WHY YOU JUST MIGHT NEED A RAT SNAKE
I drove 800 miles last week with a 5-foot rat snake, three alligators, four snapping turtles, a cannibalistic salamander and a rattlesnake in the backseat. Some people would drive that far to get away from these creatures. My mission was to promote public acceptance of such animals.
I went to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to speak to the Civitans, a volunteer organization dedicated to serving community needs. After the devastating April storms, including the April 27 mega-tornado, the community can use all the help it can get. I had been invited to give an educational talk: "What Happened to Snakes, Turtles and Alligators during the Tornado?" Many people have had questions about how wildlife was affected by these natural disasters and how wildlife, in turn, might affect people in the area.
The short version is that the reptiles and amphibians I brought as examples for the talk are native to the region and their populations would be only minimally affected even by a tornado of such enormous magnitude. Most would have retreated underground or to aquatic habitats and be unaffected.
As I drove through Tuscaloosa, I saw piles and piles of debris several feet high lining the streets, a potential health hazard involving a far more insidious group of animals than reptiles and amphibiansrats and mice. Rubble left after a tornado can harbor rats, mice and other animals that live and breed there. Some rodents, especially rats, carry diseases that can be directly transmitted to humans through biting or scratching and indirectly transmitted through fleas and ticks that are parasites on them.
How do you get rid of unwanted rodents in such a situation? Setting out rat poison or traps over such a vast area is out of the question. Far better to let an army of naturally trained professionals take over. What animals eat rats and mice? Hawks, owls, bobcats and snakes are natural predators of rodents. But snakes are the only one of these species that can penetrate deep into piles of brush, tree limbs and other debris to kill rodents. The most effective rodent predators in the mounds of debris left after cleanup from a tornado will be large snakes, especially rat snakes.
Snakes, often unwelcome visitors under ordinary circumstances, could see a rise in their popularity. Rat and mouse populations may proliferate with the increase in hiding places for such vermin. Rat snakes eat rats and mice throughout the Southeast and the Midwest, where tornados have caused untold damage and led to huge brush piles. A rat cannot hide from a rat snake. King snakes, corn snakes and racers are also skilled predators that seek out rodents as prey. I presented these ideas at the Civitans meeting and pointed out that this is not the time to be killing snakes. I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response from the audience.
As would be expected, someone asked what you should you do if a rattlesnake, copperhead or cottonmouth is spotted in or around a pile of rubble. The answer is simple: leave the snake alone. It will not chase you, and if you are a few feet away, it will not be able to strike you. Most snakes, whether venomous or harmless, will retreat to a hiding place if a person is around. None of the venomous snakes are likely to be abundant but people should be cautious around debris where one has been sighted. To see a public service announcement about why now is a good time to leave snakes alone, visit www.srel.edu: "The enemy of your enemy is your friend. Snakes eat rodents. You do the math."
the talk, several people asked how they could acquire a rat snake for
their neighborhood. These are, after all, predators that eat rodents.
I pointed out that the snakes were probably already there and should be
left alone to do their business: which is to eat rodents. And, no, I was
not going to leave the rat snake I brought with me.
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