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Snakes scaring, sharing habitat

Herpetologists say no particular mulch is to blame for recent encounters. Snakes like cosying up in any kind of pile.

Published February 12, 2006

ARBOR GREENE - One person showed up at a homeowners meeting with a dead snake in a jar. Another fired gunshots at the slithering reptiles in his back yard. Others rattle their bushes before attempting any lawn work.

Residents in the Estuary are battling it out with snakes in their neighborhood, where the often poisonous guests like to cool off inside garages, nap in porches and nest in yards.

It's no surprise to see wildlife in New Tampa, built on miles and miles of forests and among heavily wooded and protected preserves.

But perhaps the biggest attraction for the snakes was put there by man: pine bark wood chips.

The medium-sized chunks of pine bark, piled around trunks and palm trees and crape myrtles to decorate landscaping, appears to be prime real estate for snakes.

They like to hang out there, often scattering at the sound of lawn mowers and rakes.

On Thursday, a landscaper was bitten by a pygmy rattlesnake in Hunter's Green as he pulled weeds. Angel Gonzalez was rushed to the hospital for treatment.

Frank Trovato, an Arbor Greene HOA board member who lives in the Estuary, said he encounters about one snake a month.

"And they're big, too," he said. "You have to be careful if you walk out the front door. They seem to like the landscaping in the front."

Trovato once found a snake napping in his garage by the door to his house.

"I just leave them alone," he said. "You jump on the ground, ruffle the bushes, then they run off."

They're usually harmless black racers, but sometimes poisonous rattlesnakes and water moccasins. Trovato said he carries an ax to fight those off.

Several months ago, a neighbor fired at water moccasins in his back yard near the pond. The police came out to politely tell him that firing guns is prohibited within city limits.

Although, shooting at a deadly snake may qualify as self-defense, said Tampa Police Maj. Sophia Teague.

"If I walked up to that poisonous of a snake, I would take appropriate action also," she said. "They are deadly. I have had to do that before with rattlesnakes."

Teague used to take her bloodhound Jimbo to track in New Tampa, where they'd run into water moccasins and rattlers.

"There's all sorts of terrain in New Tampa," said Teague, who oversees the New Tampa area for the Police Department. "I've seen some good-sized water moccasins in the waters. You have to look at years ago, what New Tampa was. There's still deer and hawk in those areas."

It doesn't help that the wood chips are everywhere, piled on every lawn and throughout the 600 acres of planned development. There are also 91 acres of lake and 105 acres of conservation area.

In 1987, a state environmental restriction was placed on developers of adjacent Hunter's Green, then applied to Arbor Greene, specifying the type of mulch that could be used.

The state order was meant to protect the environment.

"It would be the only mulch considered because of its organic breakdown," said property manager Debra Cappelli.

A local herpetologist said it doesn't matter what type of mulch is used - snakes in general just like piles.

"They're looking for a place to hide because they're so cold," said Mary McCarthy, a reptile and aquatics keeper at Lowry Park Zoo. "It could be a pile of anything."

Rodents and other food sources for snakes also tend to hang around these piles, thus attracting the reptiles.

There's not much to fear, McCarthy said.

"That's just part of the culture, something we've grown up with," she said. "It's just what Jaws did for sharks. It's not necessarily a deserved reputation."

McCarthy said snakes look for piles to warm themselves and for dark spaces to rest.

They tend to appear more after big climate shifts.

"Lots of sudden changes in the weather brings snakes out," she said. "They've lost their shelter and need a new one."

McCarthy said it's very unusual for people to die from a venomous snake bite.

Nationally, 7,000 venomous snakebites are reported annually, according to the Palm Beach Herpetological Society. Of those, about 15 end in death.

McCarthy suggest residents deal with snakes as they would a spider.

"Chances are, they are going to want to stay away from you," she said. "Just walk away. They give you all kinds of tricks to tell what's venomous, what's not. People still get snakes confused. Even the nicest puppy dog or the cutest hamster will bite. The best thing to do is walk away and leave it alone."

And, she said, keep the area around the house neat and tidy.

"Keep dark spaces, nooks and crannies down to a minimum," she said. "If you're going to reach into a dark space, poke a stick in there first. Just be careful and be aware."

The residents of Arbor Greene, meanwhile, are left to learn to co-exist.

"It's nature," Trovato said. "They were here before we moved in. You can't make the place sterile."

[Last modified February 11, 2006, 10:43:05]

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