Snakes balance the ecosystem, but public opinion can tip the scales

John Lovett
Fort Smith Times Record
A Speckled Kingsnake is seen on display, Saturday, March 27, at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Chaffee Crossing.

Just the name sends shivers up many people's spines. But a little education can go a long way in protecting yourself and the misunderstood, slithering snake.

Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, is listed among the most common fears in America. More than half of the U.S. population is afraid of snakes, according to a 2001 Gallup poll. And a 2013 National Institutes of Health study found that the human brain is evolutionarily conditioned to be afraid of snake-like forms.

Although the notion of a "good snake," like the Speckled Kingsnake, is becoming more common because they eat venomous snakes, it is not as commonly accepted in Arkansas that even venomous snakes have their rightful place in the ecosystem.

Surprisingly helpful creatures

Venomous snakes are also helpful in modern medicine by use of the toxins found in venom. Parts of the venom are used to help treat strokes, heart attacks and other circulatory problems. And many modern blood pressure medicines were developed based on enzymes found in snake venom.  

“Copperhead venom currently is being used in breast cancer research and treatments,” says Lori Monday, a regional education coordinator for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

Kelly Irwin, the state herpetologist for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, points out that all snakes are protected in the state of Arkansas. He tries to communicate often how all snakes fit into the large ecosystem to create a balance.

"I'd rather have a venomous snake around than the Hantavirus, which is carried by rodents," Irwin said. "All snakes have a function from little ring snakes that eat worms to rattlesnakes that eat rodents. Unless there is a specified hunting season, all species of wildlife are protected, including snakes."

A Timber Rattlesnake is seen on display, Saturday, March 27, at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Chaffee Crossing.

The Hantavirus, also known as HPS, can be fatal and comes from exposure to fresh urine, droppings, or saliva of infected rodents. All four species of rodents that carry the Hantavirus are found in Arkansas: Cotton Rat, Rice Rat, Deer Mouse and White-Foot Mouse.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hantavirus has a mortality rate of 38%. Death from venomous snakes in the United State is rarer.

The CDC estimates that between 7,000 and 8,000 people per year receive venomous snakebites in the United States, and about five of those people, less than 1%, die from that snakebite. Disability and permanent injuries, such as the loss of part or all of a finger or its function, are more common. The CDC states this happens to between 10% and 44% of patients with rattlesnake bites.

Irwin points out in the "Arkansas Snake Guide" that "more people die from bee stings each year than from venomous snakebites." In most cases, venomous snakebites are the result of people accidentally stepping on an unseen snake or purposefully agitating or trying to kill one, he added.

A Copperhead snake is seen on display, Saturday, March 27, at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Chaffee Crossing.

Rebecca McPeake, a professor and University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Extension Service wildlife specialist, says it has become more common knowledge there are "good snakes." But there may still be some common sense lacking about snakes.

"A lady called our office one day to say her Speckled Kingsnake was run over in front of her house and she wanted to know where to get another one," McPeake said.

Monday, the regional education coordinator with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, admits it will take a lot of public education to curb snake killings. Appealing to both common sense and logic is her strategy. She also points to the law.

The Snake Law

It is illegal to kill snakes in Arkansas unless they pose an immediate threat to people, pets or property. The exception is if it is a venomous snake on your private property.

Since there is no hunting season for snakes in Arkansas, a violation falls under the rule against hunting wildlife in a closed season. Game wardens can write offenders up for a Class 2 penalty punishable by a fine of $250 to $2,500 and a jail sentence of up to 60 days. An offender also would get a mandatory 12 violation points to their record. If a person accumulates 18 or more violation points in five years, that person will be subject to an administrative suspension of hunting and fishing rights, privileges and related licenses, according to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

A Prairie Kingsnake is seen on display, Saturday, March 27, at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Chaffee Crossing.

Population decline

Monday says populations of snakes are going down because of habitat loss. She has also been informed by game wardens of illegal snake hunting in both state parks and Wildlife Management Areas.

"People may be seeing them more, but it's because they are being pushed out of their habitat," Monday said.

iNaturalist.org is a place online for observations of reptiles and amphibians in Arkansas to be recorded. The project's goals are to "promote citizen science and a better understanding of an often misunderstood group of animals within our state and curate and provide data for research and conservation purposes."

Most of the observations posted around Fort Smith at iNaturalist.org have been for Western Rat Snakes, but some sightings have been for the Plainbelly Water Snake and Northern Diamondback Water Snakes.

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is seen on display, Saturday, March 27, at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Chaffee Crossing.

Monday also points out that without snakes the rodent population would create even more damage to one of the state's top economic sectors: agriculture. Farmers and people who live in the country will be better off if they leave snakes alone, Monday adds.

"If you kill the snakes, how do you get rid of the rodents?" Monday asks. "Poisonous, carcinogenic pesticides."

Ed Nugent, a row-crop farmer near Muldrow, Oklahoma, just across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith, says he and his farmhands all have the same feeling toward snakes: "As long as they're not a threat, we stay the heck away from them."

"We check equipment before getting in there and there is a rock pile we are careful around, but for the most part we don't see too many snakes because we have about six cats roaming around here that keep the rodents down," Nugent said.

But when he does see a snake around the farm, it is usually either some form of "black snake," a Copperhead, or a kind of rattlesnake. He has only seen one Cottonmouth there, during the 2019 flood.

Visitors stop in the lobby of the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center to view the snakes in a plexiglass display, Saturday, March 27, in Chaffee Crossing.

'They want nothing to do with us'

Kendra Ingle is the education program specialist with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center.

From Ingle's perspective, the most misunderstood aspect of snakes among the general public is that people think that snakes are out to get them.

"Truth is, snakes view humans as threats, as a predator," Ingle said. "They want to be away from us as much as we want to be away from them. On occasion, they can be territorial, but for the most part, they want nothing to do with us."

When a snake is encountered it's best to watch from a distance, and they will continue on their path and you can continue on yours, Ingle adds.

"A snake does not want to eat, chase or bite you; that is wasted energy on their part. They simply want to live their 'snakey lives' in peace," Ingle said. "However, when they get harassed, they will be forced to defend themselves."

The Rough Green Snake is non-venomous and found in Arkansas.

The most common question Ingle receives at the River Valley Nature Center about snakes is whether a certain snake is "poisonous." She corrects them by saying there are no "poisonous" snakes in Arkansas but there are "venomous" snakes.

Venom is injected, whereas poison is something that you breathe, swallow or get a reaction on your skin, Ingle explained. There are 36 species of snakes in Arkansas, and six of them are venomous.

While she understands the habits of all snakes, she does have a couple of favorites.

"My favorite snake is the Rough Green Snake, I think they're cute with their big eyes," Ingle writes. "Also I really like the Great Plains Rat Snake, the pattern and colors are beautiful. All snakes are important, and since they eat mice, they're all my favs! I'm afraid of mice, it's silly, but just a phobia I have. So snakes are my friends."

Non-venomous Snakes

An example of a Milk Snake from the Missouri Department of Conservation. These non-venomous snakes are also found in Arkansas.

There are several non-venomous snakes found in Arkansas: Scarlet Snake, Milk Snake, Mississippi Green Water Snake, Plainbelly Water Snake, Broad-banded Water Snake, Diamondback Water Snake, Northern Water Snake, Racer, Great Plains Rat Snake, Black Rat Snake, Eastern Hognose Snake, Prairie Kingsnake, Speckled Kingsnake, Coachwhip, Rough Green Snake, Western Ribbon Snake, Common Garter Snake, Mud Snake, Graham's Crayfish Snake, Glossy Crayfish Snake, Queen Snake, Eastern & Western Work Snake, Ringneck Snake, Ground Snake, Brown Snake, Redbelly Snake, Flathead Snake, Rough Earth Snake, and Smooth Earth Snake.