Kelly Paulus | Education Intern
Slimy and ready to strike. That’s the general impression many people have about snakes and I used to be one of them.
Growing up in Florida, it’s nearly impossible to avoid snakes. Whether you’re walking past the sea grapes to get to the beach, going on a nature walk at a preserve, or gardening in your backyard, chances are you’re going to encounter one sooner or later.
For me, those interactions were few and far between. Whenever I did see one I gave the snake a lot of room to move along. It wasn’t until I decided I wanted to be an environmental educator that my big encounter came along. In my case, that encounter was my boss placing a snake in my hands. There was no slime. It didn’t strike at me. I stood and watched as it curled around my arm, with no intention of squeezing me to death. Instead, I was interacting with smooth scales, a friendly and curious face, and a gentle hug that provided her support.
Once I became comfortable handling them, I had a new mission. As an educator, I needed to know about the animals I am presenting. The education element is what gives these ambassador animals their purpose when interacting with the public and creating a connection to their species, so I set out researching snakes.
They have incredible adaptations like the Jacobson’s organ in their mouth that lets them SMELL with their TONGUE! Their special keeled belly scales are stretched longer than the rest of their body’s scales to help them climb things like trees, or in my case sweaters. The pythons I work with have heat-sensing pits below their nose that act like heat-sensing goggles to find prey, so we make sure their food is extra hot.
Another exciting adaptation snakes do is shed their skin. They slide right out of their old scales, leaving one connected piece of old translucent scales that will end up inside out. The process resembles how we take our socks off at the end of the day.
After they leave their old shed behind, they will sport a fresh new skin, like Bindi, the 6-foot indigo snake, who will flaunt his blue iridescent scales. To help with the process, we make sure their enclosures are humid and at a comfortable temperature. We even give them warm soaks to stay well hydrated, which is a favorite of Stitch, the Burmese python.
Every Snake is Different
Each snake has its own personality and set of needs.
Some of them are super active and curious, while others, like Gus, the ball python, need extra motivation to get moving. That’s where enrichment comes in. We give them all sorts of things to stay mentally and physically engaged in their homes.
Peaches, the partially albino red rat snake, really enjoys new scents like garlic powder, while Sheldon, the yellow rat snake, loves climbing on obstacles. The snakes have a special place in my heart because of the journey I’ve been on with them over the course of my life. Working with them has shown me that communication is key and that the transfer of information looks different for each species. I now realize a behavior that may have seemed strange or intimidating in the past is really just the animal’s way of communicating its needs.
Teaching myself and others has shown me how important it is to stress that snakes are not here to harm us.
Pictured above is Leroy, Florida Kingsnake, which he and some other native snakes can eat venomous snakes.
Why We Should Care
While my work allows me to educate people on all the amazing adaptations snakes have, it’s also important I teach them to respect these animals. We aren’t a food source and are much larger than them, which means we look like scary predators. Just like we wouldn’t sweep a raccoon off our porch or grab a pelican as it crosses our path, we need to give snakes enough space and respect to feel safe.
When we choose to interact with wild snakes, they are left with little choice but to slither away or bite; they can’t ask us for space or put hands up as a defense. We can, however, admire them from a distance, ensuring comfort for both the animal and the people observing it. These practices will allow for a positive experience with nature that will keep us coming back to the trails.
Snakes also play an important role in our ecosystems, acting as nature’s pest control. A healthy native snake population means rodents aren’t running rampant in our communities and keeping diseases and crop damage at bay.
It’s not until we understand the perspective of a cornered corn snake or a rattling rattlesnake that we can grasp their desire to leave us alone and appreciate their part in our local environments.
Overall, snakes are great ambassadors and even make wonderful pets if you do the proper research and commit to caring for them long term. They provide lots of educational opportunities while representing the reptile world in a fun and interesting way.
Becoming an environmental educator has taught me a lot about not just snakes, but all of the natural world around us, and I have had many opportunities to get out of my comfort zone.