Photograph by Eric Thayer, Reuters
Published May 11, 2011
This story is part of a special National Geographic News series on global water issues.
With the river now receding in the city and the rest of Shelby County, nature has "put the pin back in the grenade," said county spokesperson Steve Shular.
But explosive animal encounters may await returning evacuees.
"We're starting to see some issues, especially with the snakes," Shular explained. "We've definitely seen a lot of snakes, like water moccasins"—venomous pit vipers with potentially fatal bites that are also called cottonmouths (water moccasin picture).
With swollen rivers reaching up near homes and neighborhoods, "we want to make sure people understand that the rules have changed," Shular said.
"When that water gets into a neighborhood, snakes are going to be searching for shelter and food in homes or sheds or wherever they can slither into."
(See Mississippi flood pictures.)
Floods Come at Tough Time for Turkeys
But isn't just snakes displaced by the flooding, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officer Jereme Odom.
With thousands of acres of farms and wooded bottomlands flooded, countless rabbits, turkeys, deer, and other animals have been forced to flee—or perish.
"We've seen photos of herds of deer on levees trying to get away from the waters and heard from the Army Corps of Engineers that they've seen deer drowned during the flood," Odom said.
"One of our wildlife managers even spotted deer and coyotes"—natural enemies—"standing on the same levee together," he said.
Many of those nests have been lost to or displaced by floods, and countless new birds might not survive—especially if the animals float to areas with egg-eating opossums or raccoons.
"In the flooded areas, we're going to see a significant reduction in turkeys," Odom said.
Mississippi Flood Spurs Tide of Animal Refugees?
While most animals will survive the Mississippi River flood, for some their habitats could take years to return to normal, Odom said.
"Animals will be displaced for so long that, when the water does recede, it will take a while to get back to their original habitats," he said. "Some may be established elsewhere or displaced so far away that they never get back."
Finding food and shelter in the unfamiliar new surroundings could be stressful, Odom said. And the new neighbors may not exactly roll out the welcome wagon.
"Snake populations, in particular, could be really [threatened], because when they get into residential areas, people just destroy them," he said.
Hoping to avoid unnecessarily contentious encounters, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is advising people, whenever possible, to simply wait for animals to return to their normal habitats.
"Animals that appear to be in need of rescue should be left alone," Chad Harden, a big game coordinator with the agency, said in a May 6 statement.
"They are under stress, but their natural survival instincts will help them cope with the situation until things get back to normal. The animals could pose a real danger to someone who might try to rescue them."
For his part, Tennessee wildlife officer Odom is taking the long view.
"This isn't the first time we've seen major floods. It goes all the way back to Noah, and the animals are still here," he said. "The main thing is what humans will do to let them come back."
The World's Water
The world's increasing population and development of agricultural land are putting pressure on the Earth's limited freshwater supplies. Find out what's at stake and how you can help.
Learn more about the world's water challenge with photos, stories, videos, and more.
You might be surprised to see how the daily choices you make affect critical watersheds around the world.
Water Currents, by Sandra Postel and Others
Arizona's Verde River gets a boost from an innovative partnership.
Farmers in the Verde River Basin employ new technology to benefit a desert environment.
Funny new viral video series hopes to get people thinking about the importance of water.
Stories From Experts in the Field
National Geographic Fellow Zeb Hogan tells us what needs to happen in order to save the region's giant fish.
Sunita Narain tells us how one remote village is setting an example for the rest of the country—and world.
National Geographic Freshwater Fellow Sandra Postel describes one of the biggest success stories in urban water management.
Special Ad Section
Shop book & DVD gifts for all ages. Plus, save on maps featuring award-winning cartography. Limited time only.