When Allison Baker moved to what she calls “snake heaven,” a home on 2.5 acres just outside of Dallas–Fort Worth, Tex., her greatest fear was a dangerous encounter between her young children and one of heaven's residents. Baker's anxiety was understandable. After all, Texas is one of the snakiest states in the nation, with more than 80 species, 11 of them venomous. And the previous homeowners had found venomous snakes on the property, including a cottonmouth coiled by the pool. It wasn't long before she had her own run-ins with the slithering creatures—including a bite she received from a copperhead while doing yardwork.
Yet despite her initial trepidation, Baker, 44, has undergone an attitude change since moving into the new place. “I knew better than to dig in a pile of leaves,” she says of her brush with the copperhead. “I didn't blame the snake for it and got a shovel and flipped the snake out of there,” relocating the animal rather than dispatching it. Although most people would probably have gone to the emergency room, Baker's bite happened mid-pandemic. So after a telehealth consult, she took some antihistamine and rode out the fairly mild symptoms she experienced. “It's okay,” she says casually. “I have a scar.”
What force could drive such a dramatic shift in perspective? Baker credits, of all things, a Facebook group, one whose mission it is to educate members about snakes. Although the social media giant has a bad reputation for doing everything wrong in public health and politics, it turns out to be a powerful tool for saving snake lives. It's not just Facebook. Wildlife enthusiasts are co-opting various social media platforms to build communities that promote accurate snake information and slay viral myths. Through these efforts they are converting even the most committed snake haters into ardent snake appreciators whose newfound regard for these misunderstood creatures often spreads to family, friends and neighbors. One by one, the snakes are living to slither another day.
It was chickens that led Baker to the snake ID groups. Having chickens “couldn't be a more down-home, country, just warm feeling, so domestic and wonderful until you open the doors and there's a five-foot rat snake with an egg down it,” she says. “That domestic warm feeling immediately evaporates into pure panic.” A common reaction people have on encountering a snake is to kill it—regardless of whether it actually poses a threat. Wondering if there was another way, Baker turned to Facebook.
Herpetologist Mark Pyle created the Facebook group “What kind of snake is this? North Texas Educational Group” in 2013 after years of trying more conventional snake-conservation outreach. Pyle, 48, lives in Hood County, Texas, and is the current president of the Dallas–Fort Worth Herpetological Society. In his earlier outreach efforts, he never felt like he was getting any traction “because you only have a few moments with each person.” Pyle really wanted to help people more than snakes. “If you can help people with some knowledge about a subject, the conservation end of it takes care of itself,” he says. “You can't care about or love something you don't know the first thing about.”
Whereas other social media ID groups encompass huge areas, from entire continents to the entire planet, Pyle went local, focusing on the snakes he's most familiar with. That way, he reasoned, “I can actually help if someone has a snake in their backyard.” He hoped his regional approach would serve as a template for other local efforts.
Today Pyle's group has more than 176,000 members eagerly exchanging information about the region's venomous rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths and coral snakes, as well as its nonvenomous rat snakes and water snakes, among other harmless species. “This group has been the first time in my life that I think I'm making a real difference,” he says. Other regional groups that have formed include a statewide Texas ID and Central Texas Snake ID, which has more than 43,000 members and is run by a snake-relocation service near San Antonio. Facebook features dozens of other groups, too, mostly in the southern and southwestern states where most snakes live, covering regions as niche as Southside Atlanta.
The premise of the groups is simple. A member uploads an image of a snake they want identified, and within minutes an expert administrator responds. One unbreakable rule of the pages is that users have to keep their guesses to themselves. Only IDs made with certainty are allowed. For Pyle, this rule is so crucial that he once muted his own daughter for guessing. It can be a matter of safety, especially if someone says a snake is nonvenomous when it isn't.
Admins may be snake experts, like Pyle, or amateur “snake nerds.” Jon Farris, 38, a quality-control manager in Waco, Tex., helps to oversee the Central Texas Snake ID group. His knowledge of snakes is all self-taught—“I've always liked them,” he says—and after a few years of establishing his bona fides with accurate IDs on the boards, he eventually became an administrator. He spends a lot of time helping panicked newcomers, who tend to think every snake they come across is a cottonmouth that they need to kill. Usually it's a case of mistaken identity, and what they have instead is one of the nonvenomous water snakes. The distinction, long-term members of these groups can tell you, is that a diamondback water snake, or DBWS (Nerodia rhombifer, nonvenomous) in their parlance, has vertical lines on the upper jaw and close-set eyes, giving it an appearance that superfans lovingly describe as “goofy.” Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus, venomous), in contrast, have hooded eyes on the sides of their heads and no vertical upper jaw lines. They definitely do not look “goofy.”
As members become more familiar with the snakes in their area through participation in the ID groups, they find themselves better able to respond appropriately when they discover one at home. International flight attendant Sheryl Guth, 62, had four snake encounters in a single day that all had positive outcomes thanks to the North Texas group. Had she not joined it four years earlier, the final encounter of that snakeful day, with a rat snake wrapped around her door handle, would probably have ended poorly for the snake. “The movement was what caught my eye, but I was able to ID it based on what I've learned from being on that page,” she recalls. “The rest of the family was freaking out, and I was like no, no, no, he's okay, probably going up to that bird nest over the door and get the eggs and go on its way.”
The education Guth has gained from the identification page also got her through the time she found a snake in her bathroom. “He was kind of a grumpy snake, and everybody was going, ‘Omigod, omigod, it's a water moccasin, kill it!’” she recollects. A water moccasin (another name for a cottonmouth) would be cause for concern, but she knew from the page to check for the vertical bars on the upper jaw—a feature of the nonvenomous plain-bellied water snake as well as of the DBWS—and there they were. Instead of killing the snake, they used a broom to usher it outdoors.
Converts to snake conservation proselytize family, friends and neighbors hardened against the animals, talking them into showing mercy to a snake until they can get an ID. Betsy Patel, 39, lives right outside of Denton in North Texas. One day she'd sent a relative a picture of a rough earth snake inside her home. The relative said, “Oh, that's a good one, keep it in the house” and referred her to the snake ID group. Although Patel decided against keeping the tiny, nonvenomous visitor indoors—“we shoeboxed him and put him in the yard”—she in turn has urged other family and friends to join the group.
As a family, the Patels have banded together to let other snakes live, too: a garter snake seen in a garden was left undisturbed; a rat snake spotted in a water barrel—one of many unexpected places where this adventuresome species turns up—was simply netted out. Even at a friend's pool party, when one of the kids found a garter snake, the initial freak-out turned to friendliness. “A boy reached in and said, ‘Oh, I love these,’ and they all got to pet it,” Patel recalls. One family, four snake lives saved.
Sometimes, though, a snake submitted to a group for identification is venomous or injured and warrants professional intervention. A benefit of belonging to a hyperlocal snake-identification group is that members may be able to find a nearby expert who can relocate a problematic snake or take it to a local rehabilitation center, services some page administrators themselves offer. Farris says he's been doing local relocations for free for a couple of years, mostly rattlesnakes and copperheads. On more than one occasion he's found himself under a house or a trailer in the wee hours of darkness tracking down a copperhead or rattler that needs to be moved. “I put my money where my mouth is there,” he says about following his mission to help on the ground if someone has a snake in their yard.
Exactly how big an impact these social media outreach efforts are having on snake populations is unclear. According to Texas's state herpetologist, Paul Crump, counting snakes is tough because they are secretive animals. He has little doubt, though, that these educational groups are beneficial and have “saved a number of snakes from meeting an untimely end.” A look at activity on the Central Texas Snake ID page gives a single-day snapshot of how snakes fare among converts. As December 31 turned over to the new year, 14 people posted snake pictures, representing sightings from throughout the heart of Texas. Of these snakes, two were venomous—one copperhead and one cottonmouth. Six of the 12 nonvenomous animals were rat snakes, including one wrapped hoselike around an actual water hose and another actively investigating a rocking chair on a front porch, alive and slithering. Only one of the 14 ended up dead, a DBWS killed by a group member's neighbor, who was convinced it was a copperhead and now knows better.
From Phobic to Fascinated
It's not just snakes that benefit from these groups. Some of the most fanatical snake enthusiasts often start out, like Baker did, as the most fearful, Pyle says. They are part of a large club of people who are afraid of snakes. Indeed, studies suggest that snakes are among the most commonly feared animals.
Researchers have long sought to understand the roots of this aversion, theorizing that primates might have evolved an innate fear in response to being preyed on by constrictorlike snakes. Human infants do pay special attention to images of snakes and snakelike movements, though without necessarily being scared. It may be that culture turns an inborn human ability to detect snakes into a fear.
If the fear is learned, perhaps it can be unlearned. “I've felt that fear and fascination are kind of tied together in the human psyche, kind of the same thing,” Pyle says based on his experiences with people who are scared of snakes. “If you put the knowledge there, that turns fear into fascination.” Yusuf Danawala made that switch so distinctly after joining the North Texas group that even his dreams changed. A neighbor directed him to the page after a rat snake turned up on Danawala's doorstep and freaked him out, a common reaction to rat snakes, which can reach lengths of 10 feet. Danawala began visiting the page every day and testing his identification skills. “It turns into a game: Can I identify it myself?” says Danawala, 42, a cybersecurity sales engineer in the North Dallas area.
Snake ID became therapy for him. “You're scrolling page after page of snake pictures, getting used to seeing them, getting desensitization and knowledge.” Before he engaged with the group, “I would dream about a snake attacking me, or I am running away from it,” he says. But now in his dreams, he'll be stepping over a snake and think, “Oh, that's a rat snake or that's a coral” and just walk away. Now he's even a fan of a slender, lime-colored species, the rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus, nonvenomous). “They have this adorable smile on their face,” he says.
Allison Hollier, 56, a geographic information systems analyst in Burleson, Tex., had nightmares every night for the six weeks that a six-foot broad-banded water snake (Nerodia fasciata, nonvenomous) occupied her koi pond before she could have it relocated. Then she joined the North Texas group at a friend's suggestion, and her snake dreams became “nonexistent,” she says. The desensitization and understanding she gained by looking at the page every day “does work,” she says. “I'm living proof.”
Her words echo what psychologist Andrs Norbert Zsid of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Pcs in Hungary has found in his studies of snake fears. “The exposure in such groups has two key factors: habituation and knowledge,” he says. Group members can encounter the object of their fear while being in control of the encounter, he explains, which is important in exposure therapy.
“The anxiety and fear the person feels slowly subside; the person gets used to the object. This is what we call habituation,” Zsid says. “People in such groups can learn a lot about snakes and various species, and that knowledge in itself could also help lower the fear.” The familiarity inoculates them against the fear, which may then become fascination.
Adults who show fascination instead of fear may be creating a generation habituated to snakes. Patel and her daughter, Eleanor, who is eight, scroll through the North Texas group a few times a week to try to ID the animals. Eleanor's favorite is the western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox, venomous) because “they have a really cool pattern.” What would she do if she encountered one in person? “I would go inside,” she says. “I would just leave it alone.”
Lori Pollitt, 61, lives between a nature preserve and a golf course in Collin County, Texas. She says that when the city comes out to do flood cleanup, they call her home “the snake house” because at every visit, they seem to find a snake or two.
At first, she didn't find that appellation very reassuring—“after hearing that, I was ready to sell the house and move out”—but since joining the local Facebook snake group, she's come around. She has a favorite snake on the property, a ribbon snake (Thamnophis saurita, nonvenomous) that she believes she and her family have been seeing around for several years, and she even describes some of the snakes in her yard as “friendly.”
Pollitt's eight-year-old granddaughter, Claire, shares her newfound fascination. The two of them often look through the snake group page “just for fun. We just sit there and scroll.” When asked by e-mail which snake is her favorite, Claire sent back a drawing of a hognose, which snake fans call the “drama noodle” because of its theatrical efforts to appear unapproachable, calling that her favorite “because when you scare it, it looks funny.”
*Editor’s Note (8/19/22): This caption was edited after posting to include additional information about the copperhead shown in the image.