Wondrous Wildlife
The Utterly Innocent Milk Snake
By Vern and Lori Gieger

     Lake Chapala is noted for many things, but how about our very own snake? There are many species and sub-species of milk snake found in North America including Jalisco. However, Herpetologists are currently studying the “Lake Chapala Milk Snake.”
     What makes them so special? It is believed to be a new subspecies, unique to the Lake Chapala area. Although they closely resemble the Jalisco milk snake, there is evidence that suggests they do not interbreed even though they are found in close proximity to one another.
     Milk snakes are very shy and secretive and are seldom seen. Like most snakes, they are nocturnal, seeking out food after dark. Yes, they are very pretty but they are also masters of disguise! Milk snakes mimic the coloration of poisonous snakes. The “Lake Chapala Milk Snake” is no exception. While this may deter their wild predators from attacking them, it does not protect them from humans. Unfortunately, this adaptation can mean death for the snake when encountered by humans who cannot tell the difference. They are often mistaken for coral snakes and are killed. Actually, king and milk snakes are known for killing and eating venomous snakes, since they are immune to their venom.
     Fortunately coral snakes can be easily identified from milk snakes at a distance. Remember this rhyme: Red touching yellow can kill a fellow; red touching black is safe for you and Jack. Alternatively, try remembering this: think of a “stoplight” yellow, red STOP!
     These brightly colored, shy creatures prefer to avoid humans and most other animals larger than themselves. Because they are often found in barns and feeding areas of livestock. It was once believed by some farmers that the snakes were sneaking into their barns at night and milking their cows. They blamed the snakes for their cows’ low productivity. Henceforth the name “Milk Snake.” When the farmers killed the snakes, they did not get more milk. They did, however, get more mice! All snakes completely lack the anatomy necessary to suck milk (or anything else for that matter). Not to mention snakes have small but very sharp teeth, and no cow would stand still for that! Barns are all-night diners to milk snakes because they provide abundant food in the form of small rats and mice. In return for this buffet, the snakes provide the free service of pest control.
     The worst effect a milk snake has is frightening humans who are not aware that it is harmless. We (LWRR) have received many snake calls from people who believed they were dealing with a poisonous snake. All proved to be harmless milk snakes, rat snakes, or garter snakes. Most of these snakes were poked, prodded and agitated to the point where they were very aggressively trying to defend themselves by striking at their attackers.
     Attitudes towards our wild neighbor, the snake, are slowly changing to tolerance, and even appreciation, as people learn the important role snakes play in ecosystems. As education about these fascinating animals increases, more people will consider themselves lucky to catch a glimpse of a snake basking on a rock on a warm sunny day; especially if it is a “Lake Chapala Milk Snake.” We should all take the time to learn a little more about them, knowledge can put our fears in perspective. It is disheartening that many people’s first response to something they fear, do not like, or understand, is to destroy it. Nothing should have to die because of human ignorance. We do not have to love snakes; we just need to realize their importance. They are as deserving of life as any other creature and an important link in the chain of life. The more education we have about wildlife, the better chance the snakes, bats and other “unlovables” have of surviving.
     Under Mexican law ART. #420 it is a federal crime to kill any wild animal (without a license). These laws were designed to protect wildlife, our eco-system and ultimately ourselves.