By Ashley Rader
Some friendly snakes paid a visit to the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library Tuesday, but they weren’t there to find the latest book to read. These serpents were part of an educational program presented by Roan Mountain Park Ranger Jacob Young for the library’s Summer Reading Program.
Roan Mountain State Park hosts a snake education program that also does sessions off-site for the community. The program strives to provide general information and disprove several myths about the reptiles.
For the program at the library, Young brought a black rat snake, a milk snake and a ball python to display to the young readers. Young shares with his audience some basic details about the snakes, and warns youngsters not to go out and hunt snakes on their own.
“They will try to bite you,” he informed them. “They don’t bite because they are evil. They bite because they are scared and threatened. They are not trying to hurt you, they are just trying to defend themselves. When they strike, that is their last resort to get you to leave them alone.”
He used the size difference between a human and a snake as an example. He said the average snake weighs around two pounds and is usually a few feet long and only inches from the ground while the average man stands six feet tall and weighs around 200 pounds. Also, snakes have very poor eyesight and rely on heat sensors and vibration to tell them what is around them.
“To them, a human is huge,” he said. “Attempting to bite is the only defense a snake has, but they don’t want to bite you. It hurts them to do it. Most often they just want to get away and are acting defensively as a show.”
A snake is hurt when it tries to bite because usually their teeth break. Young explains that the snake’s teeth were made to bite and hold on, not to bite and release, which is why they most often break when they pull away after biting something not for food.
He made the young readers promise that they would not go out and try to pick up and handle snakes on their own.
The presentation also covers snake anatomy and survival skills. Young discussed the different types of hunting tactics that are used by snakes, such as the way constrictor snakes, such as the black rat snake, milk snake or ball python, hunt their prey.
Young also stated that a snake’s eyes will give away whether or not it is poisonous. If a snake has round pupils, it isn’t a poisonous snake. If the pupils are diamond or other shaped, that signifies a poisonous snake. He noted that some people rely on the shape of the snake’s head to determine whether the reptile is poisonous or not. Poisonous snakes are said to have triangular shaped heads. Young explained that some non-poisonous snakes can flatten their heads to replicate the triangle shape and scare away any threats that may be after them.
Another way to spot the difference between a poisonous and nonpoisonous snake can be found on the snake’s underside. The scales along a snake’s belly, which are called scoots, will split into two rows along the bottom of the snake’s tail if it is nonpoisonous. However, this would be harder to spot because snakes do not often show their belly and Young does not recommend individuals get that close to a snake to find out.
He explained what to do in the instance of a snake bite. He said a common myth is that nonvenomous snakes can produce some substance that would make a person sick when bitten but would not kill them. Young explained that nonvenomous snakes do not produce any kind of venom, but they do have bacteria in their mouths that could lead to an infection and a person feeling sick if the wound isn’t treated properly. Also, people tend to panic when bitten by any snake, which leads to the victim feeling sick. He advised that even when bitten by a nonvenomous snake that individuals seek medical attention.
If someone is bitten by a venomous snake they should get to medical attention as soon as possible. He advised people not to cut the wound, tie off the affected limb or try to suck the venom out with their mouth. Also, snake bite victims should work to keep their heart rate low to slow the spread of the venom. If the injury happens in a remote area, like a hiking trail, the victim should send for help and not try to run or walk from the mountain.
“Snake venom in East Tennessee is not as deadly as the snake venom in South America or Africa where someone would have seconds or minutes to get help,” he said. “It is important to get help as soon as possible.”
Young’s program also covered what to do when encountering a snake in the wild that is not behaving threateningly but is laying calmly. Young noted that the best method to move away from a snake is through slow, controlled movements.
“Don’t yell, don’t run and don’t throw a stick at it,” Young said. “Snakes detect movement through heat and vibration. It is best to move away slowly.”
The black rat snake and the milk snake are common snakes in the area, which is a reason they are included in Young’s presentation. The ball python is native to west Africa and is used in the show because it interacts well with the children and by nature is a calm snake. The python also happens to resemble the timber rattlesnake which can be found in the region.
Young explained that snakes, like bats, are nature’s exterminators in that they eat mice, rats and other undesirables that many people do not want in or around their homes. Some snakes, such as the milk snake, will even eat other snakes.
As an example, Young said a female snake could have between 25 to 50 babies. At each meal, a snake could eat between five to 10 mice. If 50 snakes ate 10 mice at each meal, they would cut down on the mice population by 500 mice every time they ate.
“It is my goal to teach and to help you understand snakes,” Young said. “I want you to leave here with a better education about reptiles than you came with.”
In addition to the snakes, Young also told the young readers about his duties as a park ranger at Roan Mountain State Park.