Friday, September 23, 2011

These Stories Bite

A "seven foot" Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Yesterday, two similar news stories caught my attention. In north Georgia, a large Copperhead was killed after it bit a dog.  In Fort Myers, Florida, a large Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake bit and killed a dog. The size of both of these snakes was grossly exaggerated to make the stories more sensational, but we’ll return to that later. Both of these instances were unfortunate and tragic. The question is, are they avoidable?

They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; I think the expression is very appropriate here. Wildlife, including animals that are potentially dangerous, are a part of our natural world. The best way to minimize conflict with potential dangers is to learn how to best coexist with them.

If we knew a child that rolled around in poison ivy when they went outside, we would teach that child that this was not a good idea. If the child had a tendency to engage in some illicit foraging behavior, we would teach them which berries and mushrooms they should avoid. And if the child didn’t listen, they wouldn’t be allowed outside, for their own safety. The same applies for our pets. If a dog or cat cannot restrain themselves from investigating, and especially attacking, wildlife, then they need to be trained otherwise, or spend their time indoors. The outdoors is not a sterile environment, and I don’t think anyone really wants it to be either. Therefore, we should prepare ourselves, and our children and pets, for the reality of living in a world surrounded by nature, and natural things.

A Copperhead's camouflage helps it avoid predators
All snakes in this area of the world are very familiar with bobcats, coyotes, and foxes, because these animals are major predators. To avoid these animals, snakes have evolved different defense mechanisms, some are heavily camouflaged and remain still, some spend most of their time underground, and some have the speed to try to escape. There is no reason a snake would initiate contact with a large predator, but once they feel they have been noticed and are threatened, they will defend themselves. Why wouldn’t they? They think they are about to be eaten and in many cases that is exactly what happens. There aren’t as many bobcats, coyotes and foxes prowling our neighborhoods as there used to be, but our pet dogs and cats sure act like them sometimes. A threatened snake will defend itself against these animals just as it would defend itself against their natural predators.

In justifying killing the copperhead, the woman in north Georgia said something interesting:

 “It was either me or the snake”

Let us imagine that the Copperhead, after being confronted by a Rhodesian Ridgeback (a breed of dog that has been used to hunt lions), and a woman with an axe, had somehow gained the ability to think and speak. If it were to say, “It was either her or me” I would believe it. It was true after all, that the snake ended up getting killed.

On the other hand, we walk past snakes all the time and we do not see them. They do not harm us, and they have no interest in harming us. On the rare occasions when we do actually see snakes in our yard, it is not a life and death situation, for us, at least. We have the ability to walk away.

Killing every snake you see in your yard is not a long-term solution. For every snake that is observed and deemed an imminent hazard, there are probably a dozen that are not seen, and these inconspicuous snakes are content to remain out of sight. What does killing a snake accomplish when we ignore the reason it was there in the first place?

Baby Copperheads have yellow tails
to help them attract something to eat
Accidents will always happen. There is a chance that even a well-trained dog will have unfortunate run-ins with local wildlife. Therefore, it’s probably more effective to make sure the area around your home doesn’t attract snakes. Brush and wood piles are a good start, don’t have them near the house. When walking through the woods, keep your dog on a leash, especially if they are known to attack wildlife.

OK, now let’s get to the descriptions of the snakes included in the news stories. The Copperhead in north Georgia was apparently four feet long. This would be a very big individual, but it’s not impossible to imagine a snake that huge. They can even get slightly larger, but these would be very large, and very rare snakes. But, the Copperhead in the picture doesn’t look that big at all. I should say, it does “look” big, but that is because of some relatively simple camera tricks. The snake is held on a rake several feet closer to the camera than the woman holding it, this is a common technique for making fish, snakes, etc, look larger than they really are.

So, I was surprised when the story suggested that not only was the Copperhead four feet long, but a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist said it was one of the largest in Georgia. I suspected that there had been some creative use of quotations by the journalist, so I contacted Thomas Floyd, the GA DNR biologist quoted in the article. He replied,

The dead North Georgia Copperhead
“I didn’t say,  ‘… the snake was one of the largest you'll see in Georgia.’ which would lead the reader to believe this was one of the larger snake species in Georgia or a record specimen copperhead.  Instead I said, ‘This is perhaps one of the larger specimens that may be encountered in the wild on average’.”  

He also added that if we were estimate that the tines on the rake were five inches long, the snake probably was around three feet long. A big snake, but not “one of the largest you’ll see in Georgia” as the news story suggests, and not even close to being even the biggest Copperhead. Unfortunately, the story did not provide a link to the brochure Thomas provided, which describes how to recognize, and learn about, the snakes of Georgia.

Although “giant” Copperhead pictures rarely appear on the internet, this is certainly not the case for rattlesnakes. I refer the reader to my previous post about how big rattlesnakes usually get and how camera tricks make them look bigger. In short, although Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes could conceivably reach seven feet long, this would be extremely unusual. The snake in the picture is much closer to the camera than the man holding it. Although the snake appears to reach a height above the man’s head, it is being held at an angle and the tail doesn’t come close to reaching the ground. Unless this guy is seven feet tall, there is no way the snake is as long as claimed.

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake eats primarily small mammals like rats, when they grow larger they can feed on animals as large as rabbits. Although they were once found throughout the Coastal Plain of the United States (and nowhere else in the entire world), their populations have started to blink out. The main threat is habitat loss, they prefer open-canopy forests, but road mortality, incidental killings, and rattlesnake roundups are helping push them towards extinction. Some have recently suggested that the species should be considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.  If this happens, protecting household pets won’t be a great excuse as to why an endangered species was killed, it’s probably best to figure out now, on our own, how we can best share the same landscapes with these reptiles.

How do you keep your pets from having dangerous encounters with local wildlife? Share your tips below.


Copperhead photos are provided courtesy of Bill Sutton.

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