VIDEO: 'Snake Man' helps save Callawassie and Spring Island slitherers

cconley@islandpacket.comMarch 14, 2013 

By the early 2000s, there were hundreds of tiny feet scurrying all over Callawassie Island.

Residents noticed a sharp increase in the number of rats, voles and other varmints in backyards and around their bird feeders.

And why wouldn't these critters have the run of the place? Snakes, a natural predator, had been killed in great numbers for years by maintenance workers and residents.

"They would kill anything that crawled before we started educating them," Callawassie's Dave Harris says. "Mostly, it was from not knowing the value of the animal itself."

In 2002, Harris decided to do more than simply watch the serpent slaughter continue. He volunteered to remove any snake found slithering around Callawassie and Spring islands.

That informal service evolved into the Save a Snake program in 2006.

The idea is simple. Neighbors who encounter a snake give Harris a call. He comes over, tools in hand -- a plastic bucket, a snake hook and snake tongs. He uses the tongs only on the most aggressive snakes.

The nonpoisonous variety are dropped off elsewhere on the island. Copperheads and other venomous species are taken to an undisclosed spot on the mainland.

None are killed.

"Right at first, they thought I was crazy," Harris said. "They nicknamed me 'the snake man.' "

But his work soon tipped the scales in his favor.

"After they saw what I was doing and after they saw what snakes could do, it all kind of backed off."

Harris and his wife, Mary, moved to the gated community in 1999, drawn to the island's centuries-old live oaks and natural landscapes that serve as nesting areas for egrets, wood storks and bald eagles. The views across the Colleton River aren't bad either.

A retired salesman and lifelong hunter and fisherman, Harris has always been interested in snakes and amphibians. That interest had time to grow in retirement.

Harris also had a good teacher.

He contacted Tony Mills, the LowCountry Institute's education director and in-house snake expert. Harris learned to identify and handle different types of snakes.

Harris, in turn, has passed that knowledge to neighbors -- many of them from the North, where snakes are less common. Those neighbors are beginning to shed old fears.

"When he is going over and picking up the animals, he is educating people as to what species they are and why they are important," Mills said.

During the early days of Save a Snake, Harris got frequent phone calls from nervous neighbors who had stumbled across a snake. In one case, a small snake had a rather big man in a sweat when Harris arrived to remove a copperhead.

These days, he gets about 35 calls a year, down significantly from 2006.

"Dave wasn't getting as many calls as the years went on," Mary, a retired biology teacher, said Thursday.

Over the same period, neighbors grew more accustomed to the creatures.

"Incidentally someone would say, 'Mary, we had a snake in the garage, but we knew it wasn't a copperhead so we just swept it out,'" she said. "Knowing what a copperhead is the biggest thing in overcoming people's fear."

In 2012, the program removed 27 snakes, 17 of them copperheads.

Harris still responds to about 80 percent of the calls. The islands' maintenance crews -- now also trained to safely remove the reptiles -- handle the rest.

After the typical winter lull, Harris is gearing up for the spring, his busiest time of the year as the snakes emerge from hibernation.

Nearly a decade after catching his first snake, Harris can see the program's impact.

"We hardly ever see a grass rat anymore," he said, "and people are very used to the snakes."

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