What we fear

It was a sickening site, lying on the side of the road — the freshly dead body of a black rat snake. Tire tracks coming off the pavement, onto the road shoulder to hit the snake, then back onto the pavement to go on their merry way. Someone went out of his way to kill this snake. For what purpose? To what end?

Car tracks indicate a vehicle deliberately veered off Singing Woods Road in Peoria County to run over this black rat snake. The exposed hemipenes near the tail indicate the snake is male.

It’s a fact that snakes are major predators of rodents. This one black rat snake will eat about 80 rodents per summer. That’s 80 rodents that will not be producing offspring. If you extrapolate it out, this single black rat snake will effectively reduce the rodent population by around 1,000 rodents per year. Now that’s an effective mousetrap!

I have done many snake programs as a naturalist for the Peoria Park District. There are few critters that hold such a wide range of feelings for people. I would say that a majority of people I’ve met have some “reluctance” concerning snakes. Quite a few people do understand that snakes play an important role in nature, but there are a few that simply have an over-riding fear of snakes. So much so, that some will not willingly be in the same room as a snake.

One cause of this fear is the reality that some snakes are venomous. In Illinois, we do have four species of venomous snakes (timber rattlesnake, massasauga rattlesnake, cottonmouth water moccasin and copperhead). However NONE of these species are found in our part of the state. There are about 7,000 to 8,000 people per year who are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States, but only about five people will die from a snakebite.

To put this in a little more perspective, about 50 people a year die from being struck by lightning. Automobile and motorcycle accidents account for more than 37,000 deaths per year and lung cancer takes over 160,000 lives per year. Here’s the irony. I have done snake programs with people in the audience who have a fear of snakes. Some will leave and go outside to do something to calm their nerves. Can you guess? Yes, they light a cigarette.

If we can only put things into perspective, we might have a better basis to understand just what is worth fearing in this world. Snakes are pretty low on the list of things to be afraid of today. If we can further realize the role that snakes provide in the form of rodent control, we can understand how they benefit each of us. If we can just get beyond fear, we are less apt to go out of our way to needlessly end life. There is a quote from an unknown source (although some attribute it to William Butler Yeats): “What man does not understand, he fears; and what he fears, he tends to destroy.” It sounds to me like the author was writing about snakes.

Mike Miller



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