Expert: Steer Clear of Displaced Snakes and Alligators

The Gulf Coast is synonymous with Bayou Country; swampy home to alligators, snakes and other wildlife. With the regional landscape so dramatically altered by Hurricane Katrina, Randy P. Lanctot, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, explains how local animals have been affected, and identifies potential risks to people living and working in the area.

Do alligators and poisonous snakes pose a threat to residents and emergency workers since their habitats have been flooded?

Snakes, alligators and other wildlife are not normally a serious threat to humans in flooding conditions. Abandoned or stranded pets are more likely to pose a threat as they seek a meal after several days with nothing to eat. However, there is a perception in this part of the world by those who fear snakes and gators that getting into any water that is not a swimming pool invites a snake or alligator attack. I heard a survivor today say that he waited until the last minute to exit his flooding home because he was afraid of snakes that might be in the water. He eventually broke a second floor window to get out and was rescued from the roof of his home. So, even if these wild animals aren't a threat, the phobia some people have of them could have kept some from acting prudently to get out of their homes when the water rose and consequently caused their death by drowning as they were unable to escape as the water pinned them on the inside of their attic roofs. I am not aware of such a scenario, but we all know some people who are "scared to death" of snakes. Once the water recedes, there will be incidences of snakes and perhaps a few displaced alligators stranded in and around damaged structures, on streets, etc.

What should a person do if they encounter a wild animal out of its habitat?

Since snakes and alligators are generally afraid of people and will try to avoid us, giving any animal that is encountered a clear exit will usually avoid any injury to either party. In some cases there may be an animal that really does not know where to go to get back to the drainage canal or bayou, lake, swamp or marsh. In such cases that involve alligators, the [wildlife authorities] should be contacted and that agency will make arrangements to remove the animal.

Are there poisonous snakes in the area?

The most likely poisonous snake species that may be encountered is the water moccasin. Mature individuals are dark gray to black in color, short and stumpy in shape, swim on top of the water giving the appearance of floating, and, of course, have a white inside of the mouth. We have several other common species of water snakes, some growing considerably longer than water moccasins, and although they will bite if threatened or provoked, they do not have fangs and are not poisonous. It is possible that some dry land poisonous snakes like copperheads and rattlesnakes could have been displaced by the floodwaters and will end up in the debris, but there are not likely to be many. Again, being careful and observant as citizens return to their property, and allowing for the animal to escape when encountered will avoid problems. A little common sense goes a long way when it comes to living with wildlife.