Two Men and a Moccasin

From the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge…

The other day I watched two men paddling a canoe toward the small, sandy landing area near the Visitor Center.  They were about 30 feet from shore when one of the men yelled, “There’s a moccasin in the water,” and pointed toward the beach.

Sure enough, a Moccasin was swimming along the edge of the bay – its head held high out of the water.  The Moccasin swam past the beach, a couple of boat-lengths in front of the men, and settled into a stand of reeds some 20 yards away.

(Herpetological Clarification:  Moccasin, aka Water Moccasin, is more properly identified as the Eastern Cottonmouth.  Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus.  I’ve just always called them Moccasins, or Mocs.  Or A p p’s in my field notes.)

The men appeared quite interested in the Moccasin.  One of the gentlemen kept an eye on the reeds, while the other dragged the canoe onto the grass near their car.  Then each man grabbed a paddle and walked down along the edge of the bay until they found the Moccasin curled up quietly in the reeds – and began beating it to death with the paddles.

Can someone please explain that behavior to me?

At no time did the Moccasin pose any threat to the men, or to the canoe – or to anyone else for that matter.  The Moccasin was just taking a leisurely swim in the late afternoon sun. In its natural habitat.  In a Wildlife Refuge.

Now, I could possibly understand the behavior of the gentlemen if, for example, they had been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate for five and a half hours and some intoxicated idiot suddenly cut them off.  It would almost make sense – in some twisted, barbaric fashion – for the gentlemen to stop their car, pop the trunk, grab a couple of paddles – or tire irons – and beat the offending motorist to death.  Not that anyone deserves such a beating – and certainly not to death, but it seems to me that the obnoxious motorist was significantly more at fault than the Moccasin – and quite possibly much more dangerous.

Why then attack an innocent creature?  Was it because the creature just happened to be a snake???

Heck, used-car salesmen and politicians are snakes – but we don’t go around beating them to death.  At least not as often as we should – or as often as they probably deserve.  Just kidding!  My sincere apologies to any politicians or used-car salesmen who happen to be reading this.  No offense, I was just trying to illustrate a point.  (Oh, and by the way, Mr. Slick-Talker, that old Chevy Nova you sold my wife – the one that you said was such a “great deal”… Well, Sir, it’s a piece of junk. But I’m sure you already knew that.)

Is the only good snake, a dead snake?  Or the only good Moccasin, a dead Moccasin?  Are we subscribing to the same outdated, misguided agenda as those who believed that the only good Indian was a dead Indian – or the only good Christian, was a dead Christian?  Or to the same short-sighted environmental practices that led to the demise of so many animal species, and to the near extinction of the Whale, the Buffalo, the Wolf and the Tiger.

Not to sound too much like a buffalo-hugger, I also commit my fair share of wildlife slaughter.  Deer Flies and Mosquitoes, for instance.  I kill them by the hundreds and the thousands without a second’s thought or hesitation.  And absolutely without remorse. Why?  Because the nasty, little insects are attacking ME.  Then again, if a Mosquito happened to fly across the bow of my boat some 30 feet away, chances are pretty good that I would not hunt it down and beat it to death with a paddle.

A couple of Moccasin myths…

Moccasins don’t “attack” people.   Nor do they “chase” people.

I’ve been around my fair share of Moccasins and, while Moccasins can be a little stubborn and hard-headed (like my wife),  I have never been chased or attacked, or even felt threatened in their presence.   I have, however, been chased and threatened by my wife.  (Just kidding, honey.  I promise to delete that before this is posted. )

More on Moccasin behavior in another post.

Speaking of animal attacks, I did a little research.  Did you know that, on average, approximately 4.5 million people in the U.S. are attacked by dogs every year?  Yes, you read that correctly… four point five MILLION.  By dogs!  And that those attacks result in an average of 21 deaths per year.

Do you know the average number of deaths resulting from snake bites per year?  Six. That’s right, 6.

Over three times as many people die from dog attacks than snake attacks in the U.S. every single year.  And these guys were going to beat a snake to death with their paddles.

Statistically speaking, shouldn’t they be out paddling poodles to death?  Or bees, for that matter?  Over 50 people die each year in the U.S. from bee stings.

Gentleman, drop the paddles and grab your fly swatters.

One more statistic and then I’m done.  In 2010, 211 children in the United States were killed by drunk drivers.  Two hundred and eleven.  CHILDREN.  That’s 35 times more children alone, than the total number of deaths from snake bite.  And those cowboys want to beat a Moccasin to death.   Gentlemen, if you really have an urge to beat something, please refer to the preceeding statistic.  I just might have a suggestion for you.

In case you were wondering, I did intervene and stopped the men from killing the snake.  I just wish I had those statistics to back me up at the time.  Instead, I politely and respectfully asked the gentlemen to please leave the snake alone.  In 25 explicatives or less.

By the way, I understand it is illegal to deliberately kill any native wildlife in the State of Virginia without a permit. (Except nuisance species.) Can anyone cite that specific statute?

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Research links:

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A week or so before the incident described above, I ran into one of the Refuge regulars – a professional photographer and friend to the wildlife – who reported finding a Moccasin under a rock near one of the ponds.

In and of itself, that statement doesn’t sound too far-fetched – finding a snake under a rock.  Unless you consider there are few, if any, naturally occurring rocks in the refuge; and there are no rocks of any kind around that particular pond. The pond is surrounded entirely by reeds and brush. The nearest rocks are part of the breakwater about 20 meters away. (Large breakwater-type rocks – very, very heavy.)

Apparently, some ______ (fill in the blank) saw the Moccasin curled up on the edge of the pond, went over to the breakwater, picked out a suitable rock and dropped it on the snake.  Nice.

The photographer told me: “I took some pictures of the Moccasin earlier in the morning.  Everything was fine.  I even shared the sighting with some refuge visitors who happened by.  Then I hiked down the Bay Trail. When I came back about an hour later, someone had dropped the rock on it.  I managed to nudge the rock with my snake hook – enough so the Moccasin could crawl out and slide into the water.  Who would do such a thing and why?”

Good question!

Fortunately, the ground around the pond is soft and somewhat forgiving, and may have helped cushion some of the rock’s impact; which is why the Moccasin was still alive when the photographer returned.  Unfortunately, the snake probably suffered many internal injuries.  Chances are it will not survive.  (Imagine dropping a large rock on a turtle. Or on something without a hard, protective shell – like a bunny rabbit. Or a snake.)

Does anyone see a pattern developing here???  Come on folks, this is a wildlife Refuge!!!

If you should see anyone interfering with, or harming the wildlife – any of the wildlife, please report it to a Ranger immediately.

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2 Responses to Two Men and a Moccasin

  1. I have been chased out of an area by a moccasin and they are actually territorial, Mr. fancy statistic reader and blogger. Perhaps, you my friend, have never really encountered a moccasin, it was probably just a common water snake. Although, I wouldn’t beat the snake to death.

    • Thank you for the comment. And thank you for not wanting to beat a snake to death.

      If you have the opportunity, please send some more information about the Moccasin that chased you. I am very interested in Moccasin behavior and this is an excellent opportunity to learn from someone with firsthand experience. Anything you can relate would be helpful. The location; the season; time of day; the weather conditions; how you happened upon the Moccasin; the approximate size of the snake; how far it chased you, etc. (All the way back to your car?) Oh, and what caused the Moccasin to break off the chase? Distance? Territorial limit? Line of sight? I hope I’m not asking asking too many questions.

      For some reason, the Moccasins I observe seem to be gentler and friendlier than those you describe. I wonder if this is due to a difference in the habitat and/or the environmental conditions at the locations and times of the sightings. (Hence the questions regarding your encounter.) Or maybe it depends on the personality of the individual snake. Of course, as you mentioned, I could be mistaking Moccasins for Water Snakes. There are some pictures of the snakes I observe in Gallery A on this site. Can you help identify them?

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