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Living with Snakes

There is nothing quite like an unexpected encounter with a snake to pull you up short.

And, there has been plenty of evidence lately that many others feel that sense of rising panic when they spot one in the backyard, find one in the house or suspect the cat or dog has come off second best in a reptile wrangle.

Facebook conversations regularly crop up on the subject.

Given that Australia holds the record of the largest number of venomous snakes of any country, it would be fair to assume that we have been dealing with them for a very long time.

They are also as regular a presence in urban areas as they are in rural and regional zones.

But, for new residents in our ranges environment, there are some different considerations to take into account, given the extent of our state and national parks, agricultural areas and bigger backyards.

Some of the more seasoned among us can at times be a little dismissive when we see these fears being manifested.

As a keen bushwalker, regular user of public walking trails and long-term resident, I confess that while I find them quite a beautiful part of the natural environment and an essential ecosystem ‘co-resident’, I have had to learn to treat them with respect and adopt some practical management methods.

Whether encountering them on bush trails or in wetlands; knowing there is a permanent tenant in the chook run and a large red bellied black that favours the letterbox zone and; having curious dogs, a practical and educated approach is the best one.

We consulted a range of snake experts, from the RSPCA to wildlife authorities and registered snake handlers to provide a guide for the rest of summer and perhaps, bust a few of the ongoing myths.

Snakes are the most active in Spring as that’s the time to leave their winter lodgings and go in search of a mate and food.

We also think they are out for a big summer frolic, but snakes can be abroad at any time of the day or night and across all seasons.

Nor is there conclusive evidence that they flee from vibrations and the jury is out on the wide range of ‘snake repellents’ that appear on the market.

Let’s face it, there is no great challenge for them to move into your backyard.

There are some things you can do that may help, including:

  • Keep the backyard tidy. Remove undergrowth, fill any holes, keep the lawn mowed and make sure walkways are clear.

  • Don’t create ‘snake houses’ by leaving metal objects, sheets of corrugated iron or general rubbish – even larger toys – lying around.

  • If you are attracting rodents, then expect to find snakes. Poultry feed, bird seed and anything else that attracts rats and mice needs to be contained and any spills cleaned up.

  • Keep wood piles away from the house.

  • None of the above will guarantee a no snake policy, but you will be able to see them more easily if they do arrive.

First response

The first mistake is to assume that snakes are out to get you or to attack.They really don’t want to be near humans and the majority of bites occur when people panic and attack them, try to kill one or accidentally step on one.

So, once you spot one, resist the urge to try and catch or kill it. A snake will move away once it detects you. Stay at a safe distance, get children and animals away from the area and let it head off.

I have experienced this time and again when one has been stretched across a bush trail, public path, near a body of water or on the property. Moving slowly backwards and away, it will detect the presence and slide off to safety.

If it doesn’t want to leave, then it’s time to contact a licensed handler to come and get it.

A snake in the house

The stuff of nightmares.

Don’t feel tempted to pick up the broom or mop and go for it.

Instead, get any children and pets away from the area first and then confine it to the room it is in and put a towel at the bottom of the door so it can’t escape.

If it has fled into a hiding spot, at least it can be contained until an expert arrives.

When they coil up and open their mouth, then it is seeing you as a threat. Just slowly step away until expert help arrives.

It had to get in somewhere, whether through open doors or windows and other gaps, so be aware of those and fix them.

Enjoying the bush

It wasn’t a pretty sight to see the screaming panic of a young tourist from outside the area when she encountered a large brown snake at the entrance of a park toilet block. The thongs and shorts notwithstanding, when the intention was to trackle one of the more rugged trails.

No matter how hot it is, sturdy, enclosed footwear and long pants that cover the ankles are the best insurance.

Stick to the trails and avoid the long grass, rushes and thicker undergrowth.

Ponds, dams and watercourses are beloved by snakes and they can be very well camouflaged.

Watch the ground ahead, whether walking or biking.

I always carry a snake bandage in the backpack. They are wider and long enough to cover a whole limb. For first aid tips see the CERT report in this edition.

Snakes and Pets

I can also confess to having had a dog bitten by a snake.

Expensive and extremely stressful.

It’s fine for us to develop the mindset that we walk slowly away when we spot one, but the dog or cat is more likely to be curious and defensive.

Harrassing the snake – often out of your sight – often leads to a life threatening bite.

If you regularly walk your dog, then keep it on a lead. We would all love the type of pooch that comes instantly when called, but alas, many will just do their own thing. Long grass on paths and roadsides, the desire to check out holes or dig into or under something, can have a bad outcome.

Snakes like to rest in long grass and on rocks, so stick to clear trails if the dog is with you.

Even if you think a snake is dead, think again. The fangs are still venomous and some snakes can stay very still and appear to be dead. Letting the dog or cat play with it is not a good idea.

If you do suspect your dog or cat has been bitten, take them to the vet immediately rather than waiting for all the symptoms to manifest. Time is crucial and your vet is the best person to assess any symptoms.

Getting up close and personal in the Wallaby Creek Catchment area. This snake stayed long enough to be photographed – from a distance – and then headed for safety off the open trail. Photos by Lorraine Casey.

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