Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
Why are snakes misunderstood?

We often hear our visitors say how much they fear or hate snakes.

Ophidiophobia, the name given to the intense fear of snakes, is certainly a legitimate condition and we don’t judge anyone who struggles with it.

Many of our own staff are overcoming this fear. Nobody chooses to have a phobia. The outdoors should be a place for relaxation and rejuvenation, not the constant fear of a chance encounter with a native species.

For those of us whose fears do not rise to the level of diagnosable phobias, there are several biological and cultural forces at play.

Some evidence points to biological mechanisms, left over from when our ancestors lived in areas with many venomous snakes.

Many fears are also learned.

northern water snakenorthern water snake

Previous negative experiences, learned fears from parents or other family members, movies and other media all play a role in creating snakes’ bad reputation.

But these “dangerous noodles” should be very low on your list of concerns in Ontario.

It’s not that scary

There is only one species of venomous snake in the province.

Massasauga RattlesnakeMassasauga Rattlesnake

Eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes have a limited distribution and are very shy. The purpose of their venom is to capture mice, voles and shrews, and they only bite in self-defense.

To stay safe:

  • Wear long pants and hiking boots, not sandals, when in eastern Massasauga rattlesnake territory. If you accidentally step on a snake, your chances of being bitten are extremely low if you are dressed appropriately.
  • Never try to grab or pick up a snake. Most snake bites occur when a person harasses or picks up the snake.
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    If your favorite home or park is not within range of eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes, you have even less to worry about.

    While some snakes may put on a show or bite with their tiny teeth in self-defense if someone grabs them, you have less to fear from a snake than from your average chipmunk.

    The circle of life

    While all snakes are carnivorous, their prey is small.

    Eastern hognose snakes specialize on toads, eastern milk snakes feed on rodents, and smooth, jewel-like green snakes eat insects and spiders.

    Eastern snakes are even less picky and will eat all of the above.

    Green snakeSmooth green snake

    Snakes are important regulators of their prey populations and themselves are prey to other animals such as wild turkeys, blue herons, raccoons, and coyotes.

    These ecosystem functions make snakes important park residents, and we spend a lot of time and effort protecting them.

    Unfortunately, this is necessary because the biggest snake killer there is is humans.

    We destroy their habitat and remove their protective cover by clearing and burning dead branches and undergrowth.

    Be a Wildlife Warrior – Stop Snakes

    Many snakes are killed by vehicles on park roads each year.

    wildlife crossing sign

    Parks are more popular than ever, which means more vehicles and a general risk for snakes. Most of these snake deaths are accidental, but research has shown that some drivers even do it intentionally, aiming for snakes when their vehicles would otherwise miss them.

    “Snake stop” signs, green passages, and speed bumps are important tools for saving snake lives, but snakes also need advocates.

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    Here are some things you can do to help:

    Help the snakes cross the street. Do not touch them with bare hands, as this could spread diseases; Usually a gentle push with a stick will do the trick.

    As with turtles, always help them move in the same direction they were originally heading.

    dead hognose snake

    If you can, avoid driving. Commit to “park once” by driving to your campsite and walking or biking your entire trip.

    If you must drive, reduce speed in natural areas, especially when near wetlands.

    Keep your eyes peeled for slippery friends!

    Never force a snake to interact. with someone who has a phobia or strong aversion to snakes, but if you know someone who is willing but hesitant, seek them out or talk to them about snakes.

    Learn to identify the snakes around you and Report your sightings on iNaturalist.

    Leave logs and sticks where they lie. Animals like snakes depend on these objects for protection. Without them, they are easy prey for birds and mammals.

    Gray rat snakeGray rat snake

    Never leave a pet in the wild. Not only is this cruel to your pet, but it can also introduce new diseases to wild snake populations.

    Never relocate a snake from your own property to a park. This can spread disease and the snakes in your yard are doing an important job controlling insects and rodents! Help them by providing cover objects, such as logs and stones.

    garter snakeeastern snake

    Nine of Ontario’s snake species, including the eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, are species at risk.

    Let’s celebrate the beautiful diversity of spotted and striped snakes in this province and ensure parks are safe places for snakes to roam.