So today we are enjoying a nice weekend outdoors. My 2-year old daughter is running around the backyard with the dogs when suddenly I see something slithering through the grass. Immediately, I panic and grab my daughter and run upstairs to the deck while trying to get my dogs inside so they don't try to attack the 3 foot long snake that's making its way through my yard.
As I'm yelling for my husband to come and kill it, I realize I might be overreacting. Sure it's big. Sure it's gross. But do I really know anything about this snake? Is it poisonous or is it just another snake here in the "desert" of Utah. How can I teach my daughter about snake safety if I don't even know about it? She's only two but with how often my family is outdoors it's important for her to learn wildlife safety as soon as possible.
I decided to do some research, first to find out exactly what was in my backyard and then to find out some good ways to teach little kids the importance of safety with snakes - a lesson my daughter desperately needed as she was yelling, "ooh, snake - I want to see, hi snake!" (no fear with this one...).
Luckily, after some research I discovered that while this snake may appear aggressive when threatened (me coming at it with a shovel made it coil up and look like it was going to strike), it is not venomous and actually attempts to imitate a rattlesnake by flattening its head, assuming a similar strike position, hissing and even vibrating it's tail (sans-rattle) against the ground to mimic a rattlesnake's rattle.
Here are some features to look for when determining if a snake is venomous or not:
1. Slanted eyes: venomous snakes will usually have slanted eyes, while non-venomous snakes generally have rounded eyes.
2. Triangular head: non-venomous snakes will have a spoon-shaped head while venomous ones will be more triangular.
3. Heat sensor: some venomous snakes will have a small pit between the eyes and nostril.
4. Rattles and colors: venomous snakes tend to have varying colors while most snakes that are one solid color are completely harmless (snakes with varying colors can be completely harmless too, though). Additionally, any snake with a rattle is venomous - some snakes (like the bullsnake in my backyard today) will try to mimic the rattle sound but their tail won't actually have a rattle.
Here are some ideas for talking about snakes and snake safety with young children:
- Discuss why snakes can be dangerous. Explain that they have venom, which is only used when they need to defend themselves or take down prey. Because many snakes look alike, you should treat any snake you come across as venomous.
- Talk about what to do when you see a snake. Explain that you should not panic or try to run as it may cause the snake to feel threatened If they are alone when they see a snake, they should know to stand still and let the snake move away on its own, before they slowly move away. If a parent or adult is close by, they should calmly let them know they see a snake, again without running or panicking.
- Make sure your children wear closed-toe shoes and socks when playing in areas the may contains snakes, and teach them to keep an eye out for snakes. They are very good at hiding, so be careful around brush, rocks or other good hiding spots (the one in my backyard went and hid inside my coiled up hose!).
- Instill how important it is to NEVER touch a snake. Don't try to pick it up, don't hit it, don't throw anything at it. Snakes only bite when threatened, so if they leave it alone they should be fine.
Outdoors is a wonderful amazing place for children - but there are dangers out there and being prepared is your best defense against an unwanted accident or injury. While you can't prevent all encounters with wildlife (and actually, I believe that they are good learning experiences), you can teach your kids about safety so they know how to react in these situations.
Have fun and enjoy it out there!