| Jul 03, 2008

Feature Article - June 26, 2008

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Feature Article - June 26, 2008 The truth about snake bitesBy Matt Ellerbeck

There are few animals in this world that are as feared, hated, and misunderstood as the snake. Some people hate snakes so much that they will kill them on sight. However, people truly have nothing to fear from these animals. Snakes are generally docile and timid creatures that try to avoid conflict whenever possible.

When a person comes in contact with a snake, the snake's first instinct will be to flee. If the snake doesn't do this, it may just stay perfectly still to try to blend in with the surroundings. If the snake is captured, it may still not resort to biting - proof of its gentle demeanor. The snake has several harmless tactics it can resort to as an alternative to biting. The snake may hiss, make mock strikes with a closed mouth, or flail around. An account of the true nature of snakes can be found in a study by University of Georgia Professor Dr. Whit Gibbons. The following excerpt speaks for itself: “All the snake species tested have had the same initial response to human presence. If given the opportunity, they escape--down a hole, under a ledge, or in the case of cottonmouth snakes, into the water. Escape is even the standard behaviour of enormous diamondback rattlesnakes, which will immediately disappear if they have enough warning before they think a person can reach them.Most rattlesnakes vibrate their tails and most cottonmouths sit with mouth open when a human comes near. Even some non-venomous snakes vibrate their tails. These displays are merely warnings not to tread on them. They are not aggressive attack measures. The snakes just want us to leave them alone”.

Snakes bites on humans usually only happen when someone is severely agitating and harassing the snake. According to NC State University, almost 80% of snake bites happen when someone is trying to capture or kill the snake. All these facts show that snakes are not aggressive or evil animals. If you provoke and capture a wild animal, what can you expect but to be bitten? If you grabbed a “cute and cuddly” little chipmunk it would certainly bite and scratch you. Snakes are no different.

The other percent of people bitten by snakes are those who accidentally step on a snake in the wild. These bites may have been avoided if care was taken to be as aware as possible when hiking. Never stick your hands or feet under rocks, crevices, boards, wood piles or anything else that might act as cover for snakes.

It is important to remember that most snakes are completely harmless; only around 13% of all snake species are venomous. Of this small number, even fewer are equipped with venom that is strong enough to seriously harm a human being.

Even if a venomous snake does bite a person, there is a good chance that the snake did not inject venom. Snakes have venom first and foremost to subdue their prey, since they do not have arms to hold their prey. The venom also helps the snake digest its meal - it helps to break the prey down for the snake since snakes do not chew their food but swallow it whole. As humans are too big for snakes to eat, they will not want to waste their venom on us.

Even if the snake does inject venom, proper medical treatment and anti-venom can usually save the person's life. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, only about 0.2% of people bitten by snakes in United States die from the bite. Similar statistics apply to Australia, which is home to over 60 kinds of potently venomous snakes. Fatal bites are estimated to be even rarer than this in Europe.

It is a common misconception that Ontario is home to Copperhead Vipers, Water Moccasins, and Puff Adders. This is not true. These are all cases of mistaken identity. Ontario is home to only one species of venomous snake, the Massasauga rattlesnake. There are four recognized Massasauga populations in Ontario. Two are found around Georgian bay. The other populations are found in the Wainfleet bog near Welland and within the city limits of Windsor/LaSalle. This shy snake has only been linked to two fatal snakebites in Ontario. In both cases, the victims did not receive the proper treatment that would have almost certainly saved their lives.

It is very easy to co-exist with these reptiles, especially since snakes do many useful things for people. First of all, snakes are great controllers of rodents like rats and mice. Without snakes, rodents and some insect populations would sky-rocket and these creatures would destroy crops, affecting our food supply. Rodents also spread diseases which could seriously affect our health. Snakes are great at hunting rodents because they can crawl into small burrows and other areas.

Furthermore, snakes are saving the lives of millions of people every year. Snake venom is being used in the medical field to treat all sorts of serious ailments like heart and stroke disease, cancer, Parkinson's, blood clots, and many more.

Despite these benefits, countless snakes are brutally killed every year by people! Hundreds of snake species are now in need of conservation. Many have been listed as a threatened or endangered species. Over half of all Canadian snake species are listed as a Species At Risk. Two other species have been completely exterminated from the country. The majority of snake species in Ontario are listed as Specially Protected Reptiles under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. This makes it illegal for them to be killed, trapped, held in captivity, or traded without a permit. Many other snakes also receive protection under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). Despite this protection, snakes are still being persecuted by humans at an alarming rate.

We must look past our fear and ignorance and see snakes for what they really are - interesting creatures that play very important roles in the eco-system. We must learn not to pass our irrational fears on to our children. It is an awful thing to live in fear. When we look past our fear we can then see the snake as a friend, not a foe. So please remember, live and let the snakes live!

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