When Durham resident Barbara Dickinson found a snake trapped under a fence, she didn’t post a for-sale sign in her yard or kill it with a shovel. She went on the neighborhood app Nextdoor and contacted Nick the Snake Guru.

He arrived and easily removed the specimen—a harmless rat snake—from under the fence. The reptile seemed a little lethargic and dehydrated, so he took it home with him to recuperate for a few days.

Nick Massimo is a herpetology PhD student at Arizona State University who studies how infectious diseases affect amphibian populations, but many residents on Nextdoor know him as the Snake Guru or the Durham Snake Guy. Last year, he offered his snake expertise on the neighborhood social networking site.

“It kind of blew up,” Massimo says. “I got a ton of calls from people.”

Snake encounters appear to be on the rise this year, possibly due to more people completing home improvement projects or spending greater amounts of time outdoors during COVID-19.

WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh has treated 73 snake bites from the beginning of the year through the month of June, says senior marketing and communications specialist Kristin Kelly, 50 of which occurred in May and June. That’s up from 48 bites from January through June 2019.

“We do believe that a lot of that is because people are spending more time outdoors,” Kelly says. “And even beyond COVID, just the growth of towns in general are encroaching on areas that typically had more natural space where the snakes were.”

Jeff Beane, herpetology collections manager at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, said any increase in reported snake encounters probably results from changes in humans’ behavior, rather than an increase in the number of snakes.

“I don’t think there’s been a year of my life when I haven’t heard people go, ‘Oh, there’s more snakes this year than usual,’” he says.  “That’s never true.”

Beane added that while some hospital systems, like WakeMed, report the number of snake bites they treat, that doesn’t necessarily represent a complete picture of snake interactions in the state.

“It’s just really hard to get a lot of data,” he says. “A lot of hospitals historically never kept that data. Some of them still don’t keep it.”

Beane added that homeowners should take precautions when working around their yards or spending time outdoors, including wearing closed-toe shoes, not sticking their hands into woodpiles or dark crevices, and carrying a flashlight at night.

“The more time you spend outside, the more likely you are to see a snake,” he says. “The more time you spend outside being careless, the more likely are you to be bitten by a snake.”

In Durham, Massimo generally gets anywhere from one to seven calls or texts a week—from people asking him to identify a snake, requesting he come remove it from a home or property, or simply asking for advice.

“The majority of snake bites happen when somebody who doesn’t have experience tries to move an animal or kill a snake,” Massimo says. That’s why he volunteers to relocate them when leaving them be isn’t an option and to educate locals about the animals’ ecological benefits.

As a certified Wildlife Damage Control Agent with the state of North Carolina, Massimo is legally allowed to handle venomous snakes in addition to non-venomous species. In Durham, those are mainly copperheads that have wandered onto peoples’ properties. Once captured, he relocates the snakes whenever he can.

“I’m trying to do everything possible that I can to aid the conservation of the species,” he says.

However, per North Carolina laws, Massimo must release captured snakes onto properties where he’s been given permission. This can sometimes prove tricky with venomous species. If Massimo can’t find anyone willing to accept copperheads on their property, the state requires the snakes to be humanely euthanized.

“I try to be 100 percent as transparent as possible with people,” he says. “I always try to encourage people to live with the snakes, so if we can relocate them on their property that’s what I try to go for.”

While he mostly serves the Durham area, Massimo said he’s happy to offer identifications or give advice to anyone who reaches out on Nextdoor. His services are free, although he accepts donations to help with his student expenses.

And residents on the app are extremely appreciative of his services. In her post describing the rat snake’s rescue, Dickinson added, “Hooray for Nick, who is a wonderful ambassador to the snake kingdom and to our entire community.”

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission offers these tips for discouraging snakes from living on properties:

  • Clean up clutter—remove hiding places like piles of rocks, wood, and other debris that attract rodents and snakes.
  • Keep the lawn mowed. Snakes and their rodent prey prefer tall grasses where they can hide. They’re also easier to spot in shorter grass.
  • Discourage snakes from entering your home by closing gaps and holes, repairing damage to siding and the foundation, and sealing openings under doors, windows, and around water pipes.

For more information on what to do when you encounter a snake, visit the NCWRC’s snake advice page.

This story was produced by the NC News Intern Corps, a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.