I'm no herpetologist, and not even a zoologist. I'm just a born-again believer in snakes as fellow workers in my garden, and incredible survivors to boot. I have yet to hug a snake, but a few harmless constrictors have hugged me as I lugged them out of harm's way.
In the beginning, I was a rotten, snake-bashing kid, as were most country boys in Mississippi during the Great Depression. My reformation began with a very long and territorial black rat snake. He had the run of a barn loft where we stored hay and dried ear corn. We also stuffed pumpkins, striped cushaws and sweet potatoes beneath the hay to keep them from freezing. We three brothers were under the threat of an immediate spanking if we bothered that snake in any way. Dad's explanation was that the snake ate the mice and rats that would otherwise eat the stored food. That was the beginning of my acceptance of harmless snakes.
It was a "two-snake day" recently that got me reflecting on reptiles. Snake number one was searching for mice in one of our outbuildings. I came upon his tail end rapidly disappearing behind a cabinet. I could see that he wasn't one of the two venomous snakes we have in these parts, so I grabbed him, hauled him out and released him outside.
Later the same day, I almost stepped on snake number two. Wading through tall grass, I did a wild jig to keep from tromping on a young and very skinny black rat snake. Poor fellow, he was more scared than I, so scared that he dropped the mouse he had just begun to swallow. An hour or so later, I checked back and the snake had circled back to pick up the mouse and finish his meal. Good boy! Keep it up!
This live-and-let-live attitude extends to a six-foot-plus black rat snake that lives, at least part of the time, beneath our house. I know his size because I had to haul him out before the Orkin man would go back into the crawl space that he had hastily vacated, hollering as if he had encountered a hungry alligator. That snake was so long that when I held him up by the tail, as high as I could reach, his head touched the ground. If I let his head hit the ground, he would begin to "run" toward my feet; if I lifted him up, he swung close enough to me to take a bite out of my leg. So I settled for swinging him front to back as I toted him down through the pasture to set him free.
I wouldn't feel so relaxed around snakes if I weren't able to tell at a glance whether a snake is venomous. In a flash I can take in the triangular head and sunken eyes of pit vipers, which include the local copperheads and canebrake rattlers, and the water moccasins that live a bit south of here where the winters aren't so cold.
Wherever I lecture on wildflowers -- and I spoke in 40 towns this past season, coast to coast -- I ask my audiences to learn to identify snakes so they won't kill them indiscriminately. But honestly, I wonder if I have ever convinced a single individual. Despite my entreaties, my own mother-in-law whacks every snake that ventures into her yard.
I see the day coming when we will wish we had not been so ruthless in killing snakes. One by one, we are exterminating the predators who keep the populations of rats, mice, voles, moles, squirrels and rabbits in check. In the process we are opening our homes and gardens to greater damage and risk of rodent-borne diseases.
The best place to start developing an accepting attitude toward snakes is with the children and grandchildren of gardeners. Who else stands to benefit more from the consumption of rodents and insects by garter snakes, rat snakes, corn snakes, etc. At the least, an adult gardener who recognizes in himself or herself an unreasonable, gut-level fear of all snakes might confess it to children and, while helping them to recognize and avoid the very few venomous species, encourage them to accept the nonvenomous snakes as friends of the environment.