Terry Vanderventer, “The Snake Dude,” has spent the past 45 years trying to overcome generations of myths and misinformation about reptiles.
A sometime visitor to the Union County Library over the years, he was back Saturday to share his love of snakes with an overflow crowd of kids and parents at the library.
Vaderventer says he usually tries to localize his program, talking about snakes native to the area, or at least region.
“Mississippi has 56 types of snakes,” he told the group. “Only six are venomous.”
No snakes are aggressive here, he said, and even snakes such as rattlesnakes contribute to the environment (they eat other snakes and rodents, for instance).
Rather than being slimy, snakes are dry and cool to the touch. If frightened, some do omit an odor to try to repel predators, but that does not usually happen otherwise.
“No snakes are aggressive,” he emphasized.
Most will not react at all if you walk by them and the idea of a snake chasing someone is a myth. Vanderventer said tales are often handed down of Grandpa or somebody being chased by a snake, but blue racers do not chase people and hoop snakes definitely do not turn into a hoop shape and roll after someone.
“Because a snake is coming toward you does not mean it is chasing you,” he said. “The snake is most likely looking for someplace safe, like a hole, and you may be between the snake and the hole.”
Snakes do not smell in the usual sense, but “catch” aromas out of the air with their forked tongues.
Snakes first shed their skins when they are a week old and then about four times a year after that.
Snake eggs, unlike chicken eggs, are “soft and squeezy,” he said. A baby snake is in the shell two months and as the snake grows, the egg gets bigger.
Because the snake has no other way to get out of the shell, snakes are born with one long, sharp tooth called an egg tooth. They use it to break a hole in the shell and eventually the tooth falls out.
Some snakes do bite when cornered or attacked. “There are 150 venomous bites a year,” in Mississippi, he said. “There have been zero deaths in the past 75 years.”
And, he added, most bites come when someone is trying to kill the snake, and alcohol is involved in 50 percent of bites.
Vanderventer’s primary message is to simply respect snakes, and do not attack them.
“With any snake, take two steps back and no Mississippi snake can hurt you,” he said.
Vanderventer discovered his passion for snakes when he was four years old, and he credited the library for helping with that. He has travelled the world, even catching anacondas in the Amazon, but said the library can provide a good substitute for the actual travel.
Vanderventer introduced his audience to several of his snakes during the program.
First was Bob the corn snake, who is good at catching rodents and can be seen in this area.
Next came a king snake.
“They live in the barn and each rats and mice and stuff and they like turtle eggs,” he said. “Mostly, they eat other snakes (although cotton mouths eat more snakes than they do). They coil around them and squeeze them.”
“You should thank him for protecting your neighborhood,” he said.
Another snake he displayed that should be familiar to many area residents was the gray rat snake. Most people around here would probably call it a chicken snake for its love of chicken eggs.
Next was a blue racer.
Despite the name “racer,” he said it, or other snakes, have a top speed of four miles per hour. “They have no feet,” he said, obviously. And he reiterated that “snakes never chase people.”
Snakes have several protection measures, he said.
First, nearly all have some sort of camouflage appearance. Some, as noted previously, can produce a bad smell. Then, of course, some rattle.
But TV and movies have given a false image of rattlesnakes. For one thing, a snake that rattles is likely to become a dead snake.
“I have found 2,000 rattlesnakes and only 18 have rattled before I saw them,” he said. Two hundred of those were in Mississippi and only one of those rattled.
“I have never had a snake strike at me,” he said.
The next reptile he showed was a less common hog-nosed snake. “Some people call them puff adders,” he said. That’s because when frightened the snake spreads its neck and rises up. “It will strike but it can’t bite you,” he said. “It will just bump you with its nose.”
And if the hog-nosed snake cannot escape, it will go belly up, twitch, appear to bleed, twitch its tail and, to all appearances, be dead. However, if you go hide behind a tree and watch you will see that the snake is very elaborately faking it.
“You don’t see these snakes any more,” he said. “Fire ants. Fire ants destroy their eggs.”
The last snake he showed was an indigo snake.
Once native to Mississippi, none has been found here since November 1938. That’s because the type of forest they need was cut down in south Mississippi. “Sixteen hundred acres with no roads is required for an indigo snake,” Vanderventer said. His came from an Arizona preserve.
His is about six feet long but they used to grow to about 10 feet he said. Although impressive in size, he said they are gentle and don’t bite.
Vanderventer was named Conservation Educator of the Year, has worked with motion pictures and acted as a guide to the Amazon for several years. He now has the Living Reptile Museum and is the herpetology field associate with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.
The Snake Dude will only be back at the library here one more time. He is retiring next year but has committed to one more summer program in New Albany.
That makes his message more critical, to treat snakes with the respect they deserve rather than fear or aggression.herpetology, kids, Museum, New Albany, Northeast Mississippi, reptile, snake, Union County, union county library, Vanderventer