Category Archives: Overblown Fear

Yes, Virginia, You Can Coexist with the Northern Copperhead

This female copperhead may have thought she was completely hidden behind this feather! (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

© Marlene A. Condon
August, 2012

As an adult I’ve welcomed all wildlife to my yard wherever I’ve lived. But in 2006, shortly after my book, The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People, was published, I faced a challenge to my open-door policy.

A female Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen), a venomous snake, decided that she wanted to give birth underneath my carport! The ground had settled and fallen away from one corner of the concrete floor, creating an opening to a cave-like area. The female snake could be seen daily at that corner.

Copperheads are commonly considered to be much too dangerous to be allowed to live around people’s dwellings. Folks typically do not know much about these snakes, and their lack of knowledge, in combination with folklore, produces extreme fear of them.

Thus, understandably, my husband was concerned about having this snake in such close proximity to us. He didn’t want to kill the snake, but he thought we should “move it along” by covering up the entrance to what I had begun to call a den (the appropriate word for such a hidden retreat used by an animal).

However, I wasn’t keen on my husband’s idea. My knowledge of plant and animal life has been gained by decades of taking extensive notes, along with photo documentation, of my observations. I now had a golden opportunity to learn about Northern Copperheads!

I therefore suggested that we cover up most of the opening with a concrete block to see if that would discourage the snake, but leave enough of a space that the snake could continue to go inside if she still wished to do so. Luckily for me, the copperhead remained.

Her presence didn’t present much of a problem for us because the den was on the opposite side of the carport from the kitchen door. Thus we did not need to walk near the area occupied by the snake in order to enter or leave the carport.

Was it scary to know a venomous snake was hanging around so close to the entrance to our home? Definitely! But familiarity with the snake caused our fear of her to decrease and our fascination with her to increase.

What we’ve discovered over the past six years (one or more females have used the den during most of these years) is that copperheads are much more terrified of us than we need to be of them and that they are actually quite docile creatures that have no interest whatsoever in dealing with people.

Northern Copperheads can cause humans serious harm, but it’s highly unlikely if you follow three very logical and simple rules. I’ve lived in my current home for more than a quarter of a century and I’ve never come close to being bitten by one of these snakes.

First of all, one rarely sees a copperhead, even in a nature-friendly landscape. When you do, common sense should dictate that you leave it alone. Most people get bitten by snakes because they are either trying to kill the snake or to move it. Obviously a snake is going to try to protect itself under these circumstances.

Second, you need to pay attention to where you place your feet. Getting into the habit of watching where you step is a good idea even if you aren’t concerned about venomous snakes. There are lots of critters on the ground that you needn’t step on and injure or kill.

Third, you should never place your hands or feet into areas, such as among tall plants or a woodpile, where you can’t see what’s in there. There are quite a few animals that, out of fear as your foot or hand approaches them, can give you quite a sting or bite that may not be deadly but which, nonetheless, will hurt quite a bit.

Can children learn these rules? Absolutely, just as they learn never to cross the street without looking both ways first. In fact, statistics show that children are far more likely to be run over by their own parents in their own driveway than they are to be harmed by a snake.

They are also much more likely to be harmed by pets, such as dogs, cats, and horses, or even to be hit by lightning. Our fear of snakes is way out of proportion to the actual likelihood of harm from them.

By following the three aforementioned commonsense rules and by being observant, you can give copperheads the space they need to go about their business of helping to limit rodent numbers. We should—and we can—coexist with these animals.

And believe it or not, when there’s no Northern Copperhead coiled at the northeast corner of our carport, my husband and I actually miss having its company!

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Yes, Virginia, You Can Coexist with the Northern Copperhead

Night Lighting Is Harmful to Our Insects

Burn lights only when absolutely necessary to avoid harming our wildlife, ourselves, and the integrity of our environment. (Photo: Marlene Condon)

By Marlene Condon

April, 2012


My writing day does not get started until I’ve had my breakfast and exercise, both of which occur very early in the morning. I love getting out onto the roadways when it’s still rather dark so I can hear the natural world awaken and watch the changing palette of colors as the sun rises into the eastern sky.

Because I’m out so early, I see the many houses that have bright lights burning needlessly overnight. Some homes have very bright lights by the front door or cellar entryway while others have them over the garage. In other yards, a lamp post or even a utility light pole illuminates the front yard.

I suppose folks burn these lights to feel safer, but studies have shown that bright lighting does not deter crime. If it did, no burglaries should occur in the daytime, but in fact, more than half of them do.

Burglars require light to see what they are doing so it’s far better if your home is dark outside at night. Then a burglar will need to use a flashlight, which will draw attention to him if someone is watching.

If you feel that you absolutely must have lighting to ease your mind, then it would be best to use motion sensor lighting that only comes on when movement is detected and that goes off within a set period of time. But it would be far better for folks—and our environment—if people instead invested in better locks and bolts.

The reason to avoid using electricity whenever possible is to limit mutilation of our world (think mountain-top removal for coal); to limit pollution of our air and waterways (caused by burning coal to create electricity); and even more importantly, to limit the killing of insects that help to keep the environment functioning properly.

Numerous kinds of insects are so strongly attracted to illumination that they will stay near it most or all of the night. These insects may circle a light until they become exhausted; by staying around the light, they neglect to mate or eat; and these insects become easy prey for their predators, creating an unfair advantage that can result in over-predation of the population.

The idea that insects are important to our own lives may seem rather abstract. People usually understand that we need some kinds of these six-legged creatures to pollinate plants in order to obtain seeds or fruits for consumption by humans. But folks often don’t realize that insects do much more than help to provide food for us.

Some kinds feed on decaying organic matter to recycle it ultimately back to the soil for the benefit of growing plants. Some species of insects feed upon other kinds of animals, such as spiders and even slugs and snails to limit their numbers to sustainable levels. And the insects themselves serve as a vital food source for many birds, bats, and small mammals.

Sadly, insects generally get a bad rap. Although some of these animals (such as mosquitoes, ticks, and roaches) can be bothersome or cause illness in some instances, insects should not be vilified as if they exist simply to harm mankind.

I could scream when I hear the press releases put out every month of the year by the National Pest Management Association, which are presented as “public service announcements.” The ads overstate the problems caused by a variety of critters, including mammals and birds in addition to insects and spiders. The most egregious aspect of all is that the association uses children to pitch their deceptively worded ads!

The reality is that man can—and must—coexist with a variety of critters, all of which play important roles in our environment.

For example, the larvae of mosquitoes feed the fish—which many folks like to catch— in our streams. Ticks are a food source for insectivorous birds and mammals (which find the ticks when grooming themselves) that people enjoy watching. And the bits of food you’ve dropped on the floor or counter are recycled much more quickly by roaches than by bacteria and fungi that would otherwise need to deal with it.

Once you understand your fellow inhabitants of the earth, you can figure out how to avoid problems with them: Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants when in mosquito-populated areas; wear shorts in tick country (you can more easily see and feel ticks crawling on your skin if it’s not covered up); and try not to leave food debris on the floors and counters to make your home inhospitable to roaches.

Knowledge greatly reduces fear of the unknown. When you understand the functions of various creatures in our world, you can be more tolerant of their activities. You can also control, at least somewhat, your interactions with them.

© Marlene A. Condon

Night Lighting Is Harmful to Our Insects

Microbes and You

Is it really necessary to wipe the handle of a shopping cart before use? (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

© Marlene A. Condon
December 2012

On October 30, NBC29 ran a segment about germs.

Microorganisms from swabbed surfaces in the community were grown at the Martha Jefferson Hospital microbiology lab and identified for the story.

It’s useful to know about the innumerable invisible-to-the-naked-eye life forms out there, some of which can make us ill (“germs”). But what has happened in society as a result of news stories like this one is that people have begun to obsess over these microscopic organisms.

Just because we now have the ability to “see” microorganisms does not mean we need to worry a great deal about them. For example, cleaning the handles of a shopping cart with a sanitary wipe before using it is overly cautious behavior.

Ironically, society’s overblown response to germs may actually be causing a huge increase in illness. People nowadays are trying to sanitize themselves and their surroundings by using germicidal cleaning agents on their hands and surfaces. These chemicals kill most of the microorganisms they come into contact with, which has serious consequences for individuals, society, and our environment.

Rob Dunn, associate professor in the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, has written a book called The Wild Life Of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are. He argues that many of the organisms we kill off with antibacterial soap are probably useful to us.

For example, Dr. Dunn refers to a study in which people with asthma or diabetes were more likely to get sick when they washed with antibiotic soaps than when they didn’t use any soap at all. The problem with antibiotic gels and soaps is that they kill the “good” microorganisms—those that don’t cause illness—along with the ones that do.

Water, on the other hand, simply rinses away most of the microbes you have recently acquired—which could include harmful organisms—but leaves intact the many, many innocuous bacteria that normally reside on your hands. As Dr. Dunn puts it, these bacteria form “a kind of first line of defense.”

This concept is perfectly logical. Every organism plays a variety of roles in the environment. Dr. Dunn provides us with a rational reason for why humans support such huge numbers of bacteria.

There’s growing evidence that children who are not exposed to the numerous forms of bacteria around them when they are young may not develop properly functioning immune systems. Parents who try to totally protect their children from “germs” are probably short-circuiting a natural process that has been in place for millennia.

Since man came into being, babies have crawled around, putting all kinds of “dirty” things into their mouths. It makes sense (in order for life to be perpetuated) that the human body is equipped with a defense system that can deal with the multitude of microbes a baby introduces to itself over the course of years.

Logic should tell us that our bodies possess a natural ability to cope—for the most part quite successfully—with the microorganisms that surround us.

To begin with, our skin functions as a very effective barrier to keep out microbes that could wreak havoc inside our bodies. To work properly, however, it needs to be intact.

Therefore any minor injury that bleeds (a sign that your protective barrier has been breached) should be washed with soap and water to rinse away microbes and then covered with a bandage to keep them out. Please note, however, that it is extremely important to keep tetanus shots up to date.

Microorganisms can also get inside your body via your eyes, nose, and mouth. If someone coughs or sneezes near you, sending their germs through the air directly into these areas, there’s not much you can do about it. However, you can avoid introducing microorganisms to these primary pathways via your hands by keeping them away from your face unless they are clean.

In case you are doubting that simply washing with water and ordinary soap is an effective way to deal with microorganisms, consider this: Washing is the way that all animals, even tiny insects, keep limited the number and kinds of microorganisms on their bodies. It works.

The best offense against illness is proper living:

Eat a balanced diet and get enough sleep.

Maintain good overall hygiene and always wash hands just before preparing meals and eating, as soon as you get home from being out in the world, after using the bathroom, and whenever hands are obviously dirty. Keep dirty hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth.

Always clean and then cover cuts and abrasions of the skin. Don’t scratch insect bites or poison ivy-type inflammations so much that you cause them to bleed.

If you must go out when you are sick, cover your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough to avoid spreading germs to others.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Microbes and You

Coyote story stoked fear

“Coyote story stoked fear”, published 05/14/2009, The Hook

By Marlene Condon
Published online 7:00am Thursday May 14th, 2009
and in print issue #0819 dated Thursday May 14th, 2009
I am extremely disappointed with the sensationalized article about coyotes [“Invasion of the doggy snatchers? Uptick in area coyote sightings has residents nervous,” April 23.]that served only to create unwarranted fear. Instead of demonizing an animal that would be very useful to us by limiting deer and Canada goose numbers, you would do better to sensationalize the deaths and injuries that result from vehicular traffic. This type of story, along with pictures of dead and injured people instead of coyotes, might at least wake people up to the far more dangerous nature of their own behavior in cars– speeding, tailgating, running red lights, and talking on cell phones.
I have never come close to colliding with a coyote, but my car has been hit by drivers engaged in the aforementioned poor driving habits, causing me to be hospitalized and then suffer severe neck, shoulder, and arm pain for years after one such encounter. The fact is that people fear something they are not familiar with way out of proportion to the more-familiar things they should fear a lot.
We need to learn to live with predators, or else we will continue to have an overpopulation of deer and geese to contend with, both of which do bring death, injuries, and property damage via car and plane collisions. (I discuss this issue in my book, The Nature-friendly Garden, which is available at local libraries.)
If parents and pet owners watched over young children and pets as they should be doing anyway, and if farmers purchased guard dogs or llamas to protect their animals, there would be no reason we could not coexist with coyotes.
And for Mike Dye of the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries to say that coyotes are listed as a nuisance animal because they are not native to this area is ludicrous when the DGIF spends a lot of money stocking non-native trout and other fish in local waterways.
The only bright spot of knowledge in this entire article was Mr. Kirschnick’s comment about coyotes bolting if they smell a human. Otherwise, this entire article is nothing more than fear-mongering.
The Hook usually adheres to a higher standard of journalism. I hope we won’t see this type of “reporting” again.
Marlene A. Condon

LETTER- “Plain soap will do”

“Plain soap will do”, published 07/31/2008, The Hook

By Marlene Condon |
Published online 7:00am Thursday Jul 31st, 2008
and in print issue #0731 dated Thursday Jul 31st, 2008

What’s really sad about the current disinfection discussion [“Coming clean: Board weighs in on disinfection debate,” July 24] is the display of ignorance coupled with unfounded fear that guides decisions made by many people nowadays.
Dr. Thomas Pajewski, a member of the school board’s health advisory board, says, “It’s important to clean high-touch areas as thoroughly as possible, even if these areas become re-contaminated after a single use.”
This is exactly what does happen, thus illustrating what a waste of time and money it is to disinfect. Yet people feel they should do it anyway because of over-exaggerated fears. The reality is that the majority of microbes (probably about 99 percent) pose no harm at all to humans.
Then this doctor says that “you need to start somewhere” because “the alternative is to let things accumulate.” These statements suggest ignorance. Things– meaning bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms– do not “accumulate” if you simply wash the area with plain soap and water. And such simple sanitation should be the main focus of public bathroom cleaning because unsanitary situations are the main source of spreading illness.
The smart way to keep children from contracting serious infectious diseases (colds not included because kids need to be exposed to these illnesses when they are young in order to get their immune systems up and running) is to teach them and their teachers to keep hands clean; keep hands away from eyes, nose, and mouth; keep cuts and scrapes covered; and do not share personal items, such as towels.
The school board chairman asks, “How much green can we afford?” The answer is that the schools and our local governments throw away plenty of green (money) on special products that are not even needed. Soap is cheap, and soap is what should be used.
I just hope these people are wise enough to do away with antibacterial soaps/cleaning agents that are well known to have helped create “superbugs,” such as MRSA– the bacteria that is perhaps the cause of this current obsession with “germs.”
How ironic that people’s misplaced fear and consequent behavior is what brings about ever more virulent organisms that truly are fearsome.
Marlene A. Condon