Say the word "snake" and some people cringe, because, sadly, they have chosen to believe all the negative hype about snakes that just isn't true. My years of snake experience have taught me that these animals have very little in common with those satanic creatures from the Bible, cultural myth, urban legend and, that most disreputable source of all, the Hollywood movie.
Even reputable movies have snake scenes that are laughable to anyone with even a marginal understanding of snake behavior. In the 1969 film "True Grit," for example, Mattie falls into a deep pit where rattlers are allegedly sleeping in the bowels of a human corpse. They awaken and bite the girl with unprovoked temerity, and are quickly dispatched by the movie's hero, Rooster Cogburn. There are so many things wrong with this scenario that there isn't space to list them all here.
In truth, the relatively placid nature of snakes amazes me. With very few exceptions, snakes are shy and reclusive creatures. They have to be, because everything wants to eat them, especially when they're young. Aggression usually stems from provocation or being unable to escape a threat.
Utah has 31 snake species, but only seven of them all rattlesnakes are venomous. In the Beehive State, if a snake doesn't have a rattle, it's harmless to humans. I have been preaching this doctrine for 40 years, yet I'm constantly bombarded with questions about how to tell which snakes are venomous. The fact is, it couldn't be any easier.
The other 24 species of snakes are harmless, reclusive, nocturnal and seldom-seen serpents whose tails taper to a point. Again, any snake in Utah that doesn't have a rattle is harmless. As a way to dodge responsibility, some people kill every snake they see, despite the fact that the only good snake is a live snake.
The only rattlesnake along the Wasatch Front is the Great Basin rattlesnake. These guys are small (3 to 4 feet), basically shy and quite benign in both temperament and toxicity. They are reluctant to strike but, like any animal, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened. Staying on trails and away from rocky or brushy areas will reduce your chances of meeting rattlesnakes.
A rattler that strikes defensively may or may not inject venom, or might inject only a portion of its total venom yield. A contact strike with no venom injected is known as a "dry bite." If you are bitten, stay calm and get to a hospital or call 911. Do not attempt treatment on your own.
There have been only five deaths from native snakebite recorded in Utah since the pioneers arrived in 1847. Of those, only one is considered a legitimate bite resulting from an accidental encounter with a rattlesnake. The rest are classified as illegitimate bites because they were instigated by humans trying to provoke or kill a rattlesnake.
Most bite victims are young men, and alcohol is often a factor.
Utah law makes it illegal to wantonly kill a snake or any of the state's native herptofauna, which includes all of our reptile and amphibian species. Snakes are nature's best means of rodent control. Raptors, owls and other animals eat rodents, too, but mostly the adult animals.
Snakes crawl into rodent burrows and eat the young, effectively eliminating hundreds of thousands of potential vermin that carry diseases and eat our food crops, and they do it silently and thanklessly. If you have never had rabies, Hantavirus, or the plague, you should probably thank a snake.
David E. Jensen is a freelance writer, snake relocation expert and administrator of the Utah Reptile Forum on Facebook. He lives in Holladay.