Bull snakes may vibrate their tails in imitation of rattlers, but they have no venom.
Afraid of snakes? You aren’t alone. Most lists of frightful things puts snakes at the very top. A Gallup Poll found that 56 percent of the population fears snakes even more than they fear public speaking, heights, and claustrophobic spaces. Many are so creeped out that they don’t even like reading about snakes—but don’t turn the page yet! You may feel better after reading this.
Snakes are a necessary part of nature. Smaller snakes eat worms, slugs, and insects, while bigger snakes are our first defense against an overpopulation of mice, rats, and ground squirrels. If you have mice, it is probably because you don’t have snakes, and most of us have mice.
After discovering snakes in the basement of my rental property, I asked a biologist, why? He waved his hand to the surrounding plowed fields. “There are probably more places in a city square block for a snake to hide than there are in 200 acres of farmland. Your house just happens to be the only cool spot around where they are relatively safe.”
That kindly outlook didn’t impress me—or my renter, who promptly moved out—but loss of habitat is a major reason Iowa’s snake population is down by half. Some Iowa snakes are on the threatened and endangered list due to deliberate killing, with the rest of the population so low that they are now legally protected. Considering that fewer than a hundred people have died from snakebites in Iowa over the last 200 years, snakes appear to be much more in danger from humans than humans from snakes. In the majority of cases, those snake attacks were inspired by human aggression (in trying to kill or tease them), with human death often caused by further stupidity, such as using whiskey as a remedy for snakebites.
Humans tend to kill snakes on sight from knee-jerk panic without considering that only four Iowa types are poisonous and extremely rare (with no poisonous snakes at all in Jefferson County, where I live). The common bull snake will do such a credible rattle and hiss that he will terrify you into believing that he really is a rattlesnake. However, if you can control your panic long enough to take note, you can see the difference. A rattlesnake has a triangular head and fangs, while the bull snake’s head is round with even teeth. Still, that rattle is a scary sound.
When I first had to deal with snakes, I felt that peculiar fear—the dry mouth, trembling limbs, and heart beating a million times a minute—that Emily Dickenson described as “zero to the bone.” But after the necessity of handling four or five snakes to get them out of the basement, the terror disappeared. I am still cautious, as I would be around any wild animal, but what I realized is that that reaction is built in—it’s nature’s way of propelling us instantly away in case the snake really might be poisonous. But that unique feeling is not an accurate measure of your fear of snakes—it’s actually the dread of death. If you can become desensitized to snakes, such as by touching them and discovering that they are not slimy or evil, that feeling goes away or (at least becomes markedly reduced).
Still, you don’t want them in your house. According to Adam Utterback of Iowa River Wildlife Control (iowariverwildlife.com), a company that specializes in removing wild animals from human habitats, August, September, and October are his busiest months of the year. This is when eggs are hatching and snakes are looking for places to hibernate for the winter. Adam snake-proofs homes by closing off their entrances and tricking them into exiting.
Like every snake expert, Adam advises not wasting your money on packaged snake repellants. They are “about as much use as snake oil from a peddler.” Should snakes get into your outbuildings, coexistence is the best solution. But if they get into your home, you can use the internet to find reusable cardboard traps or super-sized versions of the glue traps made for mice. To release the snake from the sticky traps, pour vegetable oil liberally around the stuck reptile, and then stand back. The oil will melt the glue, allowing the snake to pull itself free. If you don’t want the snake to return, you must take it at least two or three miles away before releasing it.
Please release promptly to reduce stress for the snake, allowing it to get water daily. Due to their threatened status, it is illegal to keep any snakes you have trapped.
One thing that adds to the negative perception of snakes is the old Christian belief that snakes are evil, but this viewpoint is limited. The oroboros, an early snake symbol dating back to ancient Egypt and the Vikings, represents the eternal regeneration of life. Vedic traditions connect snakes with awakening energies. For centuries, medicine has used the caduceus, a pole with intertwined snakes, as its symbol. American Indians believed that snakes were protectors of water.
The fact that snakes have such a wide and deep place in human history suggests that we may need to ask ourselves if the terror we feel seeing that “narrow fellow in the grass” should prove to be something we were meant to overcome.
Whatever your perspective, please don’t assume that the only good snake is a dead one. A good snake is one that is controlling the mouse population.