Help a snakeophobe learn to live with snakes
February 15, 2017 4:08 PM   Subscribe

I have had a lifelong fear of snakes. For example: just earlier today I googled something about snakes and when a site with a picture of snakes popped up I got so scared I reflexively threw my ipad across the room (no damage). I've just moved to a quiet area with lots of nature (yay!), lots of wildlife (yay, mostly) and, apparently, snakes (!!). Even worse . . .

we are in contract to buy a beautiful old farmhouse. We loved it the second we stepped in, looks like all is set to go ahead with the purchase. However. Today we spoke with a heating guy who has serviced that house for dozens of years. He said, "Yeah, I know that house! One reason it sticks in my mind is that I saw the BIGGEST snake skin in the basement of that house. Wow, it was huge. Really memorable. Oh but you know those old farmhouses, they all have snakes in the rafters." Uhhhhhhhhhhhh . . . Excuse me? Total panic. But I love the house, in every respect except the snakes.

OK. A few questions:

1) Anyone have any experience overcoming a fear of snakes? The thought of having a snake in the house is terrifying, but rationally these are most likely black rat snakes and snakes are our friends, etc. It's hard to imagine relaxing knowing that there are snakes in the house. What to do?

2) How does one get rid of snakes in the house?

3) Are there ways to discourage snakes from being around the house? I'd like to have a vegetable garden, even a few chickens. Is this just basically inviting the snakes to a permanent party at our place?

Location is the shoreline of Connecticut, which narrows down the snake species in question no doubt.
posted by agent99 to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Does it make you feel any better to know that where I lived where snakes in the rafters was a thing, it was because there were often mice and rats in the rafters and the snakes were often put up there intentionally to keep those under control?

I panic about spiders the way you panic about snakes. I lived in Far North Queensland in Australia for two years in a house that was anything but hermetically sealed and I saw a damn lot of spiders around, including giant freaking huntsmans. While we never got on speaking terms, I at least got to the point I didn't panic when I saw one, and there was one particular one I allowed to live in my living room so long as it was always within eyeshot on the wall or ceiling away from me (and it usually was). I still consider myself arachnophobic, but some amateur exposure therapy actually worked way better for me than I expected it to.

Regarding removing them from the house - that's where professional pest control experts come into play.
posted by olinerd at 4:15 PM on February 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Our New England snakes are a shy - just know that when you see a snake, it is going to try to get away from you and they're great at it. We are outdoors all the time and every time I see one I try to catch it. All the time. They are quick. Not like a spider. Spiders get all crazy and might run TOWARDS you. ARGH! It's not like that. They are sleek and silent and disappear. If you pretend they aren't there, you'll be right soon enough. I can tell you that you can try very, very hard to get near them but they wont let it happen.
posted by ReluctantViking at 4:19 PM on February 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Snakes really alarm me, mostly because where I come from there's a good possibility they may be venomous but also because dangit you just don't always know that they're there right before you almost step on them.

I've been less freaked out about snakes when I could see them from a bit of a distance and approach at my own pace, especially when someone not afraid of snakes was handling them.

Anywho, my suggestions are 1) therapy and/or 2) find a friendly herpetologist who will let you hang out with some non-venomous snakes and get comfortable with them. Number 2 is something I might try. That is not the same thing as a good idea or an idea vetted by a professional with experience in snake phobias.
posted by bunderful at 4:29 PM on February 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think this is a good opportunity for the AskMeFi standard answer of "find a good therapist". If you feel your snake-phobia is a problem for you, and you want to deal with it, then there's a good chance that a professional can help you with what is, after all, a fairly common problem.

Good luck.
posted by suelac at 4:40 PM on February 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Please note: I am not a therapist or medical person. I am someone who used to wrestle with a significant fear of flying (how significant? For a period of years, I wept on takeoff. Every. Single. Time.) My phobia developed later in life. I eventually got rid of it on my own in part by joining a meditation group (for other reasons); learning a lot about how planes work and why flying is possible; and getting lots of exposure (after taking a job that required lots of travel). While I didn't know it at the time, exposure therapy is a thing. Wikipedia does a decent job of explaining systematic desensitisation, another term for exposure therapy, and it uses a fear of snakes as an example. See a pro, for sure, if you need to. My life was hobbled for a long time because of my fear of flying. You are wise to work on your fear rather than giving up a place you will love.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:57 PM on February 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I wish I knew how to pass along my gut-level experience that snakes are fascinating and interesting and generally harmless, but I don't. (Unless you have a time machine and could go back to be in second grade with me, when getting picked to hold Mr. Bojangles the garter snake during story time was something to be envied.)

"Therapy" is the AskMe default answer, and it seems fitting here. It would be great if you could reach a point of relaxed coexistence with snakes so you can fully enjoy your new home.
posted by Lexica at 5:02 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

First, a strong fear of snakes is very normal. I've been taught that psychologists/neuroscientists have found a very basic cognitive schema that responds to the movement pattern of snakes, so it's kind of hard-wired in there. Don't freak out about your fear itself; it's just normal.

Second, if you're OK with cats, you could get yourself a colony of spayed/neutered feral cats who will keep the snakes at bay outside, and possibly some relatively tame but hunt-ready indoor cats to keep you extra safe inside. I _just_ visited a salvage yard with a bunch of cats living outside (problematic in some ways, yes), and, while the guys complained about cleaning up after the cats, they agreed that yes, they did keep the snakes down.

Third: learning about which snakes are poisonous and which are not in your area (and maybe adjacent areas) will serve you well. While you're at it, learn about the spiders too.

Oh, and please give some thought to making cat-inaccessible, or at least reasonably safe, bird habitats, if you go with the feral cat solution.
posted by amtho at 5:04 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I got over a serious fear of spiders.

My path: I had kids.* My sons thought spiders and snakes and dinosaurs were cool. I watched way too much stuff on TV that I did not want to see. I also lived in places with ginormous spiders and defending my kids from being carried off and eaten by them was more important than my own fear. (Okay, okay, they weren't actually THAT big, but when my kids were 3 and 5, it sure felt like it sometimes.)

Some possibilities:
Befriend a herpetologist or just someone who thinks snakes are totally cool.
Visit herpetariums.
Read up and educate yourself so you know which snakes are actually dangerous, how to respond effectively, etc.

Also, learn what you can reasonably do to reduce the odds that you will have snakes in your house.

*I am not recommending that you have kids to solve this.
posted by Michele in California at 5:28 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

One other thing: I just bought a rubber snake at a toy store, to try to scare off a stupid bird (that keeps flying at its reflection over territory disputes, over and over again, and it's not making itself any smarter. The snake didn't work.) ... anyway, the snake is pretty realistic looking, and startles me every time I walk onto the deck. It also came with a tiny baby snake, for some reason.

I found it by calling up the local semi-pricey toy/science toy store and asking if they had a realistic fake snake (_not_ by shopping and looking at a lot of pictures). You could, theoretically, do the same thing. Then name the snake.
posted by amtho at 5:36 PM on February 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also - snakes actually are really cool, in case that helps. I started with an affection for salamanders, then lizards, then you start to realize that snakes are like lizards without legs.

So, you could also start by appreciating little lizards and anoles, in case that helps.
posted by amtho at 5:46 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

My mom is phobic of snakes and she spends half the year in a big farmhouse with a lovely snake population that hangs out under the big stone stairs to the front door.

(As a snotty kid I declared that as soon as I moved out I would get a pet snake so she would never ever visit me leave me alone, Mom - I have always really liked snakes but have never had one as a pet... Yet!)

Mom has similar ipad-throwing involuntary responses. She recently went on a grand trip to Australia where she made sure the tour guides she was with knew of her issues so she wouldn't be confronted with surprise snake stuff and like, run off into the bush. We have suggested exposure therapy and she has considered it but ultimately her life isn't particularly compromised by her phobia. My dad shoos the stair snakes when they are out sunning, or makes sure Mom goes out through the garage around back. When I visit I'm always looking for and trying to hang out with the snakes, but I know not to talk about this with Mom and instead it becomes pleasantly illicit small talk with Dad. When family members see a movie we think Mom would like except for some snakey bits, we give her ample warning and detail and she chooses for herself if she can handle it.

Basically, Mom has a protective detail that starts with my dad, who is totally chill about snakes, and extends to whoever else loves her who is around if the snake thing becomes relevant. They have a younger dog now, too, who does a good job of scaring away snakes who have moved to a visible spot, as opposed to their previous very old and slow dog who wouldn't have even gone after an anole. Do you have a similar sentient buffer built up? That is what lets my mom enjoy her lovely house and not see snakes in every long curvy pattern.

We went to a zoo last holiday and in the gift shop there were a lot of pretty realistic very large snake stuffed animals. I noticed them and was standing in front of them, blocking Mom's view with my body, but later she asked why I was being so weird and it turns out she had seen them and been okay with them and moved on way before I stood in front of them. It seems that living at the farmhouse and the occasional snake-sighting has really worked to help her be okay with things that aren't real snakes that would have scared her before. But it has been years, she is in her sixties and retired. If she had the exhaustion of work or a young family, I'm sure she would have looked into confronting her snake issues faster and better.

The thing I try with her that never works is comparing snakes to cats. They both eat yummy vermin, are generally lazy, are self-cleaning, love to hang out in warm sunny spots, have cute little snouts, and usually just want to be left to their own devices. This seems like a perfect defense to me since Mom loves cats, but she never agreed. Perhaps if you love cats you can try to think of any possible snakes around your house as wiggly cold blooded kitties who just want to eat bugs and sleep in warm spots? Well, worth a try.
posted by Mizu at 6:40 PM on February 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think anybody who is not a snake expert who knows all snakes is basically correct in being, as bunderful puts it above, "alarmed" by them, because some of them can be extremely dangerous indeed. I love snakes and recognise most of the local species but even the ones I know are "harmless" I would still never go near, because what if I'm wrong?

In the outer suburbs where I live in SE Queensland we have a fair few snakes, mostly Carpet Pythons (harmless, and utterly gorgeous) and Eastern Browns (scary to see, and one of the deadliest snakes on earth). I guess I've encountered maybe a dozen or so snakes in the ten years I've been here, so even though SE QLD is legit teeming with snakes, they're still extremely uncommon. I'm pretty good at spotting snakes and all manner of creature, simply by virtue of where I was raised (North Queensland) and how I used to spend most of my time as a kid (traipsing about in the bush, playing army and/or pretending I was Les Hiddins). If you know where a thing is, you know how to avoid it.

Wikipedia tells me there are 14 local species of snake in Connecticut, and only two of them are venomous: the Copperhead and the Timber Rattlesnake. The Copperhead is reported as being very lethargic and quick to retreat, and the Rattlesnake is well known for making a big production before striking. I surmise you would have to annoy the shit out of these two critters (or be ignorant of them) before they actually posed a threat.

What might be of use to you is actually learning to spot snakes. There may very well be some kind of snake-spotting club in your area, and there will certainly be snake experts and snake-catchers. It's possible your fear of snakes is caused by your suspicion that they could be "anywhere" and are all deadly, but the reality is that snakes are by and large very timid and very rare (even when they are common, if you get my meaning). And in your scenario, one of the "scary" snakes is likely not even going to be moving around, and the other is going to make a lot of noise when you're near it.

So I guess: learn about snakes from snake experts who know about the snakes in your area. Hell, you probably won't even need to look at any actual snakes! (When you're Googling, just turn off images/multimedia in your browser) Ask these snake experts to give you the lowdown on snakes. Equip yourself with knowledge about snakes, perhaps develop some confidence and ability to spot them, and you may just find that you aren't so scared of them any more! Like, I am piss scared of heights, so I stay away from the windows in tall buildings and tend to manage ok!
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:05 PM on February 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

I hate snakes, as I was bitten by a rattler as a child. But, I managed to get slightly less freaked by going to zoos, pet stores that sell reptiles and having a party for my kids with a guest "petting zoo" herpetologist who brought lizards and snakes for the kids to see and handle . I still hate snakes, but I'm much better than I was. Exposure therapy, etc..
posted by Ideefixe at 7:25 PM on February 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

1) I love snakes. I've owned as many as twenty snakes at one time. My family does not love snakes. Regular continued exposure has brought the fear (ranging from phobic to aversive) down to a place where they can help me handle animals if really necessary and don't mind seeing them at all. Since you most likely don't have access to a snake lover, going to the zoo is probably a good way to gently expose yourself to snake company - you can go and leave as you need. Remember that snakes are animals exactly like every other animal in the world: it wants to eat, sleep, mate, and eliminate and that is all. It does not want to interact with you. If it sees you, it almost certainly wants to get the hell away from you. It would be perfectly happy not sharing space with a human, but humans are in its space, so it doesn't have a choice.

2) Snakes go where their food is. They eat rodents. Make your house rodent-proof and snakes will leave (but they won't leave your property and you shouldn't want them to - they will eat the rodents that can make you and yours very sick).

3) Snakes don't eat vegetables. I've never had rodents eat my veg gardens, but I live far enough north that maybe our house mice don't do that? Anyhow, the same thing as above: if it doesn't attract rodents it will not attract snakes, though they may bask there occasionally. Chickens are another story; while almost no snake in the US can eat an adult chicken, black rat snakes, and others, will eagerly take chicks and eggs. Your coop and run should be absolutely secure, and maybe use finer mesh for the run so that no adult snakes can go through it. Snakes are not the best problem solvers but they will test every avenue available for entry.

Also, let me reiterate: the snake is just an animal. Just like a squirrel, a trout, or a sparrow. The chances of you being bitten by a venomous snake if you are not trying to handle it are extremely slim. Almost all bites in the US are from people who were trying to mess with the snake - moving it, tormenting it, that kind of thing.

Oh, one other option... you could look up your local reptile club. Most clubs will allow new people in without membership purchase (to see if they enjoy the meetings) and most snake owners are delighted to talk to people about their pets - I know I am.
posted by Nyx at 8:33 PM on February 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Snakes follow mice into structures, so my first advice would be to contact an exterminator to help find where mice may be infiltrating the structure and close off their access. An exterminator can help to reduce the mouse population around your home, thereby reducing the reasons a snake would have to go into your house.

Secondly, I used to have a moderate phobia of snakes. Weirdly enough I credit Steve Irwin for helping me to see snakes differently. He was just so enthusiastic about them, even the venomous ones. So maybe watch some Crocodile Hunter re-runs (or other nature show focusing on snakes)?

Best of luck and I hope that you can realize your farmhouse dream, worry-free.
posted by dweingart at 8:38 PM on February 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

I was also going to suggest Crocodile Hunter re-runs. Steve was ridiculously cheerful about even the venomous ones, and there's a distance in watching TV that isn't there when you're visiting the zoo, so it might be a good first step. Other nature shows won't have his soothing monologue about being a trained herpetologist following in the footsteps of his father, etc.

For more info about what snakes are local to you -- without having to do a web search that'll give you a ton of snake pictures -- try your county extension service. They'd also be the ones to help with setting up that vegetable garden (make sure your soil is safe!) and chicken coop.
posted by asperity at 9:24 PM on February 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

So actually, all these people telling you that snakes can be "extremely dangerous indeed" are not really correct if they are living in the United States. Even our venomous snakes are rarely fatal to anyone but the very young or the very old. Lots of times our venomous snakes dont even inject venom when they bite.

Wikipedia has a list of all the fatal snake bites by decade. The cool part is most of the listings explain what was happening at the time the bite occured. A good portion of the bites are due to plain old human stupidity and captive venomous snakes being handled for... whatever reasons someone would want to hug a rattlesnake I guess.

Im not saying fatal bites dont occur but they are SO rare I dont think it merits an "extremely dangerous indeed" tag. Busses kill A LOT more people than snakes do and we wouldn't call them extremely dangerous indeed.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:44 PM on February 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yeah, if you get rid of the the vermin you should also get rid of the snakes.
posted by fshgrl at 9:58 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Wikipedia tells me there are 14 local species of snake in Connecticut, and only two of them are venomous: the Copperhead and the Timber Rattlesnake. The Copperhead is reported as being very lethargic and quick to retreat, and the Rattlesnake is well known for making a big production before striking."

The rattlesnakes were hunted almost to extinction in CT. I believe they are only present in a few areas where they are protected.

I grew up in New Jersey and was outdoors a lot, camping with the Boy Scouts, etc. I'm not sure I ever saw a Copperhead. Every now and then, we would disturb a black snake while walking through a field, and would learn why they are also called "black racers." They startle you by leaving in a hurry.

Snakes, and any threat from snakes, is very regional. As cold-blooded animals, they are more common in warmer climes.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:10 AM on February 16, 2017

Exposure therapy works really, really well. And you should do it with a reputable therapist. Most exposure therapy work doesn't take long at all, either.

Enjoy your new farmhouse!
posted by ldthomps at 7:08 AM on February 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Re venomous snakes: According to my reptile loving son, up to 2/3s of the time, the bite is a dry bite when they bite humans.

Venom is expensive to make. It is related to digestive juices and helps snakes digest prey that gets swallowed whole so it doesn't merely rot in their stomach. If they can't eat you, they don't want to waste it. They bite you if they are scared and feel cornered, basically. So: Don't corner them.

Also, baby snakes have less venom, but it is more toxic. So, counterintuitively, it is probably wise to be more careful around really small snakes.
posted by Michele in California at 9:31 AM on February 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Heard recently that exposure therapy works with subliminal images!
posted by idb at 5:17 PM on February 16, 2017

We let our pet chickens roam our fenced back yard at will. One of the few downsides to this (since we're not phobic) is the fact that we never get to see a snake any more. When we don't have chickens, we occasionally see a pretty little ribbon snake. Chickens hate snakes, since as Nyx mentions they will eat eggs and chicks, and they love to eat any small snake that they encounter. We never even get a chance to see them.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 7:12 PM on February 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

So actually, all these people telling you that snakes can be "extremely dangerous indeed" are not really correct if they are living in the United States.

Ha! Yeah, your snakes are pretty wimpy, same as your eagles.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:43 PM on February 16, 2017

Best answer: Oh, and inapt as it is , I love the name "danger noodle" for snakes. Maybe the humor will be a bit of an antidote to your fear. Sort of like Mizu's cute analogy to cats above.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 6:10 AM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

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