Saturday, June 11, 2011

On my soapbox for snakes... and safety

In case you haven't seen a preview yet, ABC has a new show that will premiere June 21st called "Combat Hospital." You might be wondering... what does this show have to do with fly fishing and/or nature?

Not much really... at least not as far as I can tell.

They haven't revealed too much in the previews other than the basic concept that seems to be a modern ("War on Terror") version of "China Beach" or maybe a modern dramatic version of M*A*S*H.

So, why have I drawn your attention to it? Well, because the preview alone has already offended my sensibility and demonstrated such ridiculous stupidity... and I happen to like snakes.

Here's the dialogue and action from the preview that annoys me:
Xavier Marks (experienced male combat surgeon): "Don't anybody move." (draws his sidearm and fires at a snake slithering on the operating room floor)
Rebecca Gordon (newbie female combat surgeon): "That wasn't in the manual."
Why do I care? Because this is the kind of media generated garbage that perpetuates fear and idiotic "control" practices such as firing a bullet at a concrete floor in a crowded building. On top of that demonstration of stupidity, the snake that plays the role of an Afghani native serpent is a North American Pine Snake of the genus Pituophis. It's a bit difficult for me to identify it beyond that level because it only appears for about one second, and it is most certainly a captive bred snake supplied by a Hollywood animal provider. It has superficial characteristics of a Louisiana Pine Snake (P. ruthveni) as well as a good ol' Bullsnake (P. catenifer sayi). If I had to guess, it's probably some sort of Pine Snake hybrid.

I find it very interesting that the celebrity snake superficially appears to be a Louisiana Pine Snake (P. ruthveni). Louisiana Pines are one of the most endangered species of snake in the North America, and certainly don't need anybody getting the wrong impression about them. I sincerely hope nobody "learns" any snake I.D. from this show.

This is by no means the first time I've observed this sort of thing in entertainment media. It happens all the time actually. Couldn't they at least find a snake that comes from the appropriate continent? The only movie that I can think of that actually used authentic and geographically accurate snakes (both venomous and non-venomous) during filming was I Dreamed of Africa starring Kim Basinger.

I am fully aware that it would be inappropriate and downright dangerous to throw a McMahon's Desert Viper (Eristicophis macmahoni) on the floor of a TV studio set just for the sake of authenticity, and I wouldn't suggest anybody do so, but is it responsible to use a snake that, if not actually a Louisiana Pine, superficially resembles one of the rarest snakes in the U.S.?

I think not.

But far worse is simply villainizing a snake (just for being a snake) and having a highly educated, seemingly intelligent, character (a surgeon) fire a gun at a concrete floor inside a building which would likely injure someone or worse. Can we say "ricochet"? Unfortunately, a lot of people faced with a similar real life situation would make the same sort of irrational decision.

It reminds me of the police officers trigger happy morons in Oklahoma (2007) that "accidentally" killed the five year old boy (who was fishing with his grandfather) while attempting to shoot a snake in a tree. Based on my knowledge of snakes and what I read when the incident happened, the snake that the officers idiots were shooting at was a harmless Western Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) misidentified as a Rattlesnake.

Why am I so confident that it wasn't a Rattlesnake? First, the snake was in a tree, and Rattlesnakes aren't really known for their arboreal abilities. Rat Snakes, on the other hand, are expert tree climbers and even have special adaptations for climbing. Second, the snake was raiding a birdhouse- Rat Snakes are well known for this predatory behavior while Rattlesnakes don't typically eat birds and especially not their eggs. Rat Snakes become bird nest specialists during the nesting season and will eat hatchlings as well as eggs. Third, see my first and second points.

Even if it was a Rattlesnake (which it wasn't), it should have just been left alone. All snakes, even the venomous species, have their place in nature, and trying to kill snakes is often how people get hurt.

Sadly, the human victim of stupid snake slaughtering behavior isn't always the idiot attempting to kill the snake. Additionally, it's not in the job description of a police officer to wantonly shoot at wildlife. They should have called the proper wildlife officer or animal control to handle the situation... or just left it alone. The two officers involved were charged with manslaughter, but (to my knowledge) never served any time in prison.

When it comes to snakes... just leave them alone. It really is the safest option... and don't try to learn anything about snakes (or how to kill them) from Hollywood? Got it?


  1. Our family lives in the woods and often see snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, we never have had a problem. Just leave them alone. Keep the woods wild!

  2. Your point is well taken Jay. And this from the most snake paranoid person you know. They play an important part in the cycle of life. I do however take exception to the statement that it's not a police officer's job description to wantonly shoot at wildlife. Police officers don't wantonly shoot wildlife. It so happens that periodically they are called upon to intercede when wildlife officers are unavailable. We still expect them to act responsibly but sometimes because of lack of knowledge or training they overstep or make bad decisions. We kill rabid animals, animals that are injured and animals that are or seem to be an immediate threat to people.

  3. Larry, thanks for stopping by and reading a long rant of a post.

    Cofisher, thanks for adding the voice of a seasoned law enforcement officer to the discussion. I'm sorry if anything I wrote was misunderstood. I fully understand that regular police officers (not wildlife officers) are often called upon to intercede in the name of public safety when wildlife and animal control officers are unavailable. I see nothing wrong with this. I just hope that an officer's training isn't forgotten because he's doing an out of the ordinary task.
    I'm not sure how familiar you may have been with this case in OK, but the officer shot at a snake in a tree, in a birdhouse, that was non-venomous, and posing no threat to people. The officer misidentified the snake as a Rattlesnake, and decided at the urging of the property owner who called law enforcement, to shoot at it with a handgun without knowing for sure what was behind his target across the pond. That is what I called "wantonly shoot[ing]." Perhaps I should have used the word "carelessly." Perhaps the officer could have found a shotgun and some bird shot. This officer was charged with manslaughter because he neglected to make an intelligent decision about the use of his firearm. This is definitely not the same as shooting a dog that appears rabid or a bull Elk on a suburban rampage.
    I know police are often called out for snakes and it's a shame that a five year old boy died because the police officer was too afraid to simply remove the snake by hand. He would have without hesitation tackled an angry human that could possibly have killed him (as police officers do everyday), but he was too afraid to grab a snake that could have done little more than scratch him... mostly due to misidentification. I understand that people have fear of snakes, and I don't blame him for not grabbing something he thought could have hurt him. That's certainly not the real issue here, but I do find that part sad.
    The real issue was firearms safety, much like what I saw with the TV character firing a gun at a concrete floor inside a building... an act far more dangerous than any snake, venomous or not.
    Hopefully that clarifies my point a bit. Thanks again for chiming in on behalf of law enforcement. I meant no disrespect for those who do their jobs correctly. They have tough jobs to do, and deserve our support and gratitude.

  4. Thanks Jay. The smart thing to do would have been to leave it alone considering he thought it was a rattler and cleared the area. There is no excuse for irrational behavior, which shooting a firearm certainly was since no one was in immediate danger. A sad situation made worse by a person sworn to protect and serve who should have more common sense.

  5. Jay, I have actually given up on ranting about the stupidity of Hollywood and the inacuracies that they perpetuate. If I had a dime for every time I had to explain to an older person that dinosaurs and people did not walk the planet at the same time.....(thank Raquel Welch). What is worse is that people will take what they see as fact and then they go on to repeat that information as such. All I can do is fix the biological misconceptions as I come across them and sigh!

  6. Kiwi, I'm glad I'm not the only one who is annoyed by Hollywood. Sci-fi is one thing, but stretching the truth is another. I'm also glad to know you're part of the crusade for biological accuracy.

  7. Like Howard - I am petrified of snakes, and am no fan of them. However, they play an intricate part in so many ecosystems. The best modus operandi is to leave them alone and go about your business. In fact, they play a more important role in nature than you do with you fancy gun, mister snake killer.

    Anyhow, I know how passionate you are about snakes, and really give you kudos for getting on your soapbox. Hollywood is dumb - it is shame that so many people don't realize it.