlife biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said they’re found in an inverted T in Connecticut, in rocky places down the Connecticut River Valley and in the towns bordering Long Island Sound. They can also show up in northern Fairfield County.

“They follow the paths of the glaciers,” she said.

But Dickson said you have to work hard to get bitten by one. As venomous snakes go, copperheads are laid-back.

“They tend to be mellow,” she said. “They rely on their coloration patterns to hide them. You step over one and not know it. But it’s like anything else — push them too far, and they can defend themselves.”

Which is true for Connecticut snakes in general. They want to avoid human contact and stay out of sight. If we surprise them — and they us — they tend to slither off, pronto.

While not defending ophiophobia — irrational fear of snakes — Dickson acknowledges they’re creatures of a different make and model.“They don’t have legs,” she said. “They’re cold-blooded. They stick their tongues out.”

At the Pratt Nature Center in New Milford, the first lesson to the kids at its summer camp is respect for all things. Including snakes.

“We’re all part of the same planet,” said Diane Swanson, Pratt’s executive director.

So when the time comes to find them, the kids are ready.

“We see all kinds,” Swanson said.

Ann Taylor said New Pond Farm has two snakes in terrariums so that nature camp attendees can touch their smooth scales. Outside, she said, there are snakes aplenty to find. But New Pond’s staff teaches the kids to watch, but not pick up or annoy.

“We tell them ‘To the snake, you’re a giant,’” Taylor said.

Pinou said much of what people think they know — or don’t know — about snakes is due to being untaught. A few nibbles of the Tree of Knowledge’s forbidden herpetological fruit might be the fix.

“Knowledge is power,” Pinou said.

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com

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