Are Garter Snakes dangerous? — Andrew’s student essay

Are Garter Snakes Dangerous?

Ophidiophobia, derived from the Greek root “-ophidia,” is the fear of snakes (“Ophio-, …”, n.d). According to Maps101, around fifty percent of people are anxious around snakes, while only about two to three percent of people have an extremely adverse fear of them (“People and Snakes”, 2018). The fear of snakes has existed throughout history. Arne Ӧhman, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute and Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden performed an experiment on the evolutionary fear of snakes and spiders: “’Evolution has equipped mammals with a readiness to easily associate fear to recurrent threats in their evolution,’ said Öhman.

‘Thus, given that fear is activated when a snake is around, they condition fear to the snake much easier than to other stimuli that are around’” (Roach, 2001). As most people know, not all snakes are venomous and can provide a deadly bite (only about seven percent! (“Snakes”, 2019)), but many people may not know that there are many species of snake that are practically harmless. This is where the garter snake comes in.

Garter snakes, of the scientific genus Thamnophis, are usually characterized by “three longitudinal stripes” down their backs, which somewhat resemble garters that were used to hold up socks (Szalay, 2014). These snakes can come in many colors, but are usually a mix of yellow, green, and brown, depending on their region; they can be found throughout America, from Florida to Canada. Most importantly, though, is the fact that, while “some species do possess a mild neurotoxic venom,” they are not dangerous to humans.

Garter snakes feed “mostly on fishes, amphibians, and earthworms” and are preyed on by hawks, crows, foxes, raccoons, among other animals. While they have been known to deliver bites when they feel threatened, a human will only experience minor swelling or itching. Garter snakes, while usually found in the wild, can also be found in captivity.

Garter snake sticking out tongue

Many people have adopted garter snakes as pets; they are active during the day, relatively small, and are easy to hold (Perritano, 2019). The snakes can be kept in a large aquarium, with access to fresh warm water, bedding, and warm rocks; their diet in captivity consists of earthworms, small rodents, and perhaps frogs and toads.

However, under no circumstances should a wild snake be captured as a pet, as it is usually illegal to do so. In handling garter snakes, they usually don’t put up a fit. While they may bite when disturbed, as previously stated, this is on rare occasions. Alternatively, they more commonly may simply trash around or musk, in which they emit a nasty secretion that is composed of a stinky concoction combined with their natural byproducts (Crowe, 2012). In any case, there is no threat posed to humans; rather, humans pose more of a threat to garter snakes.

Eastern Garter Snake isolated on white background

According to Save the Snakes, “12% of assessed snake species are listed as threatened and their populations are in decline” (“Threats”, 2018). While the garter snake does not fall into the threatened category, they can often be the victims of house pets, lawn care, or pest control performed without professional assistance (Myers, 2017). The best way to deal with a snake problem is to be educated. Understanding that most snakes, especially garter snakes, pose no threat to humans, is a very important step in dealing with a situation rationally. Snakes are a very important part of earth’s ecosystem, as they help maintain balances in the food chain; the next time you see a garter snake in the wild, be sure to show your appreciation for its existence by leaving it be or by asking trained professionals for help.

Author: Andrew Freeman

Purdue University


Crowe, Jonathan. (2012, Jun. 1). “Handling.”

Myers, Sheryl. (2017, Mar. 21). “Garter snake: Friend to humans, not so much to insects.” Greensburg Daily News.

“Ophio-, …” (n.d). WordInfo.

“People and Snakes.” (2018, May 4). Maps101.

Perritano, John. (2019, Jun. 17). “The Harmless Garter Snake is Your Garden’s Best Friend.” How Stuff Works. snakes.htm#:~:text=Garters%20make%20good%20pets%2C%20mainly,could%20be%20against%20the%20law.

Roach, John. (2001, Oct. 4). “Fear of Snakes, Spiders Rooted in Evolution, Study Finds.” National Geographic.

“Snakes.” (2019, Jan. 25). National Geographic.

Szalay, Jessie. (2014, Dec. 11). “Garter Snake Facts.” Live Science. ]

“Threats.” (2018, Mar. 3). Save the Snakes.

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