Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Rat Snake Freakout: Cottonmouth in an Alabama Toilet Edition

Sorry folks-that snake they fished out of an Alabama toilet was not a Cottonmouth.

     I'm very excited because Rat Snake Freakouts are one of my favorite topics to write about. If you're new to the blog, these freakouts occur when people see a Rat Snake (i.e., a very common snake on the East Coast of the United States in the Pantherophis genus) and freak.the.hell.out. Often, people freak when they see a large Rat Snake (they can reach over eight feet long) because they cannot believe that a snake that large could be part of our local snake fauna. Then, they say the snake must be a giant python, a yellow python, a boa constrictor, or even a black mamba, for some examples.

    Snakes get misidentified all the time though, and as much as I wish everyone could recognize the common wildlife around them, they can't. The real problem occurs when the crazy ideas that people come up with about perfectly normal Rat Snakes get repeated and sensationalized in the media.

    This bothers me for a few reasons: 1) articles repeating Rat Snake Freakouts promote the idea that snakes are something to freak out about, 2) reporters seldom bother to ask someone knowledgeable about snakes for a comment on their story, which does not advance our understanding of the story or of wildlife, and 3) people often tell me I'm wrong about something because they read something different in the newspaper; they don't realize that facts and reality aren't always a priority for these articles, a lot of clicks and readers are.

Photo courtesy Hueytown Police Department
    Enter the "Cottonmouth in a Toilet" story. The short version is that someone in Hueytown, Alabama, found a Rat Snake in their bathroom. The police were called and they called it a Cottonmouth (which is a venomous and potentially dangerous species).

    Three people sent me a link to the article and I immediately contacted the author of the story to let her know that the animal was not a Cottonmouth.

"The snake in this story is clearly and unequivocally a harmless Ratsnake and not a Cottonmouth. Would you mind ensuring that the story is fixed? I can provide a more extensive quote if necessary. It is important that readers do not get confused between harmless and venomous animals. Please feel free to contact me in advance of future articles on wildlife in Alabama.



    In my e-mail I decided not to bring up the fact that the snake was referred to as a slimy situation (every child that attends a nature program about wildlife learns that snakes aren't slimy) and Cottonmouths are referred to as "poisonous" (they're not, they're venomous).

    I never heard back from the author but the next day there was a follow-up article about the snake. To my surprise and consternation, it was entitled, "Toilet snake's identity stirs up waves of questions: what did Hueytown police fish out?" I thought this was an odd choice for a title because there is no question about what this snake was. But it wasn't just an odd title, the article is written as if there actually is a debate about the snake's identity. 

     The police were sticking to their story about the animal being a Cottonmouth. As a counterpoint, the author contacted an individual at a pest removal company who correctly identified the snake as a Rat Snake but also said that Rat Snakes don't have fangs (the police said their snake did) and that he was no herpetologist. So I guess this is one big mystery, right? Wrong. To add insult to injury, the article had a picture of a different Rat Snake and a Cottonmouth side by side so that readers could see the difference but the labels were mixed up! 

    I took to Twitter to vent at the author.

    To her credit she quickly fixed this error. But, when it came to the "controversy" about the snake identification things got a little murkier.

     I pointed out that an appropriate an analogy would be to interview a police officer about a crime scene picture and then ask me, a snake expert, for my comment and say that both sides were represented. That doesn't make much sense because my opinion wouldn't be of much value in that case. Besides, there is no need for different viewpoints when reporting on a fact. Someone is going to be wrong when disagreeing about a fact and it's OK to point out what the truth is.

    It's too bad that this story, which as you might expect has caught widespread attention (like here on CNN), only promotes the idea that scary snakes might invade your home and their identities are a mystery that even experts can't figure out.

    Help stop this viral story in its tracks by sharing this link on social media.

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