Spring has sprung in the Southwest and evidence is everywhere. Gambel’s quail are calling, brackets are busted and the first fearful snake pic has been posted to Facebook. Before bashing on the “nope ropes” and “danger noodles,” take a moment to appreciate their ecosystem services — that is, what they do to help enhance the environment and why it’s a good idea to keep the snakes you see alive.
Growing up in Tucson I’ve had plenty of encounters with wild reptiles. A gopher snake at Peppersauce Cave, a Gila monster in Pima Canyon and tortoises along Gates Pass were memorable sightings. My favorite though, was when I got to see them in my own backyard.
The house was located near the University of Arizona farm, close to the Rillito River, and next door to a mesquite bosque. Despite the urban location it still had a surprising amount of biodiversity.
When I was little, my dad caught a gopher snake and allowed me to put a dot of red nail polish on its head — my experiment to test if the repeat snake visits were made by one individual or many. I’ve also found a black-headed snake, a coachwhip and a handful of baby common kingsnakes over the years.
That’s the great thing about Tucson: It’s full of washes, parks, and arroyos that are all effective wildlife corridors and allow us to have up-close animal encounters.
With the weather warming up, our cold-blooded friends are emerging to find water, food and mates. If you’re lucky enough to see a snake in your yard, on a hike or while snapping superbloom pics, make sure to give it a warm welcome instead of a fearful one.
In my five years as an Education Specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Museum, I’ve found an effective way to combat an animal phobia is with a little information. The unknown can be scary, and learning about these scaly species can turn that fear into understanding.
First, some myths: Dogs, mothballs and chemical snake repellents do not in fact repel snakes. If you are not interested in sharing your yard with a shy serpent, you’ll need a physical barrier like a block wall with chicken wire around openings.
Additionally, remove resources that the reptile is attracted to: water dishes on the ground, food in the form of rodents and quiet places to curl up.
Second, snakes aren’t mean or vengeful animals. How do I know? Put a rodent in an enclosure with a snake that isn’t hungry and the snake will not strike or squeeze it. They do not kill for killing’s sake — merely for sustenance.
Third, snakes aren’t sneaky animals that are “out to getcha.” Snakes want nothing to do with humans. They were on earth long before our bipedal bodies started bumbling around. Most snakes use their camouflage coil to avoid being detected.
Raptors, roadrunners and even some humans (and their shovels) approach snakes purposefully and it isn’t until they’re threatened that snakes become defensive. If something wanted to eat you, or kill you, would you defend yourself? Give snakes a little bit of empathy and a lot of privacy.
To be sure, there are venomous vipers in Southern Arizona whose toxins can be dangerous to humans. However, if a person is aware and vigilant about where they put their hands and feet they drastically reduce their risk of surprises.
Additionally, anyone who approaches a snake intentionally is choosing to take an avoidable risk. Just leave it alone, call a professional to remove it if it’s trapped, and you’ll both walk, or slither, away unscathed.
Catherine Bartlett is an education specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a nonprofit focused on conservation, science, and inspiring others to live in harmony with the natural world. She is a 2018-2019 Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.