Ophidiophobia: The Fear of Snakes
"The fear of snakes is cultivated. We are not born with it. Children love snakes as naturally as they love dogs and cats. Don’t be afraid of a reptile’s tongue. The only animal that can hurt you with its tongue is the human being." ~ Grace Olive Wiley, herpetologist
Anyone who has kept snakes has heard one or all of these responses or variations thereof about their pet/hobby:
"I'm terrified of snakes!"
"Ugh, I hate snakes!"
"Gross, kill it!"
"You like snakes? I bet you'd enjoy this story about how I killed one in my yard!"
"The only good snake is a dead snake."
Notice how quickly it escalates to suggesting our pets should be murdered? Imagine someone saying this in regard to the picture of your cat in your cubical or to the sight of your dog as you take them for a walk.
This article is less for the herpers out there and more for the people in their lives that strive to overcome that knee jerk reaction. I've gone into some of this before in the more general Snakes 101 but I'd like to delve a bit deeper to alleviate those fears. I'll even include a picture of cute floofy critters in each section to help you get through it.
So here we go; Ophidiophobia 101. Let's break it down.
a) Fear of snakes is not hard wired.
Fear of snakes is one of the most common phobias in the world. So, it makes sense that for years it was assumed to be a natural evolutionary response to how dangerous snakes are to us. But as fascinating and informative as evolution is we have a habit of sometimes giving it credit for things that are purely cultural. One of these things is a fear of snakes.
Babies aren't afraid of snakes. No more or less than any other animal. Children simply take cues from adults. What does appear to be innate is a fascination with snakes. We're predisposed to notice them but not to fear them.
What this means is that ophidiophobia is not a 'natural' fear. It's taught and/or learned. Throughout history people have been fascinated with snakes which is why they're so deeply rooted in the most ancient myths and legends of every culture. Depicted as symbols of healing, of evil, of rebirth, snakes have a long history of being feared and/or admired by human beings which can influence our reactions to them but it's not something we're born with.
Which brings me to...
b) Snakes are just animals.
This seems like an obvious one but a lot of people treat snakes as though they're something otherworldly. Which should be flattering. We use the word 'otherworldly' for beautiful things like angels, elves, unicorns, and David Bowie. That otherworldly beauty is certainly part of my fondness for snakes but they're flesh and blood animals like any other. They feel pain, hunger, and stress. They react to their environment. They jump when startled and can freeze or overheat. They sniff around to get a sense of things and only try to bite humans if they feel threatened.
There is nothing inherently vindictive or supernatural about these animals. They don't creep into your room at night to try and strangle you or stretch out next to you to see if you're a good size to eat. Those are silly myths and urban legends. Humans are not a prey item for the vast majority of species across the world. Few get big enough to even consider it and even then humans are considered a predator.
They aren't plotting against you and they don't want to bite or kill you. They aren't demonic or evil or anything like that. Snakes are just animals with no legs. They have a heart, lungs, brains, a nervous system, etc. Just shy, clean, quiet animals with some unusual anatomy.
In fact, it takes them a long time to digest things and they can comfortably go a good while between meals. A full belly means they're vulnerable and generally just want to find somewhere warm and safe to relax. They aren't very complex in their needs.
As animals go, medium sized to small nonvenomous snakes are very low maintenance pets and helpful garden friends in the wild! They're hypoallergenic, easy to keep clean, and never bark at the mailman. So if you're grossed out by your friend's pet python or corn snake or what have you... why? They're not slimy (in texture they range from a smooth plastic-y feel to leathery) they poop infrequently, and even when it comes to shedding they're tidy about it! There's nothing gross about them that isn't equally gross about any other animal.
c) Most snakes aren't dangerous.
Obviously there are dangerous, venomous snakes but they are a minority. There are far more harmless snakes than dangerous ones. Only around 25% of the species in the world are venomous, and an even smaller portion are dangerous to humans. If you see someone out and about with a pet snake around their neck the chances of them being dangerous to you drop to 0%. Nobody walks around with a rattlesnake or a cobra about their shoulders.
It's perfectly rational to be wary of any wild animal, whatever the species. If you see a snake in the wild and don't know what kind it is the best course of action is always to leave it alone. Your average nonvenomous snake is about as dangerous to you as, say, a feral cat. So, not very, but getting bit still isn't much fun. Let them go about their business keeping rodent populations down.
A venomous snake isn't worth the risk of upsetting. There likely aren't as many dangerous species as not dangerous ones in your area so it's not hard to find out what features to look out for. Any search engine can help you out there. Find out what to watch for where you live and know the rest of them are harmless. That lovely swan pictured above is far more dangerous than your average garden snake.
If you have a potentially venomous snake in an area that's accessible to your children or pets then please call Animal Control and leave it to the pros! Otherwise leave nonvenomous snakes alone. Your dog is more likely to eat the snake than the other way around. There's no more reason to kill one than there is to kill a stray cat (please don't kill stray cats either, wtf man).
If someone is handling a pet snake in public then that animal is not dangerous. Can it bite? Yes. Just like a cat or a small dog can bite. And about as likely. Responsible serpent stewards won't take a nervous, nippy animal out in public or invite you to pet them. My ball python Gomez, for example, hides his face when he's startled. I've never even heard him hiss and I've had him for over a decade, since he was a little baby. He's great for introducing people to snakes. Generally an animal that's calm enough to hang out on their caretaker's shoulders isn't going to bother anybody. They can still get stressed though, even if they don't show it with aggression. So be kind and calm. The more you jump the more they jump!
d) There are assholes in every hobby.
If someone has ever used a snake to scare you, that person is an asshole. It's cruel to do to you and to the animal. It's also not the snake's fault. They don't want to scare you and don't like being around nervous humans let alone a flailing startled one. Please don't let that negative experience twist your perspective. That person was a jerk and should be called out as such.
People who get into the hobby just to look badass and intimidate people rub me the wrong way. That's not a good reason to get any animal. Snakes and certain breeds of dog get the worst of it. Macho nonsense doesn't just hurt men, women, and everyone in-between but pets too. It's really damaging to the animal's public image and, sadly in numerous cases, their safety and well being. Don't get an animal just because you want to impress or frighten someone. Get an animal because you love it and intend to take care of it.
Speaking of serpentine public relations, movies and television don't help their image much either. You often see species that are harmless or easy to work with in film because, well, they're harmless and easy to work with. But 90% of the time they're presented as monstrous, dangerous, and even defying physics. Don't buy it. It's either a really chill animal or CGI. This is true of a lot of animals, really. The more you know about them the sillier and less realistic most media comes off.
Snakes really need a better PR agent. This site is, in part, trying to take that on but I hope to see more do the same.
e) If you must detest snakes resist
the urge to be rude to those who love them.
If all this doesn't soothe you one bit and you still aren't a fan, that's okay. I get it. We all have things like that we're just not ready to get past. Hell, I struggle with OCD and anxiety so there's a whole plethora of irrational things I'm just happier to avoid. Thank you SO much for reading all the way through my serpent tirade.
Just one last thing... I'm asking, pleading with you, don't be a dick about it. Those comments at the top of this article? Swallow them. Resist saying them out-loud. Hold it in like a fart on an elevator.
For example, I don't happen to think babies are cute. I don't want to hold them or look at them until they're past the larval stage and I can hold a conversation with them. I'm squicked by snot and diapers and drool and so on, it's really gross, and I have this stomach-dropping fear of dropping the small, fragile, innocent child. So, zero appeal for me when it comes to baby holding. That's my problem and not the baby or the parent's at all.
How do I react when someone shows me their baby and asks if I want to hold them? I certainly don't make disgusted faces or rude remarks that reflect my inability to handle or admire said baby. I just politely say 'No thank you' when asked if I want to hold them. The end. Smile and say 'no thank you.' That baby is a small person with feelings and their parents are people with feelings and I'm not out to hurt anybody. And guess what? It works! I say no thank you, they ask if I am sure, I say that I am, and life goes on. Everybody's happy and respected!
That's all you have to do. Take a step back if you need, smile politely, and say 'no thank you'. You don't have to mention snake death at all. Your herper friends will appreciate it, trust me!
But if said herper falls into the asshole category and torments you about it, call them out. Anyone who uses animals to bully people-or enjoys bullying at all really- deserves to be called out and shamed. If they don't listen and continue the behavior, distance yourself from them. You deserve better.
The snakes deserve better too.
And we can all do better for each other and the animals
with a little education, mutual respect, and empathy.