Anticipating a greater number of snake sightings at Fort Lee as the seasons change and the weather gets warmer, the Environmental Management Division is advising community members that killing the reptiles is illegal in Virginia.
Many people have an irrational fear of snakes, regardless of whether they are venomous or not. A common retort is, “The only good snake is a dead snake.” On the contrary, snakes are actually valuable for many reasons.
Ecologically, they are both predator and prey. Snakes are a food source for birds, mammals and other reptiles. Conversely, they feed on birds, mammals, amphibians, fish and insects. Many species of small pests, such as rodents and slugs, are eaten by snakes.
Without this “balance of nature,” most pest species could overpopulate the landscape and cause considerable damage to our homes, gardens and farms. Rodents have a tendency to spread diseases as well. Looking even further beyond those plusses, snakes have medicinal, educational and aesthetic values in various capacities.
The first step toward conservation is community education. The best ways to coexist with snakes include understanding the role they play in nature and how humans actually benefit from them; learning how to recognize venomous species and avoid being bitten; and learning what to do if you encounter a snake. The first point has already been addressed, and the remainder of this article is meant to increase awareness and appreciation of these animals and to discourage senseless killings.
There are about 24 species of snakes that are known to exist on Fort Lee. Of the three venomous species found in Virginia, only one has been seen on the installation – the Northern Copperhead. This particular reptile is distinguished by the dark hourglass-shaped bands along its body. Juveniles have a bright yellow-green tail tip.
Copperheads are usually found hiding under natural or man-made debris, such as logs, boards, scrap metal or trash. Always use caution when lifting such objects from the ground. Contrary to common misconceptions, most snakes like the Copperhead are not purposefully aggressive. They only bite when provoked or stepped on.
Another venomous species, the Eastern Cottonmouth or “water moccasin,” is found near Fort Lee, but it is unlikely to wander into the main areas of the post. Cottonmouths vary in pattern – some are brown with dark bands that are lighter in the center. Larger adults may be mostly dark with only a faint pattern. The inside of this snakes’ mouth is distinctly white; the source for its unique name.
Cottonmouths are often found in water and may be mistaken for other non-venomous species of water snakes, particularly the Northern Water Snake. On Fort Lee, any snake found in the water is much more likely to be one of several species of water snakes rather than a Cottonmouth. If you encounter a Copperhead or Cottonmouth, you should keep your distance and not provoke it. If the snake is located near human activity, call the Environmental Management Office or the Fort Lee Game Warden to have the snake safely removed.
Snake populations suffer decline from many causes. Among these are habitat loss and fragmentation, over-collection for trade, disease and parasites, and perhaps the most shameful, human persecution. As a result of a general fear of snakes, many people choose to kill any and all snakes encountered, regardless of location.
Road mortalities are critical causes of population decline for many species of amphibians and reptiles as well. In one study, 8-out-of-10 drivers admitted they would swerve their vehicle in an attempt to run over an object they thought was a snake. It is a goal of the EMD to educate the Fort Lee community on snakes, and to discourage contributing to their decline by intentional human persecution.
The best practice is to just leave snakes alone. If you spot one, it’s likely that it’s merely traveling between habitats, just as humans travel between work, home, the grocery store and so forth. In most cases, the snake will move on shortly. If it’s in an inconvenient location for you, or if it is found indoors, call the experts and allow then to take care of the situation in an ecologically responsible manner.
You don’t have to be a fan of snakes in order to respect their value to nature and mankind. All are invited to make an environmental protection pledge to change the attitude about snakes and help efforts aimed at their preservation.
A helpful website for information on Virginia snakes and other wildlife is www.dgif.virginia.gov. To report a snake on Fort Lee, contact the EMD at 804-765-5014 or the game warden at 734-4213.
Keep reading the Traveller for additional spring safety articles focused on mosquito and tick awareness and bite prevention.