Gardening: Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes

Eileen Ward
An example of an eastern coral snake.

Most snakes are not poisonous, yet people fear most species as if they were. Florida has 37 species of non-poisonous snakes and only six species which are poisonous; which means the poisonous ones are relatively rare.

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One way to tell venomous vipers from non-poisonous snakes are the eyes. Vipers have vertical slits while non-poisonous snakes have round eyes. The poisonous coral snake is an exception. An old jingle which helps differentiate the coral snake from the non-poisonous scarlet snake is “red and yellow kill a fellow.” If the red rings touch the yellow, beware!

Non-poisonous snake species come in many sizes and colors and are found in most of Florida’s different habitats from the mangrove swamps to dry scrub to the backyard.

Even though most snakes are non-venomous the occasional snakebite raises an unwarranted fear of snakes in general. There is fewer than one death a year from snakebite in Florida. More people are killed by lightening.

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Another misconception is that snakes are slimy. In fact, their scales are very dry and clean, composed of neatly joined scales which repel water. Snakes feel wonderful to the touch. If you’ve never held one I highly recommend it to those who can muster the courage. I cannot think of any other creature that moves quite like a snake.

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Some of the more common non venomous species on Marco Island include the southern black racer which is jet black with a white chin and can grow to be six feet in length. The black racer preys on rats, mice, frogs toads and lizards. Another is the southern ring neck snake. This is a tiny snake usually eight to 12-inches long. It is black or dark grey with an orange or yellow ring around its neck and an orange belly. This is a great snake to have in the garden as its diet includes slugs and snails. And my favorite is the rat or corn snake. This is another large snake which can reach six feet in length. Its color patterns can vary considerably from yellow, orange, red or brown and grey. This snake feeds almost exclusively on rats and mice.

In my 20 some years of gardening all over Marco Island the only venomous snake I have ever seen is the pigmy rattlesnake. This is a small snake, usually under 30 inches long. It is grey with black blotches and there is usually an orange stripe interrupted by black blotches down its back and on the back of its head. It looks very similar to a baby black racer. The baby black racer has the round eyes of a non-venomous snake and is brown and grey without the red on the head and back.

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The fact is that most snakes are beneficial and fascinating creatures. They have been so feared and mistreated that their populations are severely diminished in Florida and around the world. Here on Marco Island we used to have a good population of six-foot black racers and rat snakes. Now it is very rare to see one at three- or four-feet and even the babies are hard to find.

While those who fear snakes probably say it is a good thing they are disappearing, it is not good as we are experiencing an increase in our rat population because we are destroying this valuable natural predator of rats. Snakes rarely venture into a home and only by mistake when they do. The rats on the other hand like nothing better than a nice warm attic to call home. I’ll take a snake in the yard over a rat in the attic any day.

So, the next time you come across a snake chances are its harmless and probably beneficial so don’t be so quick to kill it. Let our snakes live and grow. They really are beautiful creatures. And if you do want it gone from your property call me and if I am available I will come and rescue the snake from you and relocate it to a more remote location. My cell number is 239-269-0192. The snakes and I thank you in advance for not killing them.

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Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at Gswdmarco@comcast.net or 239-394-1413.