Kentucky is home to 32 species of snakes. Most are harmless. All are beneficial to the environment.
Don’t like snakes? You are not alone. According to a 2001 Gallup poll, snakes topped the list of things Americans most fear, beating public speaking, heights, spiders, mice, dogs, thunder and lightning, crowds and the dark. For 51 percent of the people polled, snakes topped the fear list.
This won’t surprise John MacGregor.
“I think snakes are among the most admired and most feared of all wildlife,” said MacGregor, herpetologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ non-game, wildlife diversity program.
MacGregor likes snakes. He studies them. But he understands that most people don’t like them and have no interest in ever seeing one.
He doesn’t know why.
“Why are people afraid of snakes? I don’t know,” he said. “I used to teach school. I taught seventh grade, and whenever I brought a snake in, everybody wanted to hold it. Then I taught ninth grade, and when I brought a snake in a lot of [students] were afraid to hold it.
“People who like snakes really like them, and people who don’t like snakes really don’t like them,” he added. “There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.”
One of Kentucky’s more curious snakes is the nonvenomous Kirtland’s snake, which features a grayish checked pattern, red belly and odd living habits.
The Kirtland’s claim to fame?
“In Kentucky, the only place it’s common is in urban areas,” said MacGregor, who usually travels to Louisville to study the colorful critters, which rarely exceed 18 inches in length. “You find them in vacant lots … along railroad tracks. They eat earthworms.”
(If anyone discovers a Kirtland’s snake or knows where one is located, MacGregor would like to know about it. “I am always interested in getting a photo and exact location for our records.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
All snakes are carnivorous, which means they eat other animals—from insects and earthworms to rodents and other snakes. And while snakes, like most wildlife, are opportunistic feeders, they don’t necessarily dine on whatever comes along.
“Every kind of snake has its own way of making its way through the world,” MacGregor said.
Copperheads, he noted, “will eat just about any kind of animal smaller than itself,” while black racer, king, milk and rat snakes seem to focus more on mice and other rodents.
For homeowners who want to make their property snake free, MacGregor recommends eliminating their hiding places—wood piles, rock piles, grassy cover—and removing the primary food source, which is a nearly impossible task.
“The best thing you can do is remove anything that would attract rodents,” he said.
While most snakes are harmless, the fear factor notwithstanding, a few should be avoided. Of Kentucky’s 32 native snake species, four—the copperhead, timber rattlesnake, cottonmouth and pigmy rattlesnake—pack poison and can potentially do harm.
Bites are rare and usually result from someone handling, or trying to handle, a snake. Still, the odds of dying from snakebite in the United States are lower than falling victim to a lightning strike. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 venomous snakebites occur in the U.S. annually, resulting in about five deaths. The CDC stressed that the death rate would likely be much higher if bite victims did not seek medical attention.
MacGregor said copperheads are the most widely distributed venomous snake in Kentucky but are rare in the Bluegrass region. Cottonmouths are generally restricted to the western third of the state. Timber rattlers are not populous in any region but can be found in woodlands and forests.
Pigmy rattlesnakes are extremely rare and found only in small areas of Trigg and Calloway counties. MacGregor said he has not seen a pigmy rattler in the wild since 1975.
Copperheads may be Kentucky’s most common and widely distributed venomous snake, but they carry the least toxic venom. They even are found in Jefferson County, as are timber rattlers, although the critters are largely restricted to the Jefferson County Memorial Forest, according to MacGregor. Iroquois Park also is home to a few copperhead snakes.
“A copperhead bite is usually not fatal,” the veteran herpetologist said. “But it is extremely painful.”
A timber rattlesnake is a dangerous animal, as is the cottonmouth, a snake generally confined to swampy, lowland areas.
“You’re not going to find a cottonmouth in a creek,” MacGregor said. “But usually, when you find them, you find a lot of them.”
The best thing to do with a venomous snake is give it a wide berth.
“If you leave a venomous snake alone, in five minutes it will be gone, and you’ll never see it again,” MacGregor said.
And if someone should suffer a venomous snakebite?
“Get to a medical facility as soon as possible,” he concluded.
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