A beneficial young rat snake

In the world of beneficial creatures, there are creepy, crawly, furry, flighty, and yes - even slithery fellows. Snakes hold a certain charm and fascination for some people, but the mere thought of a snake can strike terror in the hearts of others. The truth of it is that snakes are beneficial, and they do not go out of their way to scare or harm us; they would rather flee or hide from us.

Snakes in History
Have you ever noticed that the symbol of medicine, the Caduceus, has two snakes coiled around a winged staff? That symbol was inspired by the ancient Greek belief that snakes have healing powers. Pharaohs in ancient Egypt believed that wearing a headdress with a symbol of the poisonous asp on it would protect them. Even the first American flag bore a rattlesnake with the words "Don't Tread On Me". In some cultures, snakes were a symbol of fertility. Today, a traditional Hopi Indian dance is still performed to celebrate snakes.

Some other cultures, however, believed snakes were 'servants of the dark world'. Snakes have been mythical figures of evil, like the snake that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Ireland still honors St. Patrick for having driven the snakes out of Ireland. The entertainment world often features the snake as a creature to be feared, which unfortunately has given society an inaccurate picture and has led to the indiscriminate killing of snakes, when most snakes are harmless. Some people have them as pets.

How Snakes Are Beneficial
In the US there are over 100 species of snakes, and over 2000 in the world. Most are beneficial; relatively few are deadly. Snakes are beneficial in that they consume mice, rats, other rodent-like animals, bugs, and more.

They are also important food sources for hawks and other predators. Snakes are easy keepers - they live outdoors for the most part, are quiet, don't shed fur (but they shed their skin when they outgrow it), feed themselves when they visit, leave us with a few less pests in the barn or feed room, and don't leave pawprints. Who could ask for a better rodenticide?

Getting to Know Snakes
In the spring snakes emerge from hibernation, later moving away from the den to the summer areas for birthing or hatching, and mating again. Snakes move back to the den for winter hibernation. Many snakes lay eggs, but others bear live young. The tough and leathery eggs, numbering from a few to a few dozen, are usually laid in warm, damp places. Very few species guard their nests, and all young, whether live-born or hatched, are independent at birth. Snakes usually move back to the previous year's den, and a number of species may share the same den.

Snakes don't have eyelids or external ear openings. Layers of scales protect their bodies and each species of snake has a unique number of scales, arranged and colored in patterns, by which they can be identified. Snakes are predators and capture their prey by either catching and swallow it immediately, constricting it (wrapping its body around and squeezing) until dead, or by using a poison that immobilizes or kills it. A snake can dislocate its jaw to swallow prey much bigger than itself.

Hearing is not one of the snake's better senses, but snakes do have a highly evolved sense of smell (via the tongue) and they can sense vibrations from the ground. They use their forked tongues and heat-sensitive facial pits to sense their environment and to find prey. The travel by

Like other reptiles, snakes are cold blooded and unable to control their internal body temperature. Extreme heat or cold can kill them, so they seek places to keep warm or to cool off. Snakes hibernate in the winter in places that won't freeze, such as inside trees, stumps, animal burrows, crevices in rocks and buildings, under wood piles, and sometimes basements.

Snakes dangle from trees, lie in logs, sun on rocks, swim in water, and hunt in grass. Chances that you may come across one when riding are good. Chances that you will actually notice one are slim, because snakes don't want to be bothered or seen and usually leave if they know something is coming. Also, they often blend in with their habitats and surroundings. The thud of the horse's hooves is usually enough to clear the way, but if you dismount for any reason, or disturb branches, logs, or leaves, you could find yourself face-to-face with one.

If you do, leave it alone. Trying to kill a snake will more likely cause a bite than just walking away. Knowing what snakes are common in your area, if any are poisonous, and what the poisonous ones look like, can save a life. Also consult with your local homeopath, veterinarian and medical professional to get familiar with emergency procedures and current treatment methods for poisonous snakebites, for your and your horse, before an incident occurs. By being prepared, you'll react to the situation more calmly, effectively and safely. Do not try to kill or capture a snake who has bitten someone in order to determine the species of snake, because in the US there is a single antivenin that is used against all US native pit vipers. Also, do not try to pick up a dead rattlesnake, even if it has been decapitated, because it can still bite, although it cannot strike and inject poison. The snake's heat sensory pits are active until rigor mortis sets in, and a warm object, such as a hand, can trigger a biting response.

Distinguishing Characteristics
A field guide of snakes and reptiles or visiting a zoo can give you a clear picture of the types of snakes you may find. In general most poisonous snakes have:
Facial pits between the nostrils and eyes (thus 'pit' viper, rattlesnakes, copperhead, and cottonmouth are pit vipers; non-poisonous snakes have no pits)
Vertical and elliptical pupils that may look like thin lines in bright light (non-poisonous snakes have round pupils)
Broad triangular head and narrow neck
A single row of scales between the vent (excretory opening) and the tip of the tail (non-poisonous snakes have two rows of scales)
Fangs in addition to their rows of teeth
Rattles at the end of the tail (rattlesnakes)
An hourglass-shaped marking such as on the copperhead (also a warning on the black widow and brown recluse spiders -'Hourglass shape, move in haste.')

There are look-alikes - the young rat snake and the copperhead, for example. The rat snake, one of the most beneficial snakes, is black as an adult, but the young are patterned and are often mistakenly identified as copperheads. A copperhead has a rusty patch on the top of its triangular-shaped head with a string of rust-colored hourglass markings, whereas young rat snakes have black and gray squared-off splotches and don't have this rusty patch on their small oval heads. Young copperheads have lemon-yellow tails; young rat snakes don't.

Another beneficial snake with a poisonous look-alike is the scarlet king snake, a great predator of rodents and other snakes; its markings and colors are similar to the poisonous coral snake. Both snakes have red, yellow and black rings around their bodies, but the poisonous coral snake has red and black rings separated by a yellow ring, whereas the scarlet king snake has a yellow ring between two black rings. The coral snake's head is mostly black, with one yellow ring and no red; the scarlet king snake's head is mostly red.

Threats to Snakes
There are natural predators who prey on snakes, such as hawks and other birds. Snakes are sometimes victims of other snakes, and perhaps cats, but also they are victims of humans. Human prejudice, habitat destruction, being hunted for snakeskin and sometimes food reduces and endangers their numbers. In most states native snakes are protected - they cannot be killed, possessed, bred, or sold without first acquiring proper permission from the authorities. For thousands of years they have been part of the ecological food chain and unless they create a health hazard for people, snakes are a part of our natural world and should be left there unharmed.

Always look carefully where you place your hands, feet or body when out in nature. Never jump over logs, turn over rocks, or sit down carelessly. If a snake gets into a basement or area where it cannot get back out, it can be safely removed - small snakes can be gently swept into a box or bag, and a large snake can usually be carried outside suspended over a long sturdy stick. A snake can only strike with authority within a distance of half its body length, so a reasonable distance will keep you safe. Once outside, give the snake time to go on its way.

Snakes are fascinating creatures worthy of our respect and admiration. If snakes are not welcome, then avoid attracting them. Effective snake control begins with prevention. Control rodent and insect populations so snakes will seek areas with a larger food supply. Keep grains in tightly sealed containers and clean up residual pet food and debris. Make your property an undesirable home for snakes, but always be prepared for possible encounters, especially out on the trail and near the natural habitats of snakes.