TRENTON – Kris Schantz understands the power of fear. It’s what drives many of us to scream or run at the mere sight of a snake in the yard.
But the principal zoologist with the Department of Environmental Protection’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program has made it her mission to dispel the myths and misconceptions at the heart of this fear.
She does this through a statewide network of volunteers that helps people when venomous snakes get a little too close for comfort, at the same time explaining the vital role snakes play in maintaining balance in New Jersey’s ecosystems.
It’s a mission that not only protects people, but snakes as well.
“By showing compassion and understanding why they are afraid, I can help the public appreciate why snakes are important and what to do if they encounter one,” said Schantz, who runs the DEP’s Venomous Snake Response Team.
The Response Team is made up of more than 80 volunteers spread across the state that includes DEP employees, local police, local animal control officers and members of the public. This highly trained team uses a combination of tact, science and understanding to protect snakes and the people who encounter them.
West Milford Animal Control Officer Beverly Lujbli has been a member of the Response Team for years. Each summer, she relocates about a dozen venomous snakes from yards, mostly rattlesnakes and a few copperheads.
“People hate snakes. They’re skeeved by them; they don’t even want to see them,” she said. “But I just can’t see people killing them. They’re very docile animals – the venomous ones especially. They’re beautiful, beautiful animals.”
Of 22 species found in New Jersey, only the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead are venomous – and each of these species is generally shy.
You’re much more likely to encounter one of the non-venomous species – which run the spectrum from the tiny and slender northern redbelly to the northern pine snake, a hefty denizen of the Pine Barrens that can grow to more than eight feet in length – than you are to ever run into a rattlesnake or copperhead.
But when encounters do occur, they are likely to happen where houses and buildings have been built along the migratory paths snakes have used for millennia between dens and foraging areas.
Schantz advises common sense whenever walking into the woods or working around the yard, especially if you live in snake habitat.
“You just have to pay attention,” she said. “You should always be aware of your surroundings in general. If you see a snake, it’s just a matter of taking a couple steps back, giving it some room.”
Under the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Conservation Act, it is illegal to kill, harm, harass or collect any native, non-game wildlife. All relocations must be handled by professionals to ensure the snake’s survival.
The Response Team will not relocate a non-venomous snake. Relocation disrupts the snake’s foraging-nesting cycles, and research shows that moving a snake too far from its natural habitat will kill it.
In relocating a venomous snake, the Response Team will look for suitable habitat in the same general area that won’t harm the snake or create a conflict with another property owner.
Whether it’s embedded somewhere in the recesses of our genetic code or triggered by a lifetime of negative portrayals in books, movies and TV, Schantz says the repulsion many have for snakes is real. The key is getting people to shed their fears and, to some extent, getting them to view the world from the snake’s eyes, she explains.
“Snakes see us as the predator,” she said. “Their first choice is to try to lay still and blend in with their surroundings or, if feeling threatened, to try to get away.”
Snakes fill an important ecological role, controlling rodents and insects and serving as a food source for raccoons, bobcats, hawks, owls and other animals. In short, snakes are indicators of a healthy, vibrant ecosystem.
Yet each year many are intentionally killed by people who don’t understand them. While many killings occur out of fear, few people have ever been bitten by venomous snakes in New Jersey – and there is no record of anyone dying of being bitten by a venomous snake in the wild in New Jersey.
Misidentification is a big factor in snake killings. Distinguishing the two venomous snakes from the non-venomous varieties can take an expert eye, so it’s simply a good idea to always keep a respectable distance from all snakes, Schantz said.
The timber rattlesnake inhabits three distinct areas – the Kittatinny Ridge and the northernmost portion of the Highlands as well as the sprawling Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. The copperhead is limited to hilly, forested regions in portions of northern New Jersey and a few isolated, hilly areas of Hunterdon and Somerset counties.
While the rattlesnake has its rattle to distinguish it from other snakes, many other snakes mimic the rattlesnake by shaking their tails on leaves, twigs and other objects. A rattlesnake has jagged and dark bands extending from side to side around the center and back end of the snake.
Distinguishing a copperhead from other look-alike species can be even trickier. The copperhead, one of New Jersey’s least common snakes, is frequently confused with the northern water snake and the eastern milk snake, among the most common species.
Copperheads have a dark-colored pattern that forms hourglass-shaped bands from side to side, but coloration is highly variable among individuals and changes according to seasonal shedding periods.
Both the copperhead and rattlesnake are reclusive, but each will defend itself if threatened. In reality, though, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than of ever being bitten by one of these snakes.
Ironically, Schantz sometimes has to help volunteers get over their fear of snakes as one of the first steps in training.
“Some come in kind of terrified,” she said. “But they learn how to handle the snakes – and their fears. They are doing this because they want to do what’s best for the snakes and what’s best for the landowner.”
If you suspect a snake on your property is a rattlesnake or a copperhead and is in need of relocation, call the DEP Endangered and Nongame Species Program’s northern region office at (908) 638-4381 or (908) 638-4127, or the southern region office at (609) 628-2103. After hours and on weekends call (877) WARN-DEP.
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