I grew up with a fear of snakes. I wasn’t born with that fear; a fear of snakes was passed on to me by my parents and countless other people. And if their influence was not enough, books, television shows, and movies also told me to hate those slithering creatures.
It wasn’t until I had a summer internship at the Pittsburgh Zoo that I started to appreciate and understand snakes. On my first day of this internship, I was given a corn snake named Maize to hold, which is where it all began. Flash forward to today. After numerous snake encounters in the woods and various other jobs, I am a huge advocate for snakes, especially those living alongside us. One of my favorite things to do now is educate others about how to live alongside snakes. Often, people will send me pictures of snakes and ask me to identify them. I have received dozens of photos over the years and can honestly say that, as a result, numerous snakes have lived to see another day.
Snakes are often misunderstood. Unfortunately, many snakes in our area are killed due to mistaken identity or an unwarranted hatred of snakes. I believe that with a little extra knowledge and education, we can help prevent unnecessary snake deaths. Snakes are critical and play an essential role in our environment. There are about 38 species of snakes found in South Carolina, and only 6 of those are venomous. Most of the snakes that you will come across are harmless to humans. Corn snakes are one of my favorite species. They are also one of the most beautiful snakes in South Carolina, but unfortunately, many people mistake them for copperheads. Juvenile rat snakes are another species that many people think are copperheads. Many water snake species get mistaken for water moccasins as well. I encourage you to become familiar with some of the most common snakes you may encounter in your backyards. Learning to identify snakes is a valuable tool. Our nonvenomous species tend to have long slender bodies with narrow heads. Most of our venomous snakes in South Carolina (copperheads, rattlesnake species, water moccasins) have stocky, heavy bodies, triangular-shaped heads, and elliptical or catlike pupils. However, if you are trying to identify a snake by its pupils, I would say you are entirely too close to that snake! For more information, see Snakes of South Carolina and Georgia.
If you spend time outdoors in South Carolina, you will eventually encounter a snake. Most of the time, snakes go undetected by humans, but anyone who does work in their garden or yard will come across them eventually. If snakes are not for you, decrease your likelihood of seeing a snake in the yard by removing their habitat. Brush piles and stacked firewood are magnets for snakes because they are also a magnet for rodents and insects, which many snakes eat. I recently stumbled across a garter snake near my neighbor’s tarped pine straw bales in the yard. I had walked by him a few times before I noticed him, proving my point that we encounter snakes more often than we realize. My neighbors are not the biggest fans of snakes, but the ironic thing is that they have created the Taj Mahal of snake habitat by creating a nice warm environment with plenty of places to hide and attracting a buffet line of small rodents for the snake to enjoy. You cannot blame a snake for moving into perfect habitat where all its needs are met.
Removing their habitat is the best way to avoid snake encounters, but if you do happen to stumble across a snake basking in the sun or just by mistake, back away from it and let it pass on its way. The snake wants nothing to do with you and will get away from you using the quickest route possible. Sometimes that route is directly behind you. Often, a snake moves out of the way before you even know it is there. Do not try to pick it up, especially if you do not know what kind it is. If you must relocate it, use the head of a golf club like a hook or a long sturdy branch to support the snake’s body. Always be mindful of where you are placing your hands while gardening or while reaching your hands in certain areas, like under rocks or in wood piles. If you have to move brush piles or wood piles, use a stick or shovel to tap the pile a few times before doing anything else, this will give the snake a cue to move on, and they won’t be startled.
For those curious minds out there, if you encounter a snake and would like to know what it is, we are happy to identify it for you, especially if that means a cornsnake gets to keep slithering along for another day. Please send any clear images of live snakes to the Home and Garden Information Center for proper identification.