No, Not All Snakes Are Bad, But Still . . .
News writers tried very hard to maintain their objectivity when reporting North Carolina's latest recognition: We lead the nation in copperhead bites.
For a change, it was not a political issue. The need to warn the public about the dangers of these brown reptiles is obvious. On the other hand, one must deal with nature lovers who argue that snakes are rarely aggressive and do more good than harm, unless you tread on their turf.
Tell that to my farmer father, to whom the only good snake was a dead snake.
Indeed, native lore found benefit in dead snakes. A local superstition had it that in times of drought, one should hang a dead snake from a tree to attract rain. Dad was not seriously superstitious, but he would drape the snake over a tree branch if we needed rain.
He probably did it more to assure neighbors that he was doing his part than any serious belief in the efficacy of the superstition.
Dad had practical reasons for disliking even -nonpoisonous snakes. True, they rid the barn of rats, but they also gulped down eggs, biddies and small -chickens. His name for a rat snake was "chicken snake." We had plenty of cats to take care of the rodent population.
When I was growing up in rural Beaufort County, the copperhead was the most common poisonous snake. Water moccasins were found in a nearby creek, and occasionally there was a rattler. But our most common encounter was the poplarleaf, local jargon for the pattern on the copperhead's back.
Just as the news people reported recently, the copperhead enjoys the comfort of woodpiles, pine straw and leaf cover.
Our farm had a wood house, a smokehouse and several packhouses, as well as barns and chicken coops. The homeplace did not boast central heating in those days. Fireplaces and stoves were our primary sources of heat, necessitating frequent trips to the wood house.
On one cool autumn day the wood supply had given out before Dad could replenish it, and my mother and I made the trip to the wood house. As we were -leaving, arms loaded with firewood, Mother sharply ordered me to halt, then calmly warned me that a poplarleaf snake was lurking within inches of our feet.
We eased ourselves out of the building, and a few minutes later another family member dispatched the snake with a precise swing of the hoe, the preferred weapon in those days.
Much later, as a newspaper reporter, I met animal lovers who convinced me not to kill a snake just because it is a snake. I still don't care to cuddle a snake, but today I don't dash for the hoe when I spot one. (At one time the North Carolina Museum of Natural History kept a boa constrictor as mascot. Its name was Cuddles.)
One reader once complained when our newspaper printed an interview with a wildlife lover who decried the widespread fear and abuse of snakes. This critic cited the book of Genesis and reminded me that the snake was the tempter that introduced sin to the world.
When it comes to snakes, few people hold lukewarm opinions. They range from outright terror to unrestrained passion.
During a demonstration at the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History, the reptile curator was embraced by a snake that was gently slinking around her body. Asked if this were a sign of affection, she explained that the snake was just enjoying her body warmth.
A friend expressed fierce opposition to educational programs informing children about both the dangers and benefits of snakes. She argued that such -programs might encourage children to play with snakes without fully understanding the difference between the poisonous and the nondangerous. She has a point. Children are attracted by a challenge.
It's wise to remember that all wild animals are unpredictable and potentially dangerous, even the playful squirrel.
Contact Florence Gilkeson by e-mail at email@example.com.
More like this story