August 19-20, 2010
I was just pointing out a snapping turtle that had crawled up from under the bank of the creek on one of our nature reserves when someone shouted “snake!” It was an eastern gartersnake, the most common snake species in Ontario and the yeller was another Ontario Nature staff person – a group of staff had joined me that day to see what John Urquhart and I were up to when we’re out in the field researching reptiles and amphibians for our Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas.
We also went looking for massasaugas but no luck this time. Lesson of the day: these animals can be very difficult to find and searching for them requires a lot of patience!
The next morning was nice and sunny and I spotted a northern watersnake swimming across a small stream. I leapt after the snake, getting one foot onto the opposite bank and throwing my weight forward to avoid falling back into the stream. The snake disappeared under a shrub. I took the high ground during my search, hoping that the snake might head back for the water. Sure enough, it re-appeared in the stream, swam about 2 m downstream and headed back up onto the shore, where I easily apprehended it.
One of our staff, who is petrified of snakes, came over to get a better look. To our amazement, she decided to hold the snake!
Ok, this is my second lesson of the day: most people are scared of snakes because they don’t know anything about them and assume that all snakes are deadly. In fact, in Ontario all snakes but the massasaugas are completely harmless, and the massasauga has a very restricted distribution in Ontario, is very docile and is not even deadly if proper medical attention is received.
Honestly, teaching people just a little about snakes can go a long way: in only a few minutes, about 90% of people will go from being terrified and not wanting to come within 10 feet of a snake to being absolutely fascinated with them, holding them and not wanting to put them down!
Joe Crowley is Ontario Nature’s Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Coordinator.