Louisiana is home to 47 species of snakes. Only seven are venomous.

So when state herpetologist Jeff Boundy gets asked, as he often does, “Is this snake going to hurt my dog and grandkids?,” his answer more often than not is "No." 

“Of all the inquiries I receive and track, about 97% of them are nonvenomous snakes,” said Boundy, who works for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

So, stop before you even think about killing that snake.

Venomous or not, snakes are important to our natural ecosystems. Without them, Boundy said, populations of insects, frogs, snails, mice, rats and other small animals would sprawl out of control.

And, our slithering friends help fulfill the other end of the food chain as a meal for larger predators, such as hawks, owls, heron, bobcats and even other snakes.

Snakes are a key component in the balance of nature, Boundy said, and their presence or absence from an area directly impacts the health of that ecosystem.

“I like to use the example of seeing a bunch of water snakes around a lake," Boundy explained. "Some may think it might be a good idea to kill them. But the first thing those snakes do is to eat the sick and unhealthy fish in that water."

In his own backyard pond, he said he counts on snakes or "I’d be overrun with 10,000 toadlets."

A little education can go a long way toward abating fears, said Boundy, author of "Snakes of Louisiana," a co-author of "Snakes of the World: A Catalogue of Living and Extinct Species" and co-author with John Carr of the recently published "Amphibians and Reptiles of Louisiana: An Identification and Reference Guide." 

One of the best things to do is to learn to identify snakes — at least some of them that are commonly found in your area.

Micha Petty is ready to help.

In June, he started a Facebook page, which already has about 2,000 members, called “Live Snake Identification and Discussion,” to help educate the public on snakes. 

“My core message to the public about snakes is that they are all beneficial members of the ecosystem that deserve respect, and that no snakes are ‘out to get you,’" said Petty, a Louisiana Master Naturalist, wildlife rehabilitator, president of Louisiana Exotic Animal Resource Network and author of "A Primer on Reptiles and Amphibians."

"Most venomous snake sightings are cases of mistaken identity,” Petty said. “Everyone in Louisiana should learn to recognize rat snakes on sight, as they are wonderful and very common animals who happen to be excellent mousers."

Boundy said he commonly hears that snakes are “aggressive.”

“It’s more appropriate to term them ‘defensive.’ They will put on a show for you, like coiling or opening their mouths if they feel trapped,” he said.

Cottonmouths, which are poisonous, may resort to striking and advancing toward a perceived threat, Boundy said. Venomous snakes, however, are unable to strike a distance more than their body length, even less for large rattlesnakes. So, a distance of only 5 or 6 feet can be considered "safe" for any venomous snake in Louisiana.

The snakes most homeowners see have a territory much larger than any neighborhood yard. More than likely, Boundy said, you won’t encounter that snake again.

So the best thing to do if you see a snake is to leave it alone and let it move away on its own.

“Anything you do to try to get it to leave puts you at risk for being bitten,” Boundy said. “You increase your risk just by fooling with it.”

If you are bitten by a snake, Boundy advised seeking medical help immediately. Snakebite kits do not work, and neither does sucking on the wound, something often seen in movies.

If a snake is venomous, the poison from a bite travels in a diffuse manner through the lymphatic, or, rarely, the vascular system, he said.

Once venom enters these body systems, it cannot be extracted, so cutting or sucking the wound serves no benefit and may make the injury worse. Additional first aid, such as applying ice or a tourniquet, also provide no benefit to the snakebite victim.

If bitten:

  • Keep the affected area immobile
  • Remove rings or tight clothing from the injured area
  • Call ahead to a medical facility so they can prepare for your arrival.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers at (800) 222-1222 provides real-time, around-the-clock assistance in finding an appropriate medical facility.

To learn more about snakes, visit the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at wlf.louisiana.gov; the Louisiana Amphibian and Reptile Enthusiasts at louisianaherps.com or learnaboutcritters.org/primer.

Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater Baton Rouge seeks to advance awareness, understanding, and stewardship of the natural environment. For more information, email info@lmngbr.org.