Monster to neighbor — attitudes about snakes

A few weeks ago I wrote about snakes and why they’re good to have around. I urged readers to protect them rather than kill them on sight. I expected a fury of letters from snake haters.

I was pleasantly surprised to get no such mail. This is the first time I’ve written about snakes that every letter and email I received supported my defense of snakes. In fact, every letter I received thanked me for my support of snakes.

Change

Reader reaction confirms attitudes can change from one generation to the next. Take for example, the words of 78-year old Ardis Shirley of Mount Alto, W. Va.: “My father was petrified of even the smallest snake,” she wrote. “From the time I was a little girl, he would yell for me to get a hoe and rescue him from the latest monster that had plans to eat him alive.”

“The past two summers I found the biggest rat snake I had ever seen in my hen house. The last time it was trying to swallow a fourth egg when I gave it a poke, and it left through the hole it came in. Stretched across the floor it was at least five feet long.

“If I ever found a copperhead, I’d probably kill it. But my brother has a picture of a copperhead found in his clothes dryer. It had come in through the vent. He sprayed it with something he had handy, and it slithered back out the vent.”

“My son lives on a narrow dusty country road. He recently stopped to let a green snake cross the road because he knew the fellow behind him would intentionally run it over.”

Shirley’s letter makes it clear that attitudes change over time. From a father terrified of snakes to a daughter who gives egg-eating snakes a pass to her son who protects snakes crossing country roads, the Shirley family attitudes toward snakes have clearly changed.

A little education about the lives of snakes and some personal experience combined to make snakes just a little less monstrous.

Regarding the snake in the dryer, however, I’d bet it was a milk snake, not a copperhead. Milk snakes, like rat snakes, are superior climbers and inclined to live near houses. Copperheads are more reclusive and typically live among rocks and dead leaves on the forest floor.

Attitude. My wife is another example of how attitudes change over time. She has always hated snakes. Today she says, “I’m not afraid of snakes. I know they aren’t going to attack me or hurt me, and I know they keep rodent populations under control. They simply repulse me. I think it’s their lidless eyes and legless locomotion I can’t stand.”

(Snake eyes are protected by a clear scale that is replaced each time a snake sheds its skin. That’s why they have no eyelids.)

Linda takes it one step further. “I think it was Carl Sagan who explained that human’s deep-seated fear of snakes was biological, dating back to prehistoric times when big snakes posed a real threat to human life,” she explained.

So perhaps biological memory is partially to blame for some people’s fear of snakes. But it’s a fear that can be overcome. I commend Linda for her tolerance and understanding that not every snake must be killed.

Experience also plays a major role in molding attitudes about snakes. When my daughters where little girls, I often caught small snakes and let them hold and admire them. As adults, older daughter Nora has no problem with snakes.

Bad experience. Emma, on the other hand, was scarred by what in her five-year mind was a traumatic event. While an eight-inch milk snake glided through her fingers, it somehow got its teeth stuck on the tip of her pinky finger. Emma says it bit her.

In any case, for a few seconds Emma had a tiny snake attached to her fingertip. No blood was shed, but more than 20 years later snakes still terrify her.

So, thanks to all who wrote thanking me for defending snakes. We’re making progress.

About the Author

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. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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