Snake safety

by Rachel Creager Ireland

The preschool went to the zoo and as usual, they had a presentation by a zoo staff member. One of the animals she brought out for the kids to see and touch was a snake. While the kids sat in a circle around her, the parents clustered behind them, commenting at conversational volume. “This is a good snake? There’s no such thing as a good snake.” “I do not like snakes.” “I just kill them all.” Not surprisingly, a little boy began to cry in fear. A less vocal mom held him on her lap and reassured him, and soon he was gingerly touching the snake, and smiling.

Well, apparently this is another of those issues where I am such a weirdo that no one could possibly be expected to get what I’m talking about without my spelling it out in very blatant terms. So here goes. What is wrong with you people? Talking about how bad and scary an animal is while a knowledgeable person is trying to show it to children is rude, ignorant, and undermines the whole learning experience for everyone. I suppose some might think my sitting close to the kids and asking as many questions as they do is rude, but I do it because I want to learn, not proclaim my prejudice and ignorance so loudly that the kids have to struggle to hear the real information.

People talk about how dangerous some snakes are, and of course it’s true. But the answer to danger is never to lash out in blind fear. It’s to learn and teach about the danger, so that we can protect ourselves as best we can, while living with all the creatures with whom we share this world. Senseless killing never makes the world a better place.

So I’m doing my part. Here is a rundown of the venomous snakes of Kansas. Much of the information comes from this excellent article.

There are 38 species of snakes in Kansas, of which five are venomous. Three are rattlesnakes: the massasauga, the timber rattler, and the prairie rattler. How can you identify them? They have a rattle, or button, on the end of their tails. Other snakes’ tails taper to a point at the end. They will try to escape when disturbed, so if you keep your eyes and ears open, and don’t bother them, you will most likely be safe.

The cottonmouth has a pattern, but it may not be readily visible because of its dark color. When threatened, it rises up and opens its mouth, exposing the distinctive white inside its mouth. It lives in the very southeastern corner of Kansas, so it would be highly unlikely to be in the Flint Hills. It is always near water.

The copperhead has a pattern like an hourglass across the back, and a notably coppery-colored head.

Since 1950, there has been one confirmed death by snakebite in Kansas. Wouldn’t want to be that person, but I think, statistically, there are many other dangers here which are much more prevalent. Probably more people die from bee stings. (But don’t mention that to the beekeepers. They’re kind of sensitive about it.)

Tell your children all about the venomous snakes, not so they will be afraid, but so they will know how to be safe. When they know what they’re looking at, they don’t have to be afraid. Be sure to tell them also that they should always avoid bothering any wild animal, even ones they think are safe. Some non-venomous snakes will bite if threatened, and it won’t kill a person, but it’s a nasty puncture wound. In other words, observe snakes with respect rather than fear.

Now that we have that out of the way, I’d like to tell you about the lovely yellow-bellied racer that’s been hanging around. Oh, but it’s late. We’ll have to save it for another day.