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Teachers, kids on alert for rattlesnakes

Several snakes, some of them pygmy rattlesnakes, have been seen on Centennial Elementary School grounds.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published September 27, 2003

DADE CITY - Sure, pioneers are known for braving frontiers and confronting unexpected threats along the way. But the Centennial Elementary Pioneers didn't bargain for this.

Six to eight snakes have been killed on school property since class started, principal Chick Rine said, and most of the slithering creatures they've seen they've identified as venomous pygmy rattlesnakes.

"I tried to be calm for the kids' sake, but I was really nervous," said teacher Jill Smith, who had the dubious distinction of being the only teacher at the 700-student school to encounter one of the pencil-length reptiles in her own classroom.

The special education instructor sidled over to a student a few weeks ago after she saw the child freeze silently before a bookshelf, staring straight ahead, the book he was about to put away still in his hands.

Stretched out on the low-lying wooden shelving just near an outside door was a grey-black, skinny, pygmy rattler, she said.

"The poor snake was probably scared to death," Rine said.

The snakes haven't hurt anyone, but faculty and students know to be on the lookout. The most recent snake encounter took place last week, Rine said, when students noticed one outside and told their teacher.

After about five were seen outdoors in one week, there isn't a teacher in the school who hasn't studied up on pygmy rattlers and rat snakes. By the time Smith spied her scaly visitor, Rine had already circulated a snake-warning memo, complete with photos.

Rine and Smith said the snake encounters have affected the Pioneers' behavior:

Students know not to dive into shrubbery in search of balls without stopping first and looking around. Grass is kept short. Teachers have cleared out potential nooks and crannies, and they scan their rooms when they enter. And, convinced Smith's snake came in through a gap at the bottom of her door, maintenance workers have examined every outside entrance, replacing old door sweeps.

"The place is not crawling with snakes," said Bruce Cook, general manager of Cook's Termite and Pest Control Inc. based in Brooksville. Cook has scoured the campus for nesting spots, but found none.

He said he's been out to the school twice since the snake-spottings began, spreading Snake-A-Way - a commercial granular repellent - around the perimeter of the campus to help drive the intruders away. And he planned a third trip Friday afternoon.

Snake expert Bruce Means of the Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy at Florida State University said snake sightings are common this time of year. He was skeptical of the usefulness of commercial repellents.

Abundant rain, construction and seasonal snake hatchings all are reasons people might come in contact with them more frequently, he said.

Centennial is flanked on two sides by woods that recently were cleared. Also, a new fire station was just built next door to the school.

"This is Florida," Cook said. "Snakes are part of our environment."

In August, two Hillsborough County people suffered pygmy rattler snake bites while on school grounds.

Means cautioned that pygmy rattlers can be difficult to identify.

They are generally light to dark gray with dark blotches and have a reddish-brown stripe down their backs. Their rattlers are tiny and are generally no louder than a bee's buzz. They usually grow no longer than 24 inches and live around flatwood forests, lakes and ponds.

- Rebecca Catalanello covers education for Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanello@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 27, 2003, 02:09:25]


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