La Jolla Girl Scout launches project to teach snake safety to hikers

Far from a snake in the grass, on Sept. 1, Girl Scout Zena Traganza of La Jolla-based Troop 3171, submitted an environmental project for Gold Award consideration. The Gold Award is the highest achievement in Girl Scouting and recognizes those who complete projects that have sustainable impact in their communities and beyond.

For 17-year-old Zena, who lives near University City, her passion project was to create an Environmental Resource Center at the Dos Picos County Park in Ramona to teach campers about native snakes and how to safely share San Diego’s hiking trails with them.

In addition to presentations over the last few months to campers and visitors, Zena donated snakes and enclosures to the park’s Visitors Center, and outlined an informational lecture so rangers could continue the educational outreach.

“People who live in the city or the suburbs might not see snakes much and so they don’t know a lot about them,” she said. “A common misconception is that they are all dangerous or bite unprovoked. Most of the time, when a snake bites a person, it’s because the person didn’t give the snake enough space.

“I often camp at Dos Picos County Park, and they do some educational programs there; they have animal skins and a few other items for show and tell, but they don’t have a lot of animals to show the kids — and there are a lot of kids who camp there because it’s a Scouting destination. People from all over Southern California go there.”

In concert with local rangers, Zena created a service project for the betterment of campers and snakes alike. She started by conducting the presentations herself. She brought out live snakes and informed people about what to do if they see one, how to tell which ones are venomous, and she explained how valuable snakes are to the Southern California ecosystem.

“If you see a snake in the wild, just leave it alone,” she advised. “That’s the best thing for you and for them. Give it five feet of clearance. If you spot one, it’s likely just crossing a trail or sunning itself to thermo-regulate or rest. A lot of people find snakes when they are sleeping or otherwise vulnerable. A snake is just as scared of us as we are of them — if not more so.”

Zena said people often have the “fear factor” and assume a snake is dangerous and try to kill it or do something to scare it away. “The only venomous snakes we have native to Southern California are rattlesnakes and besides their tell-tale rattle, they have a prominent protruding jawline or ‘cheeks.’ They have a defined facial shape and larger head. Some will rattle when they are startled, but not all. Some have black-and-white stripes on the tail just before the rattle,” Zena explained.

Non-venomous snakes have a smaller head and more streamlined body shape.

“If you are ever unsure of whether a snake is venomous, leave it alone and don’t go anywhere near it. If it’s venomous and you see one near your home and you have small children or animals that might be in danger, remove them from the area and report the snake to the local wildlife center and they will remove it.”

Additionally, she said in the course of her lectures in Ramona, “I introduce (visitors) to an entirely new aspect of snakes, and that is that people should respect them as wildlife. They are import as a keystone species (ones that drastically affect their environment), because they control the rodent population that could overpower the environment if not kept in check. Most of the time, people see a snake in their yard and just kill it, not knowing how important it is to the local ecosystem.”

With a binder full of surveys showing how her presentations reached hundreds of young people, Zena submitted her project to the Girl Scouts for Gold Award consideration. She finds out in a few weeks whether her project was approved. In the spring, there will be a ceremony to honor those who achieved the Gold Award.

Zena, a recent high school graduate, is now attending UC Davis. She has not declared a major, but is leaning toward conservation biology.