Reason vary for the reported increase in the reptiles, but using common sense during an encounter is the best course of action

A recent newspaper headline was certainly eye-catching, to say the least: “Dozens of snakes dumped in an Arkansas Walmart parking lot.” 

And that story went on to say that “shoppers at a Walmart in Arkansas got an unwanted surprised over the weekend when they found dozens of snakes in the parking lot, according to police.” Yes, the police were called and quickly responded to the scene of that “crime.”

Then the rumors began. The snakes were water moccasins or copperheads. Someone dumped them there in the parking lot. A suspicious-looking pick-up truck was seen leaving the area just before the snakes were discovered. And on and on, the rumors flew. It took a police officer with a little knowledge of local snakes to set the record straight. They were “garden” snakes.

What a mystery! But what is the truth concerning this matter? First, they were garter snakes, not “garden” snakes. And while they do not like to be caught by humans, once they are in hand they are usually one of the gentlest snakes and rarely bite.

So what is the most likely answer to the numerous (“several dozen”) snakes in that parking lot? Blame everything on the male garter snakes. You see, when a female leaves her den and she is in a breeding mode, she leaves an intense and constant trail of female “pheromones” (as a family paper I cannot use more descriptive terms) as she slitters along. Every male that crosses her trail will instantly turn and follow it. 

What happened in that Arkansas parking lot actually occurs tens of thousands of times all across the extensive range of the garter snake (although it is rarely observed). Multiple male snakes caught up to her and attempted to mate with her at the same time. They formed a snake breeding “ball.” And one or more males got lucky and passed on its DNA to the offspring she will bear in around two to three months. 

Snakes have been in the news a lot lately. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that snakebites by poisonous snakes are up 40 percent so far this year over last. And I am not referring to idiots like Michael Larneard, 27, of Staten Island, who was bitten on March 11 by his illegal “pet” Gaboon viper while he was cleaning its cage. That species is considered one of the world's deadliest snakes. But this yahoo got lucky because he only suffered a “dry” bite where no venom is injected.

However, snakebites by species native to North America are up substantially so far this year. It appears that Georgia is one of several states that are reporting elevated numbers of bites by people who are just minding their own business. 

Michael Jeffords, a young Georgia resident, met a copperhead up close and personal. He was at a friend’s lake house recently when the snake struck him on the foot. Fortunately his buddy knew exactly what to do. He got his car keys and put his friend in his car and drove to a nearby hospital for proper treatment of the bite.

This situation has been and is being repeated in many areas across the southern U.S. Officials at the Georgia Poison Control Center in Atlanta with knowledge about local snake habits and bites in other states are chalking up the increase to a shorter and milder than normal winter. And their advice for the best antidote for anyone that suffers from any poisonous snake bite is to get to the nearest emergency room for an evaluation and the appropriate treatment if necessary.

What about New York? Do we need to worry about poisonous snakes? I would comment on the two legged variety that inhabit the state’s legislature, but everyone already knows the dangers they pose. So I will instead limit my remarks to the legless critters that slither hither and yon. 

Does NY have any poisonous snakes? Yes, there is a substantial population of timber rattlesnakes scattered across the state, with most inhabiting hilly or mountainous dens in extremely rugged rural areas. 

There also are several marshy areas where you might find an endangered eastern massasauga rattlesnake. And there is an exceedingly limited population of copperheads in the extreme southeastern part of this state.

Therefore the obvious conclusion must be stated. If you see a snake and you are not near the southern Catskill mountains, or Letchworth State Park, or the Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts or Vermont borders, or Clay Marsh (near Syracuse) or the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area (near Batavia), that snake is most likely to be non-poisonous.

What about poisonous snakes like water moccasins and coral snakes, as well as the better known eastern and western diamond-backed rattlesnakes? None of these critters live anywhere near NY. The only way any of them might show up around here is if they are kept as pets and one escapes or is released by the owner. And both of those scenarios have been known to happen here in this state.

As a side note, during my time as a Special Agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service I had to investigate numerous “tips” of individuals who were suspected of being in possession of exotic or protected native species of snakes. And my most common take-away from those contacts was that many of those individuals were nut-cases and accidents just waiting to happen.

And believe me when I state that I saw just about everything imaginable. Cobras are very popular, both the well-known spectacled species as well as the African spitters and the king cobras. And every species of African poisonous snake including Gaboon vipers was observed. Australian snakes were also well-represented. The list is simply too long to revisit here. But I still occasionally wake up in a cold sweat with those bad memories.

So what is the bottom line for us New Yorkers? Simply this. If you see a snake, walk away from it and leave it alone. It is probably a “friend” that eats garden pests and does nothing but good for humans. There is little or no danger that it will cause harm to us or our pets.

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s Outdoor Columnist. Contact him at lisenbee@frontiernet.net.