Snakes alive (should stay that way)
Vader, a handsome 6-foot-long 18-year-old Pantherophis alleghaniensis, is an excellent ambassador to humankind. His species is the Eastern rat snake, but one with his dark coloration is usually called the black rat snake, or simply black snake. When photographer Ciara Kelley and I went to visit Vader at the Greensboro Science Center, he proved alert, curious and docile. That could be a death sentence if he’s ever released into the wild.
My great-uncle used to claim he’d “blow the ass off any carpet-bagging Yankee” who killed a black snake on his property. In 21st century suburbia, few have the traditional Southern reverence for the animal once beloved for eating rats, mice and copperheads, and because it made a safer pet for country kids than most other wild critters.
It grieves the Science Center’s reptile curator Rick Bolling when people kill rat snakes. They do it both for what the animals are, meaning snakes, and for what they’re falsely believed to be: dangerous and, when young, baby copperheads.
As Bolling carried Vader outside to be photographed by Ciara, he explained some differences between juvenile copperheads and rat snakes. Newborn (they don’t lay eggs) copperheads are 8 to 10 inches long and “look like adults except for their yellow-green tails, which they may use to attract toads.” He said that, except for that tail, which loses its bright green or yellow after the first year, their coloration is not unlike that of young rat snakes, with vaguely similar dark markings.
Juvenile black rat snakes aren’t black, but grayish or tan, with blotchy markings that fade as they mature. When a rat snake is angry or frightened, its narrow skull can widen into something more resembling a copperhead’s triangular one, but this distortion tends to be most noticeable in young ones. Despite that ability (intended to make the animal look more dangerous than it is), both adult rat snakes and adult copperheads are distinguishable not only by the adult black rat snake’s solid dark coloration but because rat snakes are longer and thinner, with proportionally smaller heads than copperheads.
Even newborn copperheads have thicker bodies than newly-hatched black rat snakes or any smaller harmless species. Calm or angry, their heads always have the same distinctive triangular “adder” shape. Bolling described neonatal copperheads as typically having “a head maybe as big the first joint of your thumb” and “a body as thick, or nearly as thick, as your little finger.”
In a recent email, Jeffrey Beane, collections manager for herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, emphasized the very different body shapes, explaining that “Copperheads are proportionally much heavier-bodied,” even though “Hatchling rat snakes are nearly always longer than newborn copperheads.” Like Bolling, he mentioned the bright green or yellow tail-tip of the newborn or juvenile copperhead, a feature that doesn’t occur in harmless local snakes.
Some people also erroneously fear the adult black rat snake. When I met Ciara for Vader’s photo shoot, she said that an acquaintance claimed that black snakes (a colloquial term for the skinnier, faster, more temperamental but just as harmless black racer as well as the black rat snake) are venomous. When I mentioned this in email to Beane, he expressed familiarity with that myth. “Another very common one is that ‘black snakes’ interbreed with copperheads or various other venomous snakes, producing a venomous ‘black snake’ as offspring.”
Both Bolling and Beane said the copperhead is the venomous snake one is most (but still not very) likely to encounter locally, and it can’t breed with other species. Beane wrote that copperheads are “probably the only” venomous local snake, depending on how one defines the Triad. “If it’s just the immediate Winston-Salem-Greensboro-High Point area, then the copperhead is the only venomous snake . . . . Timber rattlesnakes still occur in Hanging Rock State Park, and in the Uwharries [Southwest Randolph, South Davidson counties, etc.], but no other venomous species get near the Triad.”
When I asked him about cottonmouth water moccasins, he wrote that “The nearest cottonmouth populations to the Triad area would probably be the Southeast corner of Montgomery County /Southwest Moore County (i.e., the North edge of the Sandhills).”
Although copperheads are the only venomous species Triad residents are likely to encounter, they kill many harmless ones. This is done even by people who not only know what an adult copperhead looks like, but would never deliberately kill a non-venomous species. Several months ago, a neighbor killed what she thought was a baby copperhead. A woman who likes snakes and has no wish to harm any animal unless necessary, she didn’t panic or make assumptions, but Googled “baby copperhead.” The first images that popped up in her browser were all of small grayish-brown snakes with darker spots. Even at close examination, they looked just like the one in her garden.
She was mortified when I identified the animal she’d killed as Storeria dekayi, the common brown snake, a small harmless species frequently seen (and, all too often, killed) in Greensboro’s College Hill neighborhood. Like the even smaller worm snake and earth snake, just as common but burrowers (and hence most often seen when one digs or turns over boards), it’s actually good for your garden, due to its diet of tiny pests.
When preparing to write this article, I did a Google search on “baby copperhead,” filtered for high-resolution images. The first six were of adult earth snakes, worm snakes, brown snakes and juvenile rat snakes. Several, all erroneously captioned “baby copperhead snake,” were from the free image hosting website HD Wallpapers Download.
There’s a lesson here. When Googling for images of any snake, be certain they’re at a reputable nature site, and click through to be sure it’s really what you’re looking for. Ironically, a search on “baby copperhead” may now turn up images of harmless snakes used in this article, so always read for context.
But what if it really is a copperhead or just a harmless snake you’re afraid to touch but want removed from your property? Don’t call the Science Center or the NC Museum of Natural Sciences for help with anything beyond identifying the animal (a word I’ve used repeatedly to stress snakes are normal, local wildlife with just as much a right to exist as rabbits, songbirds and us). Don’t call city or county animal control, they don’t provide free wildlife removal. You’ll need a commercial service. Fortunately, Googling “snake removal” turns up a lot of options.
One such is provided by Darrell Roberson, owner of WildlifEvictionNC.com, who can be reached via emailing email@example.com or calling (336) 908-4709. When I spoke to him on the phone last Thursday, he urged anyone suspecting an actual copperhead on their property to give him a call. “We’ll come out and do a thorough inspection and see if we can locate the snake for removal.” He also said he removes harmless snakes and said most of the alleged copperheads he gets called about turn out to be just that. “I always try to educate people. They get real excited when they find a baby rat snake because the markings are similar.” He said that he’s only removed three copperheads this year. “Black snakes and garter snakes, maybe four times that many.”
People afraid of snakes can’t be blamed for being afraid. Fear is fear. If we were all rational, we would fear nothing so much as the adult human male, the predator most likely to kill us. Many smile at us men, welcome us as neighbors and co-workers, sleep with and marry us, yet recoil in atavistic terror from a garter snake.
Man’s best friend, too, is statistically more likely to kill us. I say that as someone who deeply loves dogs. Some people don’t share that love, either because they’ve experienced dogs mainly as enforcers of white authority, or because, like my friend the writer Faith Dincolo, they were attacked by them as children. I smile when I see some big goofy hound in my Facebook feed, but Faith cannot help feeling tightness in her chest.
In an email, Faith noted that were she to express her dismay every time one of her friends posted a photo of a large dog, the way so many respond to photos of snakes on social media with “NOPE” and “KILL IT WITH FIRE,” she would be unfriended. According to a 2015 Washington Post analysis, more people are killed each year by deer, horses and cows than snakes, yet few regularly express horror at photos of those domestic and wild ungulates. Snakes seem the only vertebrate it’s socially acceptable to publicly loathe, the way our great-grandparents loathed (and exterminated) foxes, otters and wolves, or my own Scots ancestors, who threw cats into bonfires.
I conclude by quoting one of the loveliest nature essays I know. It began as a chapter in England Have My Bones, a 1936 memoir by T. H. White, whose The Once and Future King served as the source for Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and Broadway’s Camelot. White’s moving meditation on the grass-snakes he let freely explore his living room has been reprinted in The Norton Book of Nature Writing.
White wrote of how he “did not want to steal them from themselves by making them pets,” as that “exchange of hearts would degrade both of us.” But one mature female with a scar on her neck (“I suppose this had been done to her by man”) won him over. “She was completely tame, and the inevitable happened.” A few days before a business trip to London, White released her. That night, walking down to the lake to bathe, he found her body in the moonlight, crushed but still recognizable by the old scar on her slim neck.
“Some bloody-minded human had come across her on a path, and gone for her with a stick. She was harmless, useless dead, very beautiful, easy prey.” Describing how she’d been smashed, he wrote: “The things had been done, to a creature which was offering confidence, with wanton savagery. Why? Why the waste of beauty and the degradation of the murderer himself? He was not creating a beauty by destroying this one. He cannot even have considered himself clever.”
I believe I can speak for Ciara Kelly, Rick Bolling and many other people who’ve known the Greensboro Science Center’s Vader over his 18 years when I say that we’re glad this will never happen to that sweet old fellow.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.