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Today is June 22, 2018


Snakes: Truth and consequences

Snakes: Truth and consequences

The eastern garter snake is one of the many nonpoisonous snakes important to the ecosystem in Mississippi. If you see one in your neck of the woods, leave it be.

“That snake bit me!”

My excited cry echoed across the pond and garnered the full attention of all there. The episode took place when I was 15 or so, and began with a Sunday afternoon swim in a clear, sandy-bottomed pond tucked quietly into the woods a few miles from my home. It was a common gathering place after church every Sunday of summer. There were five or six of us there that particular day.

The problem began with a couple of comrades throwing broken limbs and pine cones at a snake that was swimming just outside the area we inhabited. “A water moccasin,” one shouted. Despite outcries from some of us that they leave the snake undisturbed, they persisted. The reptile, actually a brown water snake, eventually moved away—or so we thought. We commenced with the splashing and diving and general frivolity.

A short time later I opted to move over close to the edge and rest. I sat on that sandy bottom in water just deep enough to cover outstretched legs and began to lean back on my elbows. The snake struck; he made contact with the triceps of my right arm. I scrambled and grabbed and shrieked, all the while grasping the snake with my left hand and giving him a toss. Then time seemed to stop; at least the pace slowed adequately for some measure of composure to return.

This was a brown water snake, not some venomous monster that had just filled me with poison. Medical facilities were not immediately available, and the truth of this situation, apart from a severe case of nerves, was that I was likely in no real danger. Yes, there was the possibility of infection, as is true with any compromise of the skin, but I would care for that with a thorough cleaning and application of antibiotic ointment as quickly as I got home. Perhaps not the most effective treatment, but a common approach in country life during the 1960s in rural Leake County.

That frightening afternoon is now more than 50 years in the past, and to the best of my recall there were no negative results other than the pain similar to a wasp sting. Oh, my head is practically bald, my beard gray, one knee doesn’t function well and I am now the proud owner of my very own heart attack. Thinking back, however, I have concluded that the bald and gray are closely linked to a sufficient collection of years, the bum knee is likely the product of too many mountains while in search of mule deer and elk, and the heart issue is most probably a result of high stress and my fondness for fried chicken and fish. That snake bite, it is logical to determine, caused none of these maladies.

Snakes are interesting creatures and are certainly more than available during July in the outdoors of this state. While I am no herpetologist and don’t keep snakes as pets, I do stop along the way to admire these often misunderstood creatures. And while some are poisonous and all snakes should be left to go about their way, most are entirely harmless. Of the 40 or so species of snakes found in Mississippi, only four are truly dangerous.

The four that are venomous and can threaten real harm are the cottonmouth, copperhead, rattlesnake and coral snake. Most of these are easily recognizable and best avoided.  

Regarding the coral snake, there is some confusion when determining if the snake in question is truly venomous, for there are two snakes here that have that coral configuration. One is the real deal, the other not. A common rhyme that aids in identification is this: Red on yellow kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack. If you encounter either, this rhyme will make perfect sense.

The most common reaction to dealing with a snake of any sort is to grab the .22 and blast away or pick up a hoe and give the snake a whack. Neither is required. Unless the snake is venomous and posing a direct threat, such as a cottonmouth in the swimming pool or a rattlesnake in the woodpile, most will go their way to more favorable turf if left alone. True, there are occasions where the snake must be dispatched, but these are, in the greater scheme of things, somewhat uncommon. All others apart from the venomous invaders afford no real concern.

And what is the advantage of leaving snakes as you found them? The danger factor is one—if that snake is dangerous. If you avoid the snake, you likely decrease significantly the possibility of a bite. If not venomous, the snake you leave can be a bona fide mouse and rat machine. They can help keep sheds and flowerbeds free from other pests that are far less desirable than the snake, and some even eat those other snakes that are harmful. They are simply a part of nature’s design and will coexist quite well if simply ignored.

Snakes are out there and they require vigilance. But they should not paralyze us with unmerited fear. Not all of them are set on biting someone. They are just going about their business of being a snake. If you react to a snake, do so with thought. In every circumstance that thought will be advantageous.

Tony Kinton has been an active outdoors writer for 30 years. His newest book is “Rambling Through Pleasant Memories.” Order from or Kinton’s website:   

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