In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Tarrant County newsmakers, former president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society Mark Pyle shares his knowledge about regional snakes and the massive growth of his “What kind of snake is this? North Texas Education Group” Facebook group, which has attracted more than 171,000 members since Pyle created it in 2013.
He shares tips on how to handle snakes in Texas as they emerge from their dens between March and October. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Haley Samsel: Why don’t we start off with your background? How did you get interested in this field?
Mark Pyle: It started when I was a kid and playing around with outdoor stuff being in southwest Pennsylvania, where I grew up … Eventually I started asking more and more questions and researching and realizing that a lot of stuff people are saying isn’t real. And then you go to college. It kind of faded away while we were in college and getting done with college, and then I was recommended to the North Texas Herpetological Society. I got involved in that and then became the education director pretty quickly, because you’re hanging out with people that know stuff and you’re learning from them.
I got a (North Texas) field guide and started studying like crazy, and going out in the field and finding as much (about snakes) as I possibly could … You just start realizing there are so many myths out there, and trying to dispel myths. Then Facebook comes around, and you have the buy-sell-trade groups, like in Hood County that I was in. People were posting pictures of snakes, and everything was misidentified. All the myths were coming out, but I had already done a lot of research, so that’s where I kind of got started.
Samsel: Tell me about how the Facebook group came together.
Pyle: Once I started posting in these Facebook groups, everybody thinks I’m an idiot and don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve been around education long enough to realize that you don’t necessarily just tell people things. You have to be able to prove what you’re saying. Every time that I would make a statement or break a myth, I would automatically associate that with some type of proof – a video, a photograph, or whatever I could find.
Eventually, somebody asked me: Mark, well, what’s your background? This was after like a year of doing this. So I just simply stated all the stuff I’ve done and who I was, and that was a turning point. All of a sudden, people started to tag me and asked me questions about things and took me more seriously. That’s when I decided that trying to do this in an open forum, like on a buy-sell-trade page on Facebook, is not really the place to do this, so I created my own Facebook group.
I had my finger on the “create” button going: Do I really want to do this? I’m serious, it was like a nuclear button. I was about ready to hit and I’m going: Is this a good idea? Because I’m about ready to put a bunch of people that hate snakes, bring them into a group with me, right there, right now, and try to defend myself.
I went ahead and started it with the knowledge: Hey, if I want to hit the “delete” button, it will all go away and that didn’t work and move on. But what ended up happening is people started joining it pretty quickly and started growing, and now it’s up to about 170,000 people in the group.
Samsel: What can you share about your experiences in preventing snakes from entering homes or hanging out on properties?
Pyle: You’re trying to eliminate hiding spots, so keep all your bushes and things around the house all trimmed up so they can’t hide – keep all the leaves all cleaned up. Don’t leave things lying around that they can crawl under and hide under. That’s important. Remove any water sources that you can and remove food sources. If you have a rodent problem, you need to control that. Those are just things like you can do to actually minimize the amount of snakes that are hanging around your house.
You’re never going to get rid of all snakes on your property, because things can always just kind of cruise through. A lot of times your problems aren’t necessarily on your property. If you’ve got a neighbor who has a really messy property or a heavily wooded area that comes right up against your fence, iIf your house is near that fence line, you’re going to have animals coming across, and there’s not much you can do to stop that.
Samsel: Is there a peak season for snakes appearing in people’s yards or properties?
Pyle: Right now, we are at the peak of everything. The temperatures are getting pretty high during the day, and that’s keeping some of the activity down a little bit and moves it toward the morning and evening, where it’s a little bit cooler. But this time of year, typically somewhere around the middle of April to about the end of June, which I would say would be a really more of an estimated time where things are going to be really active.
That’s all dependent on a little bit of the weather, too. So if it was really raining, everything’s soaked and there is flooding out, that changes their patterns a little bit. If it’s really cold, not warming up for a long time, that could shift the patterns. Or even like right now, it’s getting really hot, so the peak may have been a little bit earlier because of the heat we’re having. It’s extremely dry, and that’s not helping with the snake activity.
But typically what we find is people run into snakes when it’s nice for people to be outside. And it’s typically the same weather conditions that snakes like to be hanging out in.
Samsel: What’s your advice for handling that issue of snakes appearing in the evening time?
Pyle: At this time of year, you tell people to be really careful when they go outside. They need to wear shoes and use a flashlight, look where they’re going and check if things are moving around, especially in areas where there’s a lot of people wandering in the yard or sprinklers. That’ll bring in some wildlife.
You need protection on your feet. What shoes can do is actually provide not only a physical barrier, but even so the snake can usually bite through the shoe if it hits you really good and in the right spot. What it does is it puts a heat barrier between your foot and the outside of the shoe.
Almost all the snakes here that are venomous … have small little holes on the side of their face that they use to see heat so they can see your hot foot. They’re looking for hot mammals they eat, so they see this big hot foot coming down. They know it’s alive and it’s you, and then they can bite you. If you have a shoe on, it can block some of that thermal imaging.
Samsel: Is there anything left that you’d want to accomplish as far as educating people? Or do you think you’ve hit “peak education” and done your part?
Pyle: The majority of people out there still don’t have any education whatsoever when it comes to snakes, so I think I’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg. I’m hoping that things have gotten big enough because of my group and all the other groups out there, where everybody’s doing a really, really great job of educating people.
The big hurdle still is when it comes to venomous snakes, as it’s totally understandable, you got something that could potentially injure you severely – you, your family, your pets and it’s possible it could kill you. Cases are rare, really. There’s only five or six people who die (from venomous snake bites) every year throughout the United States.
I think that’s the next step – of educating people about venomous snakes. Overall, the message is, don’t kill them and try to relocate them. We’re still struggling with that, and I think we did a really good job of non-venomous snakes. But that’s kind of low-hanging fruit. You’ve got the eastern hognose … and that’s an easy one for people to fall in love with, because it’s not really harmful to you at all. But if you’ve got a western diamondback rattlesnake that’s five foot long looking at you, that’s a totally different animal.
We really do need to start figuring out how to deal with it in general, and I don’t know if it’s realistic to have people relocating them on their own. I don’t think that’s a good plan, but we’ve got to come up with a better way.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.