Commentary: Writer Has Sympathy for Snakes

Poisonous snakes have a special and scary place in the human psyche. The active season for snakes in our region begins in spring and the closer we get to the hot summer months, the more likely we are to run into the critters. Although many people might think that the only good snake is a dead snake, environmental officials tell us that the animals are an important link in the ecosystem. Commentator and search-and-rescue responder Ken Chiacchia has spent a lot of time in the woods. He shares the perspective he's gotten about these misunderstood creatures.

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HOST OPEN: Poisonous snakes have a special and scary place in the human psyche. The active season for snakes in our region begins in spring and the closer we get to the hot summer months, the more likely we are to run into the critters. Although many people might think that the only good snake is a dead snake, environmental officials tell us that the animals are an important link in the ecosystem. Commentator and search-and-rescue responder Ken Chiacchia has spent a lot of time in the woods. He shares the perspective he's gotten about these misunderstood creatures.

CHIACCHIA: The little snake lay there, writhing. My first notion was that his back was broken. My second was that it was my fault. I'd taken my dogs, Lilly and Mel, out for a mountain bike ride in the woods in Cranberry. When I came upon the snake, they'd already thundered by. I could only assume they'd trampled him. Maybe hadn't even seen him.
But then I looked more closely. I saw the triangular little head, the mottled camouflage skin. He was too young to even have an audible rattle. But his clan was unmistakable: he was a rattlesnake. And he wasn't writhing in agony. He was coiling for a strike.

He was adorable. Acting just like a grown-up. Still, armed with venom that could easily cost me a limb, or my dogs their lives, he was also a dangerous little SOB.

I shouted to Lilly and Mel: "Down. Stay." They were good girls; they plopped down and froze at a safe distance.

I didn't want to mess with a live rattlesnake. I don't recommend you do it either. But I knew I'd need to come back that way. I didn't relish the thought of my dogs running past him again.

I kept my distance, found a very long stick, and pushed him toward the trailside grass. No longer caught in the open, he vamoosed. Win win.

Snake bite is primarily a male disease, which strikes in late childhood to young adulthood. It seems to be exacerbated by alcohol use. I'm not entirely sure it's preventable.

Once, I told my baby rattlesnake story to a twenty-something guy at a big camping event. I thought he was going to pound me one. He was that angry I hadn't killed it; never mind the protected species stuff. He'd been bitten as a kid.

Who knows what he was doing to the snake at the time.

But I do know this. I've been training, searching, and playing in these woods for nearly twenty years now. And every single time I have encountered a poisonous snake, it was doing its damnedest to get away from me. Our local timber rattlesnakes and copperheads are mousers, living mostly on small prey. They aren't stupid enough to tangle with a human 75 times their weight. Not if they can help it.

My closest call with a snake in Pennsylvania was not with a rattler, but with a non-venomous black rat snake. Black snakes are large - up to eight feet long - and think much of themselves. They aren't shy about biting a piece off of you if you give them the excuse.

I met this particular black snake as we each rounded a bend in the trail. I don't think either of us was expecting the other, because we both did exactly the same thing: leapt back three feet. I may have screamed like ... well, I may have screamed.

For a brief moment before we both turned and slinked away, our eyes met. We had an understanding. Neither of us was ever to mention this again.

So I guess I lied. He may have had the forked tongue. But I'm the one who can talk.

HOST OUTRO: Writer Ken Chiacchia tries to live in harmony with nature, around his home in Harmony, Pa.