“Watch out! Be careful! There are lots of snakes this year, and they’re everywhere!”
That’s the word, anyway. Just check Facebook, or anywhere on social media.
Social media provides the unhelpful version of snake awareness when it is important at this time of year, according to Aaron Goodwin, a 20-year zookeeper at the Tulsa Zoo.
Goodwin is a herpetologist, an avid “herper” (the reptile-watching equivalent of a birder) and creator of the OKsnakes.org website.
“It’s not so much a case of more snakes everywhere but more people out seeing them,” he said. “In the springtime we’re more active, and the snakes are more active. They’re out in the daytime, and we’re out in the daytime. When it gets hot, they go more nocturnal, and fewer people are out at night and we won’t see them as much.”
That’s not to say any given place might have more or less snakes year-to-year or that people shouldn’t be cautious at this time of year, especially where children are concerned. Snakes are active across Oklahoma from April through October—more at some times than others.
Experts like Goodwin would turn down the volume and prefer to broadcast a more thoughtful and less panicked message when it comes to their slender friends in the grass.
The message is to know your surroundings and what kinds of snakes might live nearby and to realize almost every area in Oklahoma is home to some kind of snake. In April and May snakes are more active not only because of the weather but also because it’s mating season, he said. Snakes are out looking for each other and that also can explain why people might see several in one area.
“Just watch where you’re walking,” Goodwin said. “Wear shoes that cover your toes, not flip-flops. Watch where you put your hands if you’re doing things like moving debris or other things around your yard.”
Of all the snake species in our state, most should be welcomed visitors as controllers of mouse and rat and insect populations. They will steal eggs, however, and some can take up residence in attics or under porches.
“Only 5% of the snake species in Oklahoma are venomous,” Goodwin said.
Venomous snakes in Tulsa County include the copperhead, northern cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake and western pygmy rattlesnake. Western massasauga rattlesnakes have been found as near as Washington County and southern Osage County to the north; western diamondback rattlers are in rocky areas of southern Muskogee and Okmulgee counties.
“The odds are if you see a snake it’s not going to be a venomous one,” said Goodwin, who often goes out trying to find them.
Some preventative measures around the home include keeping the lawn cut short and removing wood piles or other things a snake might like to curl up under.
Unlike snake species in other parts of the world, the seven venomous species in Oklahoma are not considered “deadly,” though complications from a bite can prove fatal.
In most cases the bite means a hurried and expensive trip to the emergency room, expensive treatments and a lot of pain.
“It will definitely wreck your weekend,” Goodwin said.
The best armor for an Oklahoman with snake concerns is knowledge, he said.
Goodwin said people should be wary of know-it-all neighbors and strings of comments on Facebook that are populated with what he called “self-styled experts.”
“I’ve had to do so much damage control on Facebook,” he said. “It’s exhausting.
“A lot of us try to help where we can, friends who are herpers, people in the Tulsa Herp Club, but we’re going uphill against a tide.
“I’d just say, on Facebook, unless you really know what you’re talking about, please don’t make a comment,” he said.
The “kill it with fire” comments on each and every snake post on Facebook bring an eye-roll from the zookeeper.
“I think those are mostly self-serving comments,” he said. “I mean, OK, we get it, you don’t like snakes.”
Eddie Reese, director of the 803-acre Mary K. Oxley Nature Center, talks through snake confusion with visitors on a regular basis — especially with regard to water snakes. The park has three species of water snakes, all of which are plentiful, none of which are venomous.
“It happens quite often that someone will come in and say, ‘Hey! You have water moccasins in your pond.’ Well, we tell them we haven’t had one documented here since the 1940s, and they’ll say, ‘I just saw a whole bunch of them.’
“You can try to talk with them, but they will almost never concede. ‘I know one when I see one,’ they’ll say.”
While the habitat at the center could be suitable for a northern cottonmouth (often called water moccasins) Reese said he hasn’t seen one in his more than 30 years working there.
It’s best just to leave a snake alone, and it’s especially best to leave it alone if you’re not absolutely sure of the species, Goodwin said.
Unless you’re a herpetology enthusiast or a snake catcher who is equipped and knowledgeable, the approach around snakes should be one of caution and recognition that it’s best just to let the snake go on its way, he said.
“If it’s a safe situation and everything is clear, it’s fine to try to take a picture if you want, but in general just keep your distance,” he said. “Most of the bites from venomous snakes happen when someone is trying to catch the snake or dispatch it.”
Most times if the snake is left alone for 15 minutes it will go on its merry way, and so should you, he said. “It’s better for you to use those legs the snake doesn’t have and just walk away.”