A tale of two sisters and snakes

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Based solely on my own experience, I suspect most people hate snakes. That’s how I explain the many images of severed and decapitated snakes people proudly send me each year.

Most recently a friend sent me a photo of a northern brown snake that someone had cut in half with a shovel. Brown snakes are small (about 12 inches long), inconspicuous and totally harmless unless you’re a worm, slug or snail.

Snake slayer

Why kill something most people have probably never even seen? I’ve long been intrigued by our hostile attitudes toward snakes.

My wife credits Carl Sagan with the notion that may be genetic, dating back to prehistoric days when big snakes may have actually been threats to human life. Or perhaps the Judeo-Christian story of the serpent and original sin is to blame.

Snake behavior

I think it’s learned behavior. When I realized years ago that my family would include a snake hater (my wife), a snake appreciator (me) and two daughters, I tried to behave in a snake-neutral manner for my daughters’ sake.

Older daughter Nora loved the country life and whenever I found a turtle, salamander or snake she was enthralled. She eagerly handled them and wanted to learn more about them. Nora was obviously not predisposed to hate snakes.

Snake trauma

Emma was six years younger and she followed Nora’s path. I even have a Polaroid photo of the three of us with a large boa constrictor draped over our shoulders. But when Emma was about seven years old, I inadvertently traumatized her. We found an eight-inch long, completely harmless ring-neck snake in the yard, and Emma asked to hold it.

Snake accident

I placed it in her hands, and as it slithered through her fingers, she was thrilled. Until the snake somehow got its teeth stuck on the tip of one of Emma’s fingers. It wasn’t a bite because a snake that small is unable to open its jaws wide enough to bite even a child’s tender skin. But there it was dangling from one of Emma’s fingertips. I carefully dislodged the snake’s teeth from Emma’s finger as quickly as I could. There was no pain, no blood, no scar. Just sheer terror.

No snake fan

Ever since that last day, Emma has abhorred snakes. She loves animals and is a nature girl at heart, but to this day, when she sees a snake of any kind she’s gone with a scream in a cloud of dust. Emma is clearly her mother’s daughter. She loathes snakes.

Intellectually, she understands the ecological role they play, but she can’t stand the sight of them. My wife has explained her feelings about snakes to me many times. “I don’t hate them, I’m repulsed by them,” she said. “Their unblinking eyes (snake lack eyelids; a transparent scale protects their eyes) unnerve me, their slithering motion is unnatural and I usually see one just as I’m about to step on it.”

Overcoming snake fear

Linda has always felt this way, and one time many years ago we spent a summer at a biological station where I taught. A herpetologist friend kept several docile captive snakes in his lab. Linda agreed to hold one to overcome her fears. And she did it. But the look in her eyes as that rat snake slid through her fingers and up her arm was classic. To my knowledge, she’s never held a snake again.

Snake attitude

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I respect Linda and Emma’s attitude toward snakes.And it’s not that I’m a snake lover. I like to see them in the yard where I know they eat mice and chipmunks, but I also realize they get into my nest boxes and eat bluebirds and chickadees. But I’m convinced that we are not born with a negative attitude toward snakes.

Snake haters have either had a bad experience like Emma, or perhaps they picked up on attitudes from adults when they were young. My plea is this: as days warm and reptiles become more active, don’t kill snakes just because they’re snakes. You don’t have to like them; just tolerate them.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this article, I have shared it on Facebook. We taught our daughters to respect all creatures. You don’t have to like something to respect it. Or just leave it alone. It hurts me to know some people go out of their way to kill snakes.

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