Coexisting With Snakes In Your Atlanta Yard
Despite making my yard welcoming for wildlife, I still can't control what happens outside the safety of my sanctuary. The long list of dangers includes tree destruction, backpack mosquito foggers, Dynatraps, mow and blow “landscape” crews with gas powered leaf blowers, chemical lawns, pesticide companies, rodenticides, landscape light pollution, and wildlife removal services. I am actually amazed that any wildlife survives the constant assault on their existence!
The biggest direct threat to wildlife seems to be the deadly combination of fear and ignorance, so I try to combat that by pushing extra hard through my own fears to coexist with the critters who depend on my yard for survival, even the ones I am pretty phobic about, like snakes. Unfortunately experts believe that as many as 1/3 of adults have ophidiophobia (snake phobia) like I do, but many people's first reaction is to kill them, not to get help overcoming their fear.
Recently I had the traumatic experience of watching a neighbor and his dad brutally hack an Eastern rat snake to death just feet from my property line. I can still see the image of that poor harmless snake trying to defend itself from two violently fearful men and hear the awful sound of those shovels slamming into the pavement. This incident hurt my heart because I am sure this snake is one that has been keeping mice and rats at bay around my house (and theirs!) for years. Eastern rat snakes can live up to 15 years and do not see property boundaries. My helplessness was compounded by the fact that this much younger and larger neighbor's aggressive hostility towards me has frightened me in the past, so intervening on behalf of the snake did not feel safe for me to do alone.
I posted about this horrifying and disgusting spectacle in my neighborhood social network and quickly learned there are some great snake defenders in Atlanta, as well as many people with a surprising lack of basic snake knowledge. Education can combat fear, so to raise awareness locally, I have compiled a little cheat sheet about how to coexist with snakes in Atlanta, with highlighted resource links. Hopefully sharing this will save other snakes from unnecessarily being killed, particularly in Atlanta. The information is geared towards intown Atlanta, but many of the resources are general enough to hopefully be helpful elsewhere.
How to Coexist with Snakes in Your Atlanta Yard
1) The best way to coexist with snakes is to leave them alone. Snakes do not want any more to do with us than we do with them! They know we're the more powerful predators. Most snake bites are from people who see a snake and try to mess with it in some way. Once you see a snake, you are 100% in charge of whether you are going to have an interaction with it.
2) As startled as I am every single time I see a Dekay's brown snake or an Eastern rat snake in my yard, I've practiced quickly reminding myself that snakes are beneficial and a sign of a healthy ecosystem. I also make a point of saying thank you to the snake to recognize and reinforce him belonging there. This is why it was so personal to see my neighbor savagely kill an Eastern rat snake I am sure I have met many times in my own yard.
3) If you see a snake and need to identify it:
Create a contact on your phone called “snake identification” with the number 404-557-2470. Text pictures of any snakes you see, and they will typically tell you what it is fairly quickly.
The following Facebook groups can help you identify, learn more about or even relocate venomous snakes instead of killing them. Join them before you are in a situation where you need to identify a snake. I have included the About description from each group. What Kind of Snake is This? Georgia: The Purpose of this group is for snake identification and education. Georgia Snake Identification and Education: A group to help people that are uneducated when it comes to snakes. If you ever come across any snake and do not have any idea what it may be, just post a picture on here and the Admin will give you an answer as quickly as possible. It keeps you safe and the snake safe. Believe it or not, all snakes whether they be poisonous or not, help with the ecosystem. If you ever come in contact with a venomous snake, it is best to leave them alone. They kill rats and other pest which may carry diseases. Free Snake Relocation Directory: A helpful place where people that fear snakes and/or normally kill snakes can instead, connect with people like us that offer free local snake removal and relocation. Please let us know if you would be willing to offer this service in your local area. No collectors, sellers, or poachers will be allowed here. Relocators and people who may need snakes relocated only.
In a pinch if you post on your local Nextdoor, there is often an expert in a related field who can help with snake identification. I have even seen conservationist on Nextdoor offer to come and relocate a venomous snake to save it from being killed.
If You Want to Learn More About Snakes in Georgia:
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has an online snake fact sheet about snakes of Georgia with maps showing the range of the venomous snakes. This is helpful if you are traveling or live anywhere in Georgia.
Advocates for Snake Preservation (ASP) is a snake advocacy organization using science, education, and advocacy to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence with snakes. They have a section on their site called Living with Snakes with lots of tips for coexisting with snakes in your yard and in natural areas. They include plenty of reference links.
Familiarize kids with snakes so they will grow up not being afraid of nature and understand why we need to protect our ecosystem. Check out local nature centers and educational venues such as the Chattahoochee Nature Center, Blue Heron Nature Preserve, the Elachee Nature Science Center or the The Wylde Center for programs that include learning about snakes. For example, The Fernbank Museum of Natural Science site currently has a Museum at Home page with a few different educational videos about snakes.
My anxiety in my own yard has been greatly reduced knowing that of the six venomous snakes in Georgia (Copperheads, Cottonmouths, Timber Rattlesnakes, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Pigmy Rattlesnakes and Eastern Coral Snakes) the only one that you might find in an intown Atlanta yard is a copperhead. It has a distinctive hourglass shaped pattern which makes it easier to identify than the rest of the non-venomous snakes. In Atlanta copperheads are often found in invasive English ivy, which is yet another compelling reason to remove this invasive from your yard and replace it with a native groundcover!
Please, please, please don't kill snakes!
If you encounter anyone who still thinks any wildlife that wanders on their property is theirs to kill, tell them that in Georgia there’s a law that protects all non-game wildlife, including non-venomous snakes. If they kill one, they can be charged with a misdemeanor, go to jail and be fined $1,000. There is also no special dispensation in the law for killing wildlife out of fear.
In a recent social networking post, I was surprised to see multiple people suggest putting mothballs around the house to deter snakes. Using mothballs outside is toxic to the ecosystem of a yard and neighborhood including the people and pets that live there, an attractive nuisance to small children, contaminates water and soil, harms wildlife, and contributes to air pollution. Mothballs are also considered insecticides that are regulated by the EPA, which makes it illegal to use them for any purpose or by any method that is not specified on the label, such as a snake repellent.
There are many gruesome ways people kill snakes. I am not listing any of them because all of them are unnecessary.
Coexisting with nature in our own yard means working to resolve our own innate fear of not being in charge of the natural world. It is easy to coexist with hummingbirds and butterflies. Snakes take a bit more work for some of us. Over time I have noticed that as phobic in the abstract as I am of snakes, I now feel more compassion and less fear when I see a small Dekay’s brown snake or even a big Eastern rat snake in my yard…which I have to remind myself is also their home. I'll end with a peaceful video of a graceful Eastern rat snake that was taken by Dan Owens who lives not far from me.