Curled up under your deck, in your garden or in the tall grasses along a trail lays a long earth-toned reptile looking for mice, frogs or worms to prey upon. The red-blooded animal with dry, scaly skin has teeth and bones, but lacks legs, ears and eyelids.
And, contrary to popular belief, it is virtually harmless.
In fact, according to Rob Carmichael, Curator of the Wildlife Discovery Center of Lake Forest and a instructor at the , snakes are more afraid of humans than you may think.
“Most of the time the snakes are very calm,” Carmichael said during a Snakes Alive! Earth Day presentation at CLC.
He said snakes may scatter back and hiss if you try to grab them but it is because they are terrified, not because they want to inflict harm.
Carmichael said they get a bad reputation simply because people are afraid.
He and Dr. Mike Corn, a professor at CLC, hope to change that perception by explaining why snakes are so important.
“You can see in some areas we have huge populations of rodents,” Carmichael said. “Snakes help keep those rodents at bay as they prey on voles, mice and the like.”
"You'll notice it in your garden," Corn said, adding that because such a large majority of Lake County is developed, the snake population is decreasing.
“It’s important to keep the Lake County Forest Preserve up and going so these snakes can survive,” Corn said.
According to the Lake County Forest Preserve there are 39 species of snakes in Illinois. Of them, only four are venomous and only the Eastern Massasauga lives in northern Illinois.
The reptile is reclusive and usually inhabits wet prairies, marshes and low areas along rivers and lakes.
The Eastern Massasauga is so uncommon it is considered a state endangered species.
Pet Snakes and Teaching Tools
Sarah Kondenar of Antioch recently adopted the more common garter snake as the family’s new pet after finding it in their garden.
“I was really surprised because I haven’t seen a snake around here in a while,” she said.
She is now using the 18-inch reptile as a teaching tool in homeschooling her daughters Mercy, 8, and Evelyn, 5.
“This presentation of Snakes Alive! fit right in to what we were looking at and what is happening with our pet. It was great timing,” she said.
Stacey Martin, 14, just couldn’t get enough of the varieties of snakes, handling many that were on display during the Snakes Alive! program.
A garter snake owner herself, Martin said she is attracted to snakes simply because so many people dislike them.
She picked up her pet at the fair last summer.
“It’s been really neat to watch her interact with the snake,” said Martin’s mom Libby, of Gurnee. “She’ll sit and read with it in her lap, or bring it around the house. It’s truly become her pet.”
Coexisting with Snakes
While not everyone is interested in having a garter snake as a pet, Carmichael said if you do find one near your home to let it be.
If that sounds unsettling, there are measures you can take to reduce its presence around your property.
- Keep your lawn cut low and clean. Snakes need cover to hunt and protect themselves. If they don't have a place to hide they are less likely to be around your home. Likewise, do not leave wood or brush piles in one spot for an extended period of time.
- Repair cracks along your foundation and fill holes around pipes and other entryways. Snakes can access openings as small as one-quarter of an inch, so make your repairs before they decide to establish a nesting spot.
- If you have a real snake "problem" and don't feel equipped to deal with it contact the Lake County Forest Preserve.