The Herald Bulletin

March 16, 2013

Snakes' place

St. Patrick’s expelling creatures from Ireland is celebrated myth

By Abbey Doyle
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — Throughout history, snakes have been associated with all things evil — even as early as Adam and Eve.

“Many people have a fear of snakes instilled in them since the day they were born,” he said Ed Roemer, owner of Night Stalkers, the south side shop that sells exotic animals including as many as 30 snakes.

“So many people are deathly afraid of them.”

And for this St. Patrick’s Day, Roemer recalled the story of the patron saint driving snakes from his home Ireland. In turn, that is why, some speculate, there are no snakes there.

But like so many other stories, this is just a legend.

Scientists don’t believe there were snakes in Ireland for the Christian missionary evangelist to banish.

Yet the story goes that Patrick chased the snakes from the hills of Ireland after they began attacking him during a 40-day fast. But according to Philip Freeman, author of “St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography,” the tale was likely spread by monks as a way to symbolize Patrick driving “the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland” and bringing in a new age as he converted people to Christianity.

National Geographic reports that Ireland is one of only a handful of places worldwide that are snake-free, but St. Patrick had nothing to banish. Instead, it’s because the most recent Ice Age — 10,000 years ago — kept the island too cold for reptiles. The resulting surrounding seas probably have kept snakes from inhabiting the island.

But the legend carries on. And St. Patrick’s Day commemorates the saint’s death.

Snakes belong here

Stephen Thompson, interpretive naturalist at Mounds State Park, said the idea that one person could accomplish such a task is laughable. The idea of eradicating snakes from any singular place is a dangerous one.

“They all have their place in the ecosystem,” said Thompson, who is known as the “snake guy” at Mounds. “If you remove one from the chain, it affects the whole ecosystem. If such a thing did happen, it could effectively change an entire ecosystem. Snakes are food for other animals and act as population control for certain animals.”

Like Roemer, Thompson said a fear of snakes is inherent for some people. And in many cases, he said, that fear comes out of a lack of education.

“Historically, people have done a good job making the snake look bad,” Thompson said. “Even in the Bible the snake is depicted as evil. There are a lot of people who still believe there is truth in that today. But in reality they help us.”

Thompson pointed out that snakes help with population control by going after birds, squirrels, insects, crayfish and insects.

“They help us keep nature in balance,” he said.

Thompson said his part in helping people understand snakes is through a variety of education programs at Mounds. Visitors can get  an up-close view of snakes and a better understanding of the reptiles.

“So many people say, ‘The only good snake is a dead snake,’” he said. “I let them know they are here for a reason, they serve a purpose and aren’t here to hurt or scare us.”

Thompson stressed that none of the snakes in Madison County are venomous. There are some venomous snakes in Indiana — northern species of rattlesnake, copperhead, Eastern timber rattlesnake and a water moccasin. But most of the people bitten by one have likely  antagonized the snake or stepped on it.

“Most of the snakes in Indiana aren’t going to come out and try to bite you,” Thompson said. “They mostly just want to go away from us and keep a distance. When they get cornered, that’s when they become very aggressive.”

The old adage — they are more afraid of you then you are of them — is pretty accurate, Roemer said. Not only has he operated Night Stalkers for nearly 20 years, but Roemer has bred a variety of snakes for decades.

“Each one has their own unique personality,” he said. “Like any animal, you can get attached to them. The myth of them being slimy or wet, it’s not true.”

Snakes make great pets and can be enjoyed if pet owners properly take care of the reptiles, he said.

“They are low maintenance and don’t take a lot of room,” Roemer said. “They really are a lot of fun to play with.”

Both Thompson and Roemer understand that some humans prefer driving snakes from their home garden  — or island or country. But both stressed the importance of just leaving them be if found.

“Just walk away,” Thompson said. “They are here for a reason.”