Virginia snake ID “hotline” helps spare harmless snakes

By Julia John

People tend to confuse nonvenomous juvenile black rat snakes, such as this one, with venomous copperheads. ©Rich Perry

A snake identification “hotline” launched by a private wildlife removal business in Virginia has become an overnight sensation, with queries pouring in from around the state and across the country after its initial Facebook post went viral and attracted local media attention.

“We are getting 150 to 200 text messages and pictures all day, all night,” said Rich Perry, owner of the company, Virginia Wildlife Management and Control, based in Chesterfield, Va.

Perry’s business launched the snake identification program in late April to help state residents distinguish between venomous snakes and those that don’t pose a threat. By knowing the difference, Perry hopes, people will spare the harmless ones. Residents can share images of snakes via text message or his company’s Facebook page. Perry reviews the images and determines if the snakes are venomous or not.

Only 5 percent of the photographed reptiles he has seen pose a threat, he said.

Virginia is home to 30 snake species, of which three are poisonous: the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) and timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). To the untrained eye, he said, these snakes can look like innocuous ones. People often confuse copperheads with black rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus) and black racers (Coluber constrictor), he said.

Equipped with years of snake handling experience, knowledge of the animals’ geographic ranges in the state, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries identification booklet and his wife’s help, Perry is working to dispel the confusion. “It turned out to be a tremendous opportunity to save snakes,” he said.

His business also runs a Save Our Snakes program, which aims to educate people about differentiating between snakes.

If you need assistance with identifying a snake, send Perry a picture through the Virginia Wildlife Management and Control.

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

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