After waiting in a line of about 30 children to touch a black rat snake named Bugeye, Emily Dietz stepped right up and trailed her fingers down the reptile's scaly back.
"I like to touch snakes," the 8-year-old said during a recent program at Marshy Point Nature Center in Chase. "I think snakes are one of the coolest animals around."
Emily's reaction was an example of one of the two opposing inclinations visitors typically have toward snakes, said Bob Stanhope of the Marshy Point staff.
"People are either scared of or fascinated by snakes," said Stanhope, 66, who has been a naturalist for more than 38 years.
Emily, a resident of Fallston in Harford County, was among more than 50 people who visited the center recently to attend a program on snakes. It was one of the many free sessions presented on weekends throughout the year at Marshy Point, which opened in 2000 on 492 acres of forested wetlands.
The two-hour programs are offered on topics including beekeeping, bird-watching, canoeing, spiders, fish, turtles, crabs, bats and night hikes. Most sessions attract about 35 people. The snake program is one of the most popular, Stanhope said, attributing the appeal to the fascination many people have for snakes.
"People love to see snakes and hear about them," he said. "So what I try to do is develop their interest with facts that will help them to have healthy attitudes about snakes."
Some visitors show up with a positive attitude about the reptiles. Jason Pisani, for instance, has two corn snakes and a boa constrictor for pets, and offered advice about getting to know snakes before Stanhope's class began.
"You can't be scared of a snake, because they will sense your fear and bite you," said Jason, 12, a Baltimore resident.
Stanhope takes such advice and uses it in his presentation, explaining how people are taught to fear snakes.
"They shriek, `Ohhhh! A snake!' Or they run from it," Stanhope said. "The truth is that although we have a built-in reflex to run from a snake, it's the worst thing you can do, because snakes can feel movement."
Snakebites also are a prime topic in the session. Stanhope said copperheads are the only poisonous snake commonly seen in Maryland and that he could recall only one reported death caused by a copperhead bite. That one involved a girl who was bitten twice, he said.
Hollie Pisani, Jason's sister, said it doesn't matter to her whether snakes bite - she likes them.
"I'm not afraid of a snake," the 7-year-old said as she walked over and petted Bugeye. "They are so cool when they eat mice."
Stanhope tries to quash misconceptions about snakes, including some people's belief that the creatures have a hypnotic gaze.
"People have told me that snakes have eyes that can hypnotize animals," said Stanhope. "They don't and they can't."
There's also a belief - a mistaken one, Stanhope said - that snakes live in groups. Some people think that when they see one snake, others are surely nearby.
"You might find one snake per acre if you're lucky," Stanhope said. "Snakes are good predators. They need a lot of mice to feed. So they are never numerous."
Perhaps the greatest fallacy is that snakes are slimy, said Stanhope.
"A snake is only as warm as its surroundings," Stanhope said. "Their skin is watertight, so they are dry, not wet and slimy."
Katelyn Dietz concurred.
"The black snake felt soft underneath," said Katelyn, Emily's 9-year-old sister. "The top is rough, not slimy at all."
Katelyn and Emily traveled from their Fallston home with their father, Greg, and their four other sisters, ranging in age from 18 months to 9 years. He said he plans to teach a snake unit while home-schooling next year and wanted his daughters to learn about the reptiles before then.
"This program is a great chance for my girls to get up close and personal with snakes," he said. "It's a great way to get them interested in learning about snakes."
Marshy Point snakes
Snakes commonly found at Marshy Point:
Eastern worm snake
Rough green snake
Black rat snake
Northern water snake
Eastern garter snake
Source: Marshy Point Nature Center