Ignorance (of snakes) is bliss

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 21, 2007

Everyone is aware of the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.”

At one point or another we’ve all been ignorant to the danger around us, kind of like a child who is unaware that a hot stove will burn their skin.

I’m no different as I do not know much about the poisonous snakes that live within the state of North Carolina.

This past week snakes seemed to be everywhere I went.

I’ve seen them on the road, slithering to get away from cars’ speeding tires and heard stories about them in conversations throughout the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald office.

Being a northerner I’ve had only a few experiences with snakes and the ones that I’ve come upon in New York have not been poisonous.

In fact New York State only has three poisonous snakes found mostly in the Adirondack Mountains and the southern part of the state. All three snakes are either on the endangered list or listed as a threatened species.

The first time I ever saw a snake I was wandering in my grandparents’ garden. I was a child at the time walking through the tall grass on a path that led behind five large pines my mother had helped plant when she was a child.

Just as I turned a corner I saw it. Its beady little eyes and thin black body with greenish stripes, the mere sight of it made my blood run cold.

Faster than I could turn around the snake quickly slipped away.

However, I made a more dramatic exit by running and screaming all the way back to the house.

When I told my grandmother what had happen she informed me I had probably seen a garter snake, one of the most common non-poisonous snakes in New York.

My next encounter with a snake was at Letchworth State Park on the banks of the Genesee River. I was walking with a friend and my aunt back from an overlook when we came across a long black snake as it moved over the stone steps.

In some ways I was entranced at the sight of it. The snake’s body had to at least measure three feet and it had a touch of white under its chin. I had a video camera with me at the time and filmed the creature as it inched across the path.

That snake wasn’t as frightened of people as the garter snake I had encountered. This one took its sweet old time crossing the path in front of us and in the meantime causing hikers to queue on the trail in utter fascination and/or utter fear.

For the longest time I didn’t know what kind of snake it was. I was once told it was a water moccasin, but found out that information was false since water moccasins do not live in New York.

There are nonetheless water snakes that look eerily like the moccasin, have a nasty disposition and will give a mean bite, but ultimately can not kill a human.

I’ve come to the conclusion that snake was probably a water snake since he didn’t seem to care how many people he held up on the trail.

After my encounter with the water snake, I became some what enthralled with snakes in general. I even got the nerve up to touch a python one time that was draped on a man’s shoulders at a fair.

But that feeling soon faded after too many Discovery Channel specials featuring snakes killing their prey and snakebite victims with swollen appendages.

I still empathize with snakes and understand how these reptiles can be misunderstood. Most snakebites happen when people handle, threaten or step on a snake. And in the end snakebites only claim 12 to 15 victims a year in the United States. A small toll compared to the thousands of snakes killed by humans, whether it be by a hoe, shovel or car.

For centuries snakes have been revered and dreaded by cultures around the world. The mysterious, scaly, limbless animals have always caused a stir where ever they’re seen.

While some cultures believe snakes are a sign of fertility and renewal, others see them as a sign of evil.

Perhaps the latter is what instilled a fear of snakes in humans, since there are not many of us that will admit to a love of snakes.

In fact most of us rather see them stay in the woods or a body of water along the edge of our yards than find them sitting on our doorstep.

And maybe that fear is best for both human and snake.