Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Eek! A snake!

I know the photos are broken. I'm working on it.

A few days ago I was interviewed by a local high school student who is doing a senior exit project on herpetology (you go girl!). One of the questions she asked me was "what sparked your interest in herpetology?" While I can't remember a time I didn't love salamanders and frogs the moment that jumps out at my most is of my first snake.

I don't remember exactly how old I was but might have been in kindergarten at the time. I was out with the neighbor's kids, who were a few years older than me, exploring the cow pasture behind our house when we found a snake. My neighbors told me to back off because their mom hated snakes and said they were dangerous. They then proceded to beat the snake to death with sticks until it was so worked into the ground it was barely visible. I told them to stop but they didn't listen. A few hours later I went back to check it out and when I pulled it out of the ground saw that there were things moving around inside its open stomach. Alarmed, I dropped the snake and two tiny babies crawled out onto the grass. I took them home and tried to save them, (my mom made me keep them outside), but they died within hours.

It didn't make sense to me that this animal, which seemed helpless, could have been dangerous or threatening in any way. I later learned it was a harmless Gartersnake and got into the habit of taking all the snakes from our neighbor's side of my yard and moving them to the far end of the cow pasture where they could not be killed. This habit soon flourished into a diversified interest in all reptiles and amphibians that would later come to define who I am today.

A lot of people have fears of snakes and, unfortunately, very often these fears result in snakes being killed. The snakes usually aren't killed because they are a threat, they are killed because they are there. Yes, some snakes can be harmful to humans if bitten (in the US those are vipers and coralsnakes), but even they will not bite unless provoked. Venom is a last line of defense for these animals and is only used in defense if a snake is in fear for its life. Most people bitten by these snakes were messing with them, either trying capture or one-- we recently had our first rattlesnake bite in over 50 years in Vermont and guess what, the guy had tried to pick it up. If people would simply leave the snakes alone most bites could be avoided.

So why are people so afraid of snakes? Infants and toddlers are not usually affraid of snakes but older kids and adults often are. I've spoken to many people who have said they were fine with snakes when they were young but are uncomfortable around them now. I believe that we have a genetic predisposition to easily learn a fear of snakes at a young age. While experimenting on kids is usually frowned upon, we share a lot of our genes with chimpanzees and, as chance would have it, there was a study on chimps that supports this idea.

Back in the 80's Susan Mineka observed that wild chimps are afraid of snakes but captive-born chimps are not. She put young chimps in a room with a rubber snake and had the chimps reach over the snake to retrieve food; they willingly did so. She then showed the chimps a video of a wild chimp reacting with fear to the presense of a snake and found that after exposure to this video, most of her captive chimps were afraid to reach over the rubber snake to retrieve the same food; some even cowered in the corner of their enclosures. She then took the video, transposed the image of a flower over the snake, and played it to the chimps. When required to reach over the same type of flower to retrieve food, all of them did so without paying any attention to the flower. This study provided very strong evidence that chimps learn a fear of snakes more easily than of other things.

Assuming that we have enough in common with chimps to believe that something similar might be going on in humans, it is not such a far stretch to think that with enough positive experiences around snakes, most people can unlearn their fears of these animals. Even if some people never become comfortable with snakes it would at least be nice to get them to a point where they can refrain themselves from killing snakes in the future. Where humans originated, Africa, snake bites killed people, and fear of snakes was a benefitial trait, but it will not help us nearly as much here.

In Vermont, I have TAd a field herpetology class for the past few years and in most years there is at least one person who is afraid of snakes. In most cases, when we catch a snake in the class and show it around these people start off keeping a distance but after seeing other students handling them regularly the next step is to get a little closer and look, but not touch. Before long most folk want to just touch the snakes with 1 finger, with someone else holding the head away. From that moment on it's not very long before people want to hold a snake. I've seen it countless times. The young woman below is a perfect example:

Ok, that's a very small snake, but it wasn't long before she upgraded.

This guy was so proud of holding his first snake that he had me take this picture so he could send it to his mom that night.

The woman below is one of my good friends and was a housemate of mine for a while. She spent weeks getting to know my captive-bred kingsnake, Theo, and was catching snakes in the wild soon after:

Even coming across a venomous species, if you can get to know and understand their habits and needs, can be a very rewarding experience. A good friend of mine was pretty uneasy around the idea of herping in copperhead habitat until we found one and she had a chance to observe it up close. It was so calm and non-threatening that she's now interested in finding and looking at copperheads on her own.

I spent a summer working on a veggie farm a number of years back and a high school girl working part time freaked out when a gartersnake came out of a tomato patch toward her. She said she hated snakes and had always been terrified of them. I caught it and within 5 minutes of talking about the animal to her she wanted to touch it as long as I would hold the head. Two days later I caught another and asked if she wanted to hold it on her own. "Are you serious?" she asked, in complete shock. I said yes, she paused for a moment, and then decided she was ready. A week later she caught one on her own. She traded sides pretty quickly, but I've seen the entire process wrap up in 10 minutes before. It can take years though, and some people never get there.

There was a guy in the field herp class a couple years back who I was pretty proud of. He is a friend of mine and talked to me months in advance about the fact that he had a gut-wrenching fear of snakes. He knew the snakes we'd see in the class were harmless but was very apprehensive about it. He never did get to a point where he could touch a snake that spring but it took a lot of courage for him just to take a class where he knew he would have to confront that fear. Toward the end he was more comfortable looking at snakes from a distance but still had a way to go. I thought then that he may get there eventually and hoped he would. The first step is always going to be recognizing that your fears are irrational and he accomplished that very quickly.

He was, however, willing to catch and handle snapping turtles. In my personal opinion, that takes way more courage than handling even the largest colubrid snake:

Just a few weeks ago he shot me a message to say that he'd seen this blog post and to show me this photo. Congratulations Chris!

Some folk present more of a challenge; I'm still working on my step dad. He's at least stopped killing them, I think, but it will be a long time before he's ready to willingly be in the same room as a snake, let alone handle one. Every now and then I send he and my mom documentaries about snakes and they watch them together, it seems to be helping. He admits to having been OK with snakes as a young kid but it all ended when somebody put a ratsnake in his sleeping bag at camp.

I think that with enough postive exposure anybody can get past their fear of snakes, even folk like my step dad. We may be programmed to learn a fear of snakes very easily, but time after time again I have seen that fear unlearned -- it just takes a little more time and patience (some times a lot more) to overcome that barrier.

It's hard for me to picture a life without snakes and I feel strongly that people who are afraid of them or who simply hate them with a passion are missing out on a part of the natural world that can be very rewarding. Finding, photographing, or when appropriate, catching snakes is just plain fun, I can't think of a better word for it. Does this guy look like he's having a bad time?

Just look at the joy these animals can bring some people...

This woman is much more afraid of a snake's musk than its bite. What's the saying, "it's musk is worse than its bite?"

This guy just got done being bitten by a chipmunk, but not the snake he is holding, (For the record, chipmunks are nasty beasts and you should all send your kids inside if you see one. Squirrels too.):

And then there are folk who have been wrangling snakes for so long you can't even remember what they look like without a snake in their hands:

There are also folk like me who are just crazy about snakes, and crazy in general:

I hope you enjoyed this short essay (or really long post). Until next time!