OPINION

Snake Oil

Francis Skalicky
Missouri Department of Conservation

What is snake oil and how did the sale of it become associated with hucksters and frauds?

Unfortunately for snakes, this is yet another tarnish on the image of a creature that has experienced plenty of negativity down through the ages.

People won’t find any traveling snake oil salesmen in Missouri’s outdoors today, but they may come across one of the 49 species and sub-species of snakes that reside in the state. A large number of humans have developed feelings for snakes that are somewhere between annoyance and extreme fear. As a result, many people feel the only good snake is a dead one. That viewpoint is unfortunate because underneath this fearful image is an animal that performs valuable pest-control services for humans and, with the exception of a few venomous species, is relatively harmless.

More on that in a minute, but first, here’s more about the interesting history of snake oil and those who tried to sell it. As is the case with many hoaxes, there are some facts underneath the fakery.

Snake oil – the legitimate kind – is rendered from the fat of the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis). It was sold for generations in China as a remedy for arthritis, bursitis, and other muscle and joint-related pain. Oil from the Chinese water snake is high in eicosapentaenoic acid – EPA for short – a substance that helps heal inflamed muscle tissue.

Chinese immigrants introduced this remedy to the U.S. in the 19th century and medicinal entrepreneurs soon tried to replicate it using oil from North American snakes. However, the fat of North American snakes contains less EPA than Chinese water snakes and the result was a muscle rub that did little to cure joint pain. Some of these “snake oil” rubs contained no ingredients derived from snakes. Thus, none of these North American versions of this Asian medicine had any curative abilities. Hence, a bogus medicine was born and “snake oil” became a euphemism for deception and fraud.

One of the best-known distributors of phony snake oil was Clark Stanley, the creator of “Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.” Advertised as a “wonderful pain-destroying compound,” it was a popular product of traveling medicine shows throughout the central and western U.S. in the latter part of the 19th century. In the early 1900s, Stanley’s product was declared a fraud by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry (the forerunner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration).

Moving from 19th century trickery to 21st century truth brings us to the variety of snakes that reside in the state. Snakes are reptiles, which means they’re in the animal group that includes lizards and turtles. Snakes move forward by either moving their body side to side or by literally walking on their ribs. All snakes can swim and any one of a number of species may be found near water because of the abundance of prey that frequents ponds and streams.

One of the best-known features of a snake is its tongue. A snake’s tongue may look sinister, but it’s actually harmless and very functional for the snake. Snakes (and lizards) use their tongues to detect odors that are then transferred to sense organs on the roofs of their mouths.

Missouri has five venomous snake species – copperhead, cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake, western pygmy rattlesnake, and the massasauga rattlesnake. The massauga is the least common of these; it’s only found in a few counties in northern Missouri and is one of the state’s endangered species.

Missouri’s venomous snakes should definitely be given their distance and it should also be remembered that, although non-venomous snakes don’t have toxins, they still bite and those bites can definitely hurt. However, it should equally be remembered that snakes can be beneficial to humans by preying on rats and mice.

Nevertheless, few people like to have a snake in their home or near it. When a snake moves under the deck of your house or into your enclosed porch, it doesn’t matter what species it is – that snake has to go. Just remember that there are often non-lethal methods of dealing with snake issues.

The best way to keep snakes away is to eliminate what their looking for – food and shelter. By sealing cracks and holes in the foundation of your house and getting rid of piles of boards or other scrap material near your home, you’re getting rid of settings that attract snakes and animals they prey on. If you find a harmless snake, sometimes its possible to safely recapture it and relocate it to a location that’s good for the snake and far away from your home.

Information about Missouri snakes can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.