There is a scene in the movie True Grit, where U.S. Marshall, “Rooster” Cogburn lays a rope down around his sleeping area to ward off the snakes. Where Cogburn went about this act in a drunken stupor, the myth of non-rope crossing snakes persists in the minds of otherwise sober people. So, what is the truth? Will snakes cross a rope?
Not only will most snakes cross a rope, they’ll also do it as if the rope isn’t there. Snakes don’t have problems with ropes and while there might be the occasional, lazy snake that decides not to cross one because it’s too much effort, most snakes will happily do so, especially in pursuit of food, warmth, or security.
This is not a new myth, and although True Grit is a fictional movie, some of the things that the people do and the ways that they act are true to history. Laying down a rope to ward off snakes is one of those beliefs that have been around for centuries, probably since rope was invented.
Why would a simple rope ward off a snake?
There is no specific reason that ropes don’t keep snakes away. They simply don’t bother snakes. There are a lot of myths surrounding ropes and snakes with the most prominent one being that rope symbolizes (at least to the snake) another, larger snake.
The rope resembles another snake
According to this understanding, the snake will go away because it assumes that the rope is a bigger snake and the smaller snake is encroaching on its territory. However, snakes are intelligent enough to know the difference between an inanimate object—a rope, in this case—and another snake.
Larger snakes are typically not a threat to smaller snakes because snakes aren’t territorial and don’t generally eat or hunt each other. King snakes are known for consuming other snakes but there are around 3,000 species of snakes in the world so it’s not as if king snakes run into other snakes very often.
Snakes hunt and sense the world around them with both their internal ears and their ability to smell the air. They can even use infrared to hunt as well, however, none of these three things has much to do with a rope, nor would any of these things indicate that the rope is a danger to the snake.
As far as the snake is concerned, the rope on the ground is no more than another odd item to slither over and nothing more. A snake’s sense of smell brings on another myth about ropes which has to do with horses.
Horse hair ropes smell like horse
There is another myth that permeates the snake and rope relationship. Horse hair ropes supposedly smell like horse hair and horses are the enemies of snakes because a horse will curb stomp a snake if it ever detects one underneath it.
Because of this, it is assumed that if the snake smells the horse hair rope, it will immediately become fearful of being stomped and perform a 180° and head out. The truth is, there is no truth in this assumption.
For one, snakes don’t have any fear of horses, at least not insofar as anything else in the world that could potentially cause the snake harm or grave injury. This myth also suggests that snakes have critical thinking skills and, when they smell a horse, logically understand that the horse will stomp the snake’s face in if it wanders too close.
The reason that snakes aren’t nervous around horses is that snakes rarely encounter them and when they do, it’s almost entirely accidental and the incident is singularly contained. The horse is not a predator that is known to the snake.
A snake is more logically going to fear the hawk before it fears the smell of horse hair.
What are some other, snake-repelling myths?
Rope is not the only thing that people have assumed repels snakes for hundreds if not thousands of years. Snakes are a natural fear for people, like spiders, yellow jackets, bats, and just about anything that moves sporadically and has a belly close to the ground.
- Human hair
- Essential oils
- Sonic or noise repellents
When it comes to these “supposed” snake repellents, the assumptions revolve around the idea that strong smells or noises will deter snakes. Some of this is true but only in certain settings and only when snakes are confronted with something that is a known threat.
Mothballs don’t repel snakes
Mothballs repel moths. If they repelled snakes, they might be called ‘snake balls’ instead. Snakes have an exceptional sense of smell, which it uses by flicking its tongue in and out of its mouth, which is something that people are very familiar with seeing.
When a snake is flicking its tongue out over and over again, it is getting a sense of its environment through smell and infrared. Since a mothball has a pretty overwhelming odor, the snake can see it really well. As aforementioned, snakes aren’t stupid and they certainly aren’t going to flip out over a mothball.
Human hair doesn’t work either
The assumption here is that a snake will have a strong dislike for slithering over human hair because it will make the snake’s belly uncomfortable. It doesn’t.
In fact, the snake probably wouldn’t even realize that it’s crossing over human hair, and if you’re willing to shave your head and sprinkle your hair around your sleeping bag at night, you have more problems than just a fear of snakes.
Vinegar, essential oils, and urine
We stacked these three together because the belief system behind them is concentrated on the fact that, like the mothballs, the smell is strong enough to make a snake slither off in disgust. None of these three have been scientifically proven to bother a snake in the least.
Outside of a snake being able to smell all three of these very well, that would be about the end of a snake’s concern over any of them.
Sonic and noise repellants
These are relatively new devices when it comes to pest repellants on the market. Surprisingly, there is some solid evidence to back up the fact that they work, with rats, squirrels, mice, possums, and things of that nature; not with snakes.
There is no evidence that sonic repellants bother snakes in the least.
What does repel snakes?
The problem with snake repellants is that what may work for one type of snake, won’t necessarily bother another. Depending on where you live, there could be anywhere between 10 and 50 snake species indigenous to your area.
There are some chemicals that you can purchase at stores that may deter snakes from your property, but none of them are truly proven to repel snakes and most of them aren’t likely to be things that you could use if you are camping or hunting.
These three chemicals are considered to be strong enough smells and weird enough smells to interfere with a snake’s ability to smell and therefore, its ability to hunt. Naphthalene is a chemical that is frequently found in snake repellents sold in stores.
Sulfur, however, is a known skin irritant for snakes and they will avoid it if possible. Powdered sulfur is the way to go but the problem is, that the first rain that rolls around will wipe out any sulfur that you sprinkle around.
If you’re just camping, you can potentially use powdered sulfur around your campsite, so long as you are careful not to get any of it on you or on any of your pets. Ammonia is another chemical that is frequently found in store-bought snake repellents, but it’s not a proven deterrent.
Long-term snake repellents
Long-term snake repellents aren’t anything that you have to buy but what you have to do. Snakes are attracted to safe and secure shelter, sources of food, and sources of water. So the idea is to eliminate what attracts them and you eliminate the snakes.
If you have areas around your home or objects in the yard that hold water close to the ground, you need to either get rid of those items or fill the low spots in with soil or rocks.
Snakes are attracted to mice as well, so hiring an exterminator to wipe out all of the mice is a good idea. If you have a chicken coop, clear the area around the coop of all vegetation, leaving it so that there is a good amount of open space for the snake to cross.
Collect the eggs frequently because the snake is interested in the eggs, not the chickens. Remove all of the potential shelters on your property as well. The idea is to make your area as inhospitable to the snake as it can possibly be.
We can put the rope theory to rest at long last. It’s certainly not going to repel snakes and it’s not going to do you any good if you lay rope around your sleeping bag at night or around your property.
The best way to deal with snakes in the long and the short run is to simply take away everything that would attract them to your area in the first place.