According to legend, St. Patrick (c387-461 C E), whose Feast Day is March 17, gallantly drove all the snakes out of Ireland. The truth of the matter is that except for the common lizard, there have been no snakes or land reptiles in Ireland since the end of the last Ice Age (Midlandian) about 13000 BCE., so St. Patrick arrived much too late. Nevertheless, St. Patrick’s Day is a perfect time to examine why an aversion to snakes, including non-venomous ones, does seem to be embedded in our collective subconscious.
One snake whose fate I have come to care about is the small and gentle Saint Lucia Racer the world’s rarest known “Serpente”. It was declared extinct in 1936, but sightings since 1973 indicate that as few as 18 but no more than 100 individuals do still exist. Santa Lucia’s conservationists are making efforts to improve this endangered snake’s survivability through a predator-free environment and public awareness.
About 50 of the approximately 2,500 species of snake roaming the world are endangered, and 85 per cent of all snakes are relatively harmless to humans. Some of that 85 per cent, like most wild creatures, may bite, but their saliva isn’t venomous.
Each specie consists of 11-13 families. Only the non-venomous Colubridae/Natricidae blended family has made a home in Nova Scotia. The most ubiquitous Colubridae here are Eastern Smooth Green Snakes (grass snakes). Most of us have likely seen Maritime Garter Snakes as well, though the largest population of them is on George’s Island. The Northern Ribbon Snake, listed as an endangered population here and elsewhere, appears similar to the garter snake and is partial to southwestern NS. The nocturnal Northern Redbelly occupies all regions of the province, but is seldom seen. The Northern Ring Snake is most prevalent in the southwestern and northeastern mainland, Big Tancook Island and northern Cape Breton.
The snakes will soon be emerging from their winter hidey-holes to breed and to eat the creatures that destroy our crops. Their familiar hissing sounds just might be the animals’ timely comments on the ophidiophobia allegedly bequeathed to us by Old Ireland’s good St. Pat.
Jacqueline Warlow, a retired educator, lives in Dartmouth. Mother of three and grandmother of six, she is a freelance writer and a “People With Tales” storyteller.