BROOKSVILLE — See a snake in your back yard? Jim Mendenhall begs you to put down the shovel and just back away. Let the creature go on its way, and chances are in a few minutes it will be out of your life.
However terrifying some people perceive snakes to be, Mendenhall, a noted Spring Hill snake expert and lecturer, warns that the consequences of a world without them would be even worse.
Besides keeping the rodent and nuisance critter populations in check, Mendenhall points out that snake venom and saliva are vital components in several important medicines for people, including a treatment for diabetes.
"My biggest fear is that we're going to wake up one day and (snakes) will be gone because we didn't do enough to protect them," he said. "If that happens, if that delicate natural balance disappears, you'll never be able to get it back."
Mendenhall, 66, has been collecting snakes since he was a kid growing up in South Florida. His collection at his Spring Hill home numbers about 100 and includes exotic Indonesian vipers, African cobras and other species from the jungles of South America. But by far his favorites are the native species that he has acquired because they were unwanted or injured.
To Mendenhall, they are the unsung saviors of an ecosystem that is struggling to balance itself against ever-widening urban sprawl.
Much of the 90-minute talk that Mendenhall will give Tuesday night at the Chinsegut Nature Center is designed to inform residents of the types of snakes that live in Hernando County.
Although venomous varieties such as Eastern diamondback rattlers, coral snakes and water moccasins lurk here, they are much more rare than nonthreatening species such as black snakes, rat snakes and king snakes. Snakes' numbers are dwindling because many people don't know the difference between harmful and harmless species.
Mendenhall believes that backyard sightings are often a result of habitat destruction that drives the shy creatures into new territory to survive.
"Snakes don't go looking for trouble from people," Mendenhall said. "If you see one, it's searching either for food or water or a mate. If people have the patience to just let it go on its way, it will quietly move on."
Mendenhall doesn't believe snakes make very good pets for most people. He cites the recent suffocation death of a 2-year-old Sumter County girl by a pet Burmese python as an example of the irresponsibility of an owner who underestimated the 8-foot reptile's capabilities.
"To look at that snake, you could tell it was underfed, and in my opinion that made it extremely dangerous," Mendenhall said. "It was tragic, but the snake was only doing what its instincts were telling it to do."
Mendenhall said such news stories make him cringe because they instill even greater fear of the reptiles.
"It's a bad rap, but one that's been going on since the beginning of time," he said. "Hopefully, people will eventually learn the truth about these creatures, and it will be passed on to their children. That may be the only thing that will save them."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.