A garter snake hides in the underbrush beside a hiking path in the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

From Harry Potter to Indiana Jones, snakes are among the most maligned species in popular culture. The roots of our aversion to the slithering critters may even be biblical — after all, it was a snake that ruined paradise for the first man and woman.

But snakes don’t deserve their sinful reputation. Sure, some species are poisonous, and snakes may munch on eggs from your chicken coop, but there are many perks to having snakes on your property.

“They offer many benefits to homeowners,” says Melissa Amarello, co-founder of Advocates for Snake Preservation, a New Mexico-based nonprofit that educates people about how to coexist with snakes. “Their food is animals that can cause damage to property.”

Packrats, insects, squirrels and even venomous snakes — if they live in your area — are among the prey of snakes you could find in your yard. Unlike the rodents they dine on, snakes are not known to transmit any disease to humans. Plus, if there is a snake on your land, it is usually a sign that you are doing something right and your local ecosystem is healthy and thriving.

What to do if you see a snake

The short answer? Don’t try to move or kill it. Most likely, the snake is not poisonous, especially in Maine. Keep your distance and let it slither on its merry way. Snakes do not attack unless provoked.

Even though there are some physiological differences between most venomous snakes and their nonvenomous counterparts, Amarello recommends not trying your hand at amateur snake identification.

“It can be really hard to tell the difference,” Amarello says. “They can all be appreciated from a safe distance.”

If the snake is in your house or on your porch, you can use a long-handled broom or rake to gently coax it outside. If that’s not possible, try confining the snake to a room or corner with boards or boxes. Then call a professional handler — either the fire department, animal control or a private service specializing in snake removal, depending on where you live — who will relocate your unwanted reptilian guest.

But there is a downside to the snake removal quick-fix. “I think that gives people a false sense of security.” Amarello says. “There’s a reason the first snake showed up. If that reason isn’t addressed, another one is likely to show up.”

How to keep snakes out of your yard

If you can’t get past your ophidiophobia, the best way to control snake populations is to take away their sources of food and shelter. Snakes like dark, damp areas with plenty of cover — like wood piles — unmowed lawns with tall grass and overgrown shrubbery. Clear the yard of piles of rocks or debris, mow grass frequently and keep building materials and firewood piles elevated slightly off the ground. You can even keep piles of rocks, brush or dense vegetation on the outskirts of your property to divert snakes seeking shelter.

Also, take extra steps to control rodent and insect populations, like keeping pet food tightly sealed, rodent-proofing your chicken coops and never leaving garbage outside overnight unless it is tightly sealed bins.

Since snakes mostly enter on the ground floor of houses, the best way to keep snakes out of your house is to seal all ground level openings with mesh hardware cloth, caulk, or mortar. Snakes can also slither under poorly fitting doors, including garage doors, so outfit the bottoms with metal flashing or weather stripping.

Is killing snakes illegal in Maine?

In most states, non-venomous snakes are protected from indiscriminate killing and you need at least a hunting license to kill them. In Maine, the rules are more lax, despite the fact that there are no venomous snakes among the nine species that live in the state (the timber rattlesnake, Maine’s only deadly viper, was extirpated decades ago).

“Technically, it is legal to kill a snake in your yard in Maine with an exception of the one state listed species: the black racer snake,” says Phillip deMaynadier, a wildlife biologist at the Maine Fish and Wildlife Service, though he strongly discourages people from doing so. “They are important parts of the ecosystem.”

Plus, telling snakes apart can be tricky, and you wouldn’t want to find the a black racer snake on the other end of your shovel. According to John MacDonald, public information officer at the Maine Warden Service, intentionally killing a black racer snake could land you up to one year in prison and up to $2,000 in fines in accordance with the Maine Endangered Species Act. “What we would recommend people to do is call us,” he says, “just so someone doesn’t unknowingly get themselves in a bind.”

Do moth balls repel snakes?

Moth balls are common old-time home remedy to keep snakes away, but this old wives’ tale doesn’t stand the test of science. Snakes “smell” with their tongues, so methods like mothballs that rely on odors are unlikely to deter them. In fact, the odors from moth balls are more likely to bother the mammalian residents of your homestead — curious children and pets have also been known to put toxic mothballs in their mouths — and mothball chemicals, like naphthalene, can leach into your soil.

Some commercially marketed repellents for snakes can be effective, but Amarello says they too can be “more damaging to the yard than having a snake.” If you want to take extra measures to keep snakes away, it is better to build a snake-proof fence: at least 4 feet high with solid buried wood footing and a wall of smooth, fine (at least quarter-inch) galvanized mesh.

“The main thing is that you want to put it up in such a way that it goes into the ground just a little bit,” Amarello says. “You don’t want them to be able to crawl underneath it.”

Also avoid building the fence near low trees or shrubs; snakes can climb, and they will see branches as bridges.

But Amarello suggests embracing your scaly neighbors.

“I don’t know why people would want to keep snakes off of their property,” she says. Instead, just clear your walkways, watch where you put your hands and feet when rummaging around dark places and enjoy the free pest control.