Randell Frostig’s dogs noticed the intruder first.
“They were staring at something,” Frostig remembers. “They were just trying to figure it out.”
When Frostig checked around the fence behind his Buckhead home to see what had drawn his dogs’ attention, he was surprised to discover that a snake, a venomous copperhead, had slithered into his yard. “We were kind of startled,” he said. “We didn’t know what to do.”
Frostig grabbed his iPhone and shot a photo while he debated what to do next. He didn’t want to kill the snake, he said, but he didn’t want it around. “I hate snakes,” he said as he recalled his copperhead confrontation a few weeks later.
Luckily, the snake quickly moved on, heading back under the fence toward a neighbor’s yard. Frostig warned his neighbor about the snake, which got away.
Spotting a venomous snake in the backyard may come as a surprise, but finding them in metro Atlanta suburbs shouldn’t. Snake sightings are common in the Reporter Newspapers communities of Buckhead, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and Brookhaven, just as they are across Georgia.
The warm days of spring and summer set snakes on the move, which means the scaly and sometimes scary reptiles are slithering through backyards, public parks and just about anywhere else you might want to be as the daily temperature rises.
The Dunwoody Nature Center gets a couple of calls a week from homeowners who encounter unwanted snakes, executive director Alan Mothner said. City officials say they have gotten calls about snakes in city parks and residents’ backyards.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources snake expert John Jensen says he gets 20 calls or emails a week and estimates the department could get as many as 50 a week altogether asking what to do about snakes. And Matthew Field, who owns All Wildlife Control in Roswell and removes snakes when homeowners call for help, said he gets a few calls a day.
Steve Wallace was unsure just what to do when, one Saturday in late May, he found a two-foot-long copperhead in his backyard in Dunwoody. He pinned the animal with a hoe, but because the snake was on soft ground, Wallace couldn’t manage to kill it at first. His wife called 911. “I thought they’d come out and shoot it,” he said.
But police usually don’t make snake calls. Wallace was referred to DNR, but the agency’s offices were closed for the weekend. He contacted wildlife removal expert Field, who headed to Dunwoody to deal with the snake. But by the time Field arrived at Wallace’s home, Wallace had managed to kill the copperhead with the hoe.
Wallace emailed Dunwoody city officials suggesting they publicize what homeowners should do upon confronting a snake. “After our copperhead experience this weekend, talking with friends, neighbors, folks at Publix, etc., we’re finding out how common these dangerous snakes are here,” he said. “With a lot of people relocating here from the north, a little Dunwoody, Georgia, wildlife education for them, and their families, and for their pets would be a good thing.”
In response, city officials in June posted a statement on the city website titled simply “Snakes in Dunwoody.” It tells homeowners to watch out for snakes around piles of brush or firewood and near crawl spaces beneath homes, and to call a private wildlife removal expert to deal with venomous snakes.
DNR officials advise homeowners to ignore most snakes. “My recommendation is to leave it alone,” Jensen said.
The first thing to do is to try to identify the snake, Jensen said. Suburban backyards and forests contain many types of snakes, including rat snakes, water snakes, garter snakes and others. They kill rodents and keep to themselves, he said. “There’s no reason to fear a non-venomous snake any more than a songbird,” he said.
Is it OK to kill one? “All non-venomous snakes are protected by state law. There’s no reason to kill them anyway. They’re completely harmless…” Jensen said. Venomous snakes are a different story. “If it’s a venomous snake, you have the legal right [to kill it]. But the safest thing is to leave it alone.”
A person trying to kill a copperhead is as likely to hurt himself or herself as the snake. And backing a snake into a corner could convince it to strike to defend itself, Jensen said. “Snakes won’t come after you,” he said. “They don’t want to use their venom in defense. The safest thing is to just walk around them and leave them alone.”
Some homeowners who encounter venomous snakes find it difficult to walk away – even after the snake is long gone. They see their backyards in a different way.
“Now when I go out into my backyard, I can’t help but think it’s coming back, or there’s another one,” Frostig said. “You see it once and that’s all it takes.”
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources suggests homeowners first try and identify a snake before trying to kill it. It is legal to kill venomous snakes, but illegal to kill most non-venomous ones, the DNR says. Here is a website DNR officials say should help identify snakes: http://georgiawildlife.com/node/497
DNR’s advice to homeowners on what to do when you see a snake in your yard:
•Never attempt to handle any kind of snake. If you are unsure of the snake’s identification, keep your distance.
•A venomous snake will most often have a triangular-shaped head as well as elliptical pupils similar to cats’ eyes, rather than round ones.
•Snakes are important predators that feed on rodents, insects and even other snakes. There is no need to fear a snake in your yard. Simply give them the space they need.
•Despite the relatively low level of danger posed by venomous snakes, many people consider their fear justification for killing snakes. In Georgia it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail to possess or kill many nongame wildlife species, including non-venomous snakes (O.C.G.A. §27-1-28).
Source: Georgia Department of Natural Resources