Respect thy slithery neighbor

Mike Dorcas took a few of his best creepy, crawly friends to the Mooresville Public Library this month, but not to frighten the capacity crowd that came to see them.

Dorcas is an assistant professor of biology at Davidson College who just wants people to know and respect their outdoor neighbors.

The 180 children and adults got to pet his turtles, baby alligator and snakes, if they dared. Some were understandably hesitant.

Emily Roebuck, 10, was OK with most of the reptiles and amphibians. But when she came eye-to-eye with the 51/2-foot black rat snake, "I was a little scared," she said.

Sitting nearby, I was, too.

But these creatures are all part of our natural heritage, Dorcas told the crowd, and there's no reason to injure or kill them.

Dorcas takes his N.C.-native creatures to three or four public presentations a year. His students do many more, almost weekly, he said.

Dorcas has authored five books, most recently "Frogs & Toads of the Southeast" and "Snakes of the Southeast."

He's done numerous research projects, including studies of invasive Burmese pythons in Florida and the ecology and conservation of diamondback terrapins in South Carolina.

Much of his research in the Davidson area focuses on the effects of urbanization on amphibians and reptiles.

People at his recent "Snakes Alive!" presentation came to look and to learn.

What should you do if you see a copperhead under your porch? one person asked.

"Call a professional," Dorcas advised.

How do you handle one? someone asked.

"I'm not going to tell you, because I don't want you to handle venomous snakes," Dorcas replied.

How many times have you been bitten by snakes? another audience member wondered.

Thousands of times by nonvenomous snakes, Dorcas said, comparing such bites to bee stings.

But he's never been bitten by a venomous one, he said. "You should not mess with venomous snakes," Dorcas told the crowd. "It's as simple as that."

How do you keep copperheads away from your home? another person wanted to know.

"Cement your yard," Dorcas said with a smile, drawing laughs.

Seriously, he said, we should all realize they're part of our landscape.

How can you tell if a snake is poisonous? another audience member asked. Their eyes, Dorcas said, but you don't want to be that close to one. "The best way to tell is to learn what they look like," he said.

Seeing the turtles and snakes up close was a real treat, but for me, Dorcas's dishing out common-sense advice was the highlight of the night.