When Snakes Attack … Almost Never!

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Venomous Snake Response Team has a unique mission: part animal control, part wildlife conservation and part public relations for snakes.

Many celebrities with image problems complain that they are misunderstood. But for snakes, being misunderstood often means death. Whether it’s primal fear or years of negative stereotypes reinforced by everything from religion to pop culture, many people just don’t like snakes. Some people hate them. In fact, snakes are so despised that they are routinely compared to lawyers!

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The Venomous Snake Response Team uses facts and understanding to help people overcome their fear and loathing. This cuts both ways – sympathizing with peoples’ fears while helping them see the world from a snake’s-eye point of view.

New Jersey has 22 species of snakes. Of these, only two are venomous: the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead. Snakes are a vital link in the food chain; they help control insect and rodent populations and, in turn, provide food for raccoons, bears, coyotes, hawks and owls.

Snake populations have long been on the decline in New Jersey due to factors like road traffic, destruction of habitat, pollution, human persecution and snake collectors, to name but a few. As development encroaches on snake habitat, people find themselves living on top of the pathways snakes have used for centuries to travel between dens and foraging areas. Some new developments have been built right on denning sites!

Despite wildlife laws prohibiting killing, collecting or harassing native snakes, fear drives many people to kill them. Non-venomous species like northern water snakes are often mistaken for venomous varieties, increasing the fear factor.

But as the Venomous Snake Response Team will tell you, it is extremely unlikely you will ever come face-to-forked-tongue with one of New Jersey’s poisonous snakes. In fact, you have better odds of being struck by lightning than being bitten by a timber rattler or copperhead.

Why? Well, here’s where the facts come in…

Both of New Jersey’s venomous snakes are very rare. The northern copperhead is a state species of special concern (meaning it’s on its way to being endangered) and the timber rattlesnake is already endangered. In addition, both are reclusive, preferring interior forest habitat away from people.

Most poisonous snake bite cases in New Jersey over the last few decades can be traced to bad decisions by humans, like picking up snakes. Snakes see humans as predators, and given the opportunity they normally choose flight over fight.

So if you find a snake in your garage or garden, don’t kill it. Get the facts first! Call the Venomous Snake Response Team office near you: Northern Region Office, at 1-908-735-8975, 735-9281 or 735-2931; Southern Region Office at 1-609-628-2103; or 1-877-WARN-DEP after hours, on weekends or when a biologist is unavailable at the previous numbers. They will help you identify the snake, and relocate it to a suitable habitat in the unlikely case that it turns out to be venomous.

You can also learn more about New Jersey snakes by reading NJDEP’s brochure online at www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/pdf/snake_broch07.pdf. And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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