The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time

I’ve never found a definitive answer as to why so many Western folks hate and fear snakes. We still use the rod of Asclepius symbol, where the snakes represent regeneration and healing. And yet snakes are still strongly associated with deception and nastiness, so that calling someone a snake is a pretty serious accusation. And if you mention finding a snake in your yard, most people find it a horrifying idea.

Christian symbolism, maybe? That seems like a factor, but I’m not sure it explains the average person’s strong reaction at the thought of a pet snake. The most likely reason is that some snakes are venomous, and all of them are weird-looking compared to us mammals. So it’s become unconscious folklore that all snakes are dangerous monsters — even in places like Canada that have far more harmless snakes than dangerous ones. My mom told me that when her father saw a snake near the house, he would immediately get a shovel and kill it — and my grandfather liked animals, to the best of my knowledge. Just not that kind of animal.

But I was raised with no such snake prejudice. I occasionally saw garter snakes in the forest, and I learned to appreciate this opportunity to see a neat animal, but to keep my distance and be respectful. No big deal.

Then, at age thirteen, I started volunteering at the local science center. I must have used up my lottery-winning quotient for the rest of my life, because I was assigned to the biology section and all its northern Ontarian animals. My work — unpaid work, just so we’re clear — was mostly awesome, glamorous stuff like cleaning mouse cages. But if a visitor asked to see an animal, I was authorized to take certain critters out of their habitats and give a spontaneous presentation. My animals were the painted turtles, snapping turtles, flying squirrels and of course, some snakes! The black rat snake was my favourite.

The science center’s black rat snake was nearly 6 feet/2 meters long, and a deep, glossy black. Gorgeous animal. But the milk snakes were a more common request, I guess because they’re smaller and less intimidating.

It was usually children who asked me to take a snake out for them. Kids love animals. Especially cool, scary animals. Their parents typically looked uneasy at the thought of taking a snake out of its locked enclosure — maybe thinking of a time their own fathers grabbed shovels. But if some teenage girl in an Authoritative Lab Coat says she’ll show you how to pet a snake, well, how dangerous could it be?
So I, the teenage pseudoscientist, would enter a mysterious door and reemerge with a snake in my bare hands. The science center snakes had been handled for years and they were used to it — in fact, they had learned to appreciate the heat of human bodies. They’d leisurely climb my forearms, or else just curl up in my hands.

And the kids remained excited, petting the smooth scales. I’d start talking about snake trivia, including where some negative stereotypes came from. Milk snakes, for example, got their name because farmers would blame snakes when their cows’ milk dried up. Clearly, evil snakes were latching onto cows’ udders in the night and drinking all the milk! But the snakes actually came to farms to eat mice. While I talked, the kids’ parents would warily come closer and touch the snake, too, just with a fingertip at first.

They found find that snakes aren’t slimy or worm-like at all. The scales are smooth, and the whole animal feels firm and muscular. And their kids were enjoying the experience. And I had just pointed out that snakes are, if anything, helpful to human civilization. The family would thank me for taking out the animal for them, and they’d leave, with the adults usually wearing a surprised little smile. They had just changed their worldview by a significant fraction.

And that was why I liked the volunteer job so much. I got to handle some animals that are usually only seen in the wild around here, and it was surprisingly easy to open people’s minds with these animals. Adult people who had already formed opinion bases. There’s more than one way to see a crawling reptile and I was able to prove that over and over, for random strangers. It was well worth my time.

One Comment on “The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time”

  1. […] The Western view of snakes and how I changed it in my spare time […]

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