Earth Day 2021: Don’t Kill Snakes

On a warm summer afternoon not so long ago, I eased my car into the garage, holding my breath as I always do because it’s a tight squeeze. I turned off the motor and carefully opened the driver door, trying not to bump the wall. As I swung my left foot out, I happened to look down. Yikes! The biggest black snake I’d ever seen was stretched out on the concrete. I hollered, jerked my foot back into the car and slammed the door.

Then what? There wasn’t room to step around the snake and I didn’t want to back out of the garage and chance running over it. So I climbed over the console and gearshift and parking brake, bumping my head twice as I exited the car through the passenger side. I hurried into the house, leaving the garage door open.

When I went back out to check on the snake a few minutes later, it was gone.

Every time I tell this story, a shocking percentage of people ask why I didn’t kill the snake. One answer is that its squashed and bloody four-foot-long corpse would be no fun to dispose of. But the better answer is that it’s wrong to kill a snake if it’s within our power to avoid it.

I’ve never quite understood why people hate snakes. Perhaps it goes back to the Bible, which contains numerous snake references, none of them favorable. The most famous, of course, is in Genesis. Lolling about the Garden of Eden, Eve encounters a crafty serpent who talks her into eating forbidden fruit. When God finds out what she’s done, he curses the serpent: “You will crawl on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life…the woman’s offspring will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”

That I don’t dislike snakes doesn’t mean I want them in the house, which has happened more times than I have space to recount in this column. In the old farmhouse where I used to live, snakes were far-too-frequent visitors. Thankfully, I’ve found only one–a green snake not much bigger than a pencil–in the house where I live now. It was easily persuaded with a broom to go back outside, which is the recommended method of humanely removing snakes from places they’re not welcome.

Why not just go ahead and kill a snake if given half a chance?

For starters, it’s morally wrong to kill any living creature just for the sake of killing it. Also, snakes are a vital part of the ecosystem. They’re predators who keep the population of frogs, lizards, mice, rats and squirrels under control. And snakes are food for other predators, including owls, hawks, eagles, bobcats and foxes. Did you know you’re far more likely to be bitten by a dog than a snake? Did you know it’s a myth that snakes chase people? Did you know the reason most people get bit by a snake is that they’re trying to kill it? Or that they surprised it by not paying attention to where they put their hands, feet or rear end?

What about venomous snakes? They’re a vital part of the ecosystem, too, and in most places it’s illegal to harm them. In this country, you’re ten times more likely to die from a bee sting than a snake bite. If you encounter any kind of snake in the great outdoors, venomous or otherwise, there’s no need to panic. Just back up a few steps and wait for it to slither away. Sooner or later, it will.

It’s long past time to let go of the misguided notion that the only good snake is a dead snake. It’s time we resolve to live and let live. On Earth Day and every day.

(April 17, 2021)