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We have often discussed here on this blog how and why killing snakes whenever and wherever you see one is a questionable land ethic. But, in the past I conceded that I understand why people would kill venomous snakes when they are found in their backyards because of the perceived threat to their families. Prompted by some comments left on a recent blog post, I’ve reflected on this a bit more and have come to the conclusion that I think I was wrong: It does not actually make sense to kill venomous snakes in your yard. My reasoning is the topic of this post. That said, I can’t possibly predict the outcome of every wild animal encounter and I can’t tell you what is the safest thing to do in any specific situation. I can, however, speak in general terms. I hope you will take this information and decide for yourself what the proper course of action may be when you find a venomous snake.
Many people kill all the venomous snakes they see in their yard because they feel this makes their property safer for themselves and their family. These killings are the topic I’ll be discussing below*. This isn’t a post about saving snakes and being a tree hugger, it’s about reducing the chances that a venomous snake will bite you. I will attempt to make the following points:
Killing venomous snakes around your property in an attempt to make your property safer does not make sense because:
1) The risk of being bitten by a venomous snake when you are not harassing that snake is extremely low and,
2) The risk of being bitten by a venomous snake when you are trying to kill it is relatively high, therefore,
3) The act of killing a venomous snake increases your personal risk disproportionately to any potential decrease in the probability that the snake will bite you or someone else in the future (I don’t actually have the statistics to prove this point, but I feel it is a common sense conclusion given the information I summarize here).
4) A venomous snake on your property is probably there because you are in or around good snake habitat, therefore there are likely to be multiple future encounters with additional snakes, leading to multiple dangerous encounters if they are all killed as they are observed.
5) Teaching and encouraging others to kill snakes increases the chances that they will mimic that behavior, thereby increasing their risk of snakebite.
6) Finally, you unlikely do anything about the many other things that are around your property that are more likely to kill you than snakes.
First off, do snakes deserve their deadly reputation? In the United States, there are approximately 7,000-8,000 recorded venomous snakebites a year. Of all these bites, on average only about five result in death (1). Although there are a fair number of snake bites each year (and a few deaths), this number includes all the drunk knuckleheads that are showing off with a snake they caught, it includes all the people at rattlesnake roundups holding rattlesnakes and letting them strike at their boots, all the religious snake handlers proving their faith, it includes all the people who keep venomous snakes as pets, it includes all the wildlife researchers who handle live rattlesnakes as part of their job, it includes the pest control workers that remove venomous snake from their hiding places, it includes all the Steve Irwin wannabes that harass venomous snakes for no particular reason, it includes the people who work with rattlesnakes to extract their venom every day, and it includes all the people who use shovels or other hand tools to kill snakes in their yard. You can dramatically decrease your chances of being bitten by a venomous snake by promising not to be any of those people. It is very unusual for a person minding their own business to be bitten by a venomous snake. Depending on which study you’re looking at, many if not most of all the snakebites in the United States occur when attempts are made to capture or kill a snake (and many of these attempts occur when under the influence of alcohol, e.g., Morandi and Williams reference below, 2).
Killing a snake with a gun does not carry the same risks as killing a snake in hand-to-serpent combat with shovels or sticks because you can be out of the snake’s strike range when you pull the trigger. But, firing a gun may not be legal or advisable in your backyard or around houses. Even being well-trained with a firearm is no guarantee tragedy won’t occur: just ask the Oklahoma police officer that in 2007 shot at a Ratsnake in a yard and killed a five-year old boy fishing with his grandfather in a nearby pond. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether using a gun to kill a snake is a reasonable option, but just remember that no matter how the snake is killed, it can still envenomate you if you handle the corpse.
Assuming you’re not using a gun, just by deciding to not capture or kill venomous snakes (especially after you’ve been drinking), your chances of being bitten by one drops dramatically. Let me summarize this to make the point very clear. If nobody tried to capture or kill venomous snakes in the United States, probably about two people would die a year, on average, from a venomous snake bite. That doesn’t mean that even a single death isn’t a tragedy, but it needs to be put in perspective considering there are nearly 314 million people living in the United States.
I think there is a common misconception that if you see a venomous snake in your yard, your chances of being bitten by one have suddenly skyrocketed. Here’s why I think this is seldom the case: It is very unusual for a venomous snake to just emerge from the depths of
Hell the forest and take up residence in an area that is not good snake habitat. If you live in or around venomous snake habitat, you walk by venomous snakes every single day without knowing it.
Snakes are extremely secretive creatures. I did not fully appreciate this fact until I started participating in snake radio-tracking studies. Often, even though my receiver was telling me that there was a snake right in front of me, I couldn’t see it. I’ve heard similar stories from Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake researchers that stepped past, over, and yes, even on rattlesnakes while they were tracking them. Sometimes, they’re practically invisible. Every once in a while though, you may see one in your yard. This doesn’t mean that this one snake is a danger to you, it just happened to be the one that was unlucky enough to be seen. Killing this one individual snake doesn’t address the fact that you are surrounded by them. And killing them one by one is not a long-term solution to sharing your land with rattlesnakes, it’s just an isolated and dangerous activity repeated over and over (keep reading for alternative strategies).
Do you make a habit of killing all the dogs in your neighborhood? If you kill venomous snakes for your family’s safety, then it makes sense for you to kill dogs as well. Dogs generally kill over 3o people in this country each year (3).
Do you hide everyone’s car keys and stay off of the roads? If you kill venomous snakes for your family’s safety, then it makes sense for you to do so. In the United States, roughly 90 people are killed in car accidents every single day (4).
What about the dangers in your very own backyard? About 15 children die every year on playgrounds (three times as many people that die from snakebite, 5), yet we push our children towards them. Why don’t we dismantle all the playgrounds? From a risk standpoint it makes more sense to do so than killing a venomous snake (and it is safer too). And don’t forget swimming pools, well over 100 people drown in them each year (6).
Because rattlesnake is often fried up and eaten, and 500 people die in this country every year from choking (7), biting into a venomous snake is probably about as likely to kill you as a venomous snake biting into you.
To be clear, I do not think anyone should be killing their dogs or hiding their car keys. I also want to make abundantly clear that every single accidental death is a tragedy, regardless of the cause. The point I’m making here is that people take risks every single day with things that are much, much more dangerous than venomous snakes. And, if you’re not killing all the neighborhood dogs in the neighborhood (or chewing your family’s food and forbidding them from using playgrounds, pools, or cars), it does not make sense for you to kill venomous snakes to protect other people; the risk of anyone dying from a snakebite is just too low. Further, killing venomous snakes is a relatively dangerous activity (as we learned above). So, why do it?
At this point, you may be thinking that even though your chances of being killed by a snake are extremely low, there are thousands of people envenomated by snakes every year that do not die. And, getting envenomated by a snake can be a very painful and serious emergency that we all want to avoid for ourselves and others. In this case, instead of using the number of people killed in cars, by dogs, and on playgrounds, consider how many people are injured and see how these numbers rank against the number of venomous snakebites. For example, there are about 4.5 million dog bites in this country every year (8), in 2012, these bites resulted in over 27,000 reconstructive surgeries (9). Remember, many if not most snakebites occur after people intentionally mess with a snake. Don’t do that.
In summary, in many cases killing a venomous snake in your yard is not a logical thing to do. It increases your chance of being bitten by a snake while teaching others a risky behavior that is more likely to get them bitten and/or killed by a snake than doing nothing at all. At the same time, it often does not make sense to kill venomous snakes to decrease the chance others will be bitten because of the relatively high risk to you and the extremely low chance someone will be bitten by a snake regardless of what you do. Killing snakes seems especially pointless considering that it is unlikely you can eliminate a snake population or reduce overall risk by taking out the few snakes you see.
There are more harmonious (and safer) ways of sharing land with wild creatures than killing venomous snakes, and they involve common sense precautions like learning to identify the wildlife in your area and giving space to potentially dangerous animals. You should also wear close-toed shoes and watch where you put your hands if you know you are around snake habitat. You can reduce the chance that you will find a venomous snake in your yard by keeping brush and woodpiles away, mowing the lawn regularly, and trimming shrubs so that they do not reach the ground. I think that following these practices and teaching others to do the same will reduce the chance of snakebite more than killing snakes ever will.
What will you do the next time you see a venomous snake in your yard? Let me know why below.
* Many people kill snakes for no reason at all, whether they are venomous or not, and no matter where they are found. I am not discussing these people here because I can’t help them; killing animals for fun is often associated with psychopathic behavior and I am not a psychiatrist.
Want to Learn More? Check Out These Scientific Articles:
O’Neil ME, Mack KA, Gilchrist J, & Wozniak EJ (2007). Snakebite injuries treated in United States emergency departments, 2001-2004. Wilderness & environmental medicine, 18 (4), 281-7 PMID: 18076294
H. M. Parrish (1966). Incidence of Treated Snakebites in the United States Public Health Rep, 81 (3), 269-276 DOI: 10.2307/4592691
John Jensen and Olivia Sylvester kindly reviewed an earlier draft of this post to help make sure it could stand up to scrutiny like this. The Kingsnake picture appears courtesy of Aubrey Heupel.
2. http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/gaston/Pests/reptiles/avoidsnakebite.htm there are various other sources for original data.