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Snake in the class: Johnson City nature educator teaches kids about snakes

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Feb 12, 2018 at 5:34 PM

For thousands of years, snakes have been shrouded in mystery — inspiring fear and curiosity.

Throughout recorded history, many cultures’ mythologies have depicted snakes as universal symbols of evil. But Parks and Recreation Nature Program Coordinator Connie Deegan said these widely vilified creatures get a bad reputation and has been spending years setting the record straight.

“It’s the role that snakes have played forever since the Garden of Eden, really. There are certain ethnic groups that love snakes and many that are absolutely terrified of snakes. I don’t know, our fascination with snakes is ingrained and it goes back thousands and thousands of years,” Deegan said. “When people don’t understand something, they tend to make up stories about them.”

On Monday morning, she held a nature program at Johnson City’s Memorial Park Community Center to teach attendees of all ages more about snakes. Before letting children interact with two of her native corn snakes, she worked to teach attendees about the role they play in the ecosystem.

Deegan also set out to debunk myths about snakes.

Common myths include stories that claim black snakes would chase people down hills like Hula-Hoops. Many once believed some species of snakes were sent to punish people for not going to church enough.

“Those people a couple hundred years ago believed anything,” she told the children in attendance.

Of 23 snakes types of snakes in the region, only two — the native copperhead and rattlesnake — are venomous. Deegan showed how to identify venomous snakes.

One way to identify venomous snakes is looking at the shape of their eyes, which often have slits much like cats’ eyes. But she said the best way to tell without getting too close is to be able to identify the color and pattern of each snake.

Deegan showed pictures of snakes and taught how to tell the difference, pointing out features such as the copperhead’s hourglass-shaped patterns.

“I don’t like the classic ways of teaching the difference between a venomous snake and a non-venomous snake, like looking at the pupil and belly scales. By then, it’s usually a little too late, so I do it by memorizing colors and patterns,” she said.

Everything Deegan shared during the program comes from an early childhood fascination with snakes.

“I’ve had snakes pretty much my whole life. It’s always been the animal that captivated me,” she said. “By the time I was in fourth grade, I learned how to identify all the snakes in the area I lived in.”

By teaching people about snakes, she hopes to help others have a change of heart about these fascinating creatures.

“People like to hate certain animals. We tend to hate snakes, spiders, bats, insects and sharks; and they get killed simply because of what they are,” she said. “I like to think that on a tiny, small level, that I’m doing a service to snakes because the more they know about snakes, the less they have to fear.”

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