Snakes Stir Our Fascination, and Of Course Fear

All shake and no bite. This snake is harmless, but it shakes the end of its tail to pretend it's a rattler and shoots its head forward like it is going to bite, but doesn't.

By Robert Hughes for Florida Today
Reprinted from Florida Today

Bryan Hocknull had something of a confession to make.

“My wife believes there’s such a thing as a hoop snake that puts its tail in its mouth to make itself into something of a hula hoop so it can roll down hills and attack people,” he said. “And she has a graduate degree.”

The Port St. John resident shook his head in disbelief after giving his worst example of what he called the “demonization of snakes.” The admission is particularly difficult for him because he’s an outdoorsman who’s “always” outdoors. And he loves snakes.

“Outdoors people are out there all the time, and we relish a sighting of any animal,” he said. “I remember when I saw my first sidewinder (snake) go by in the sand. It just mesmerized me the way it whipped itself along, sideways.”

Florida has become the home for four non-native species of snakes, including the Burmese Python, which made the news recently as the target of a hunt aimed to reduce its harm on native wildlife.

It is also home to 46 species of native snakes, but only six of those species are venomous: the copperhead, cottonmouth (water moccasin), timber, diamondback and pigmy rattlesnakes, and the coral snake.

Only about six people die in the United States from snake bites a year, which makes it nine times more likely a person will be killed by lightning. And about one in 37,500 people gets bitten, so odds are small a person will even get hurt by one.

Still, when Shelly Mungua of Wildstock Photography in Lakeland gave some tips on identifying snakes during a presentation at Brevard Community College in Titusville last week, her main tip was, “Don’t mess with anything you’re not sure about.”

She gave as an example of the remarkable similarity between the venomous coral snake and the harmless milk snake, which mimics the coral snake’s colors to protect itself. The tricky difference between the two brightly color-banded snakes is summarized by the saying: “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack.”

“But, boy! It’s easy to get that little ditty wrong, and then you’re in big trouble,” Mungua said. And since even some non-venomous snakes can bite, she said it’s best to leave all of them alone.

“Besides, they normally try to flee and will bite only when threatened,” Mungua said.

She then let the audience handle live snakes and reptiles, which was a big hit, especially with the children who were apparently behind in their animal “demonizing” skills.

“Ooh, I want to take him home!” one young girl said as a milk snake wrapped her arm like a bright bracelet.

Mungua explained that snakes are very helpful because they eat rodents, insects and other snakes as well as being food for other prey.

There are outdoors people who go on what Mungua called “herping” trips to view reptiles, just as birders go birding. But Hocknull is among those who only sees them by chance in the wild.

“Actually, most of the snakes I see are in my yard,” he said. “Just a few days ago, I found a tiny ring-necked snake in my living room and I couldn’t believe how beautiful and calm it was when I held it.

“But then I realized I had to get it the heck out of the house before my wife saw it.”

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