Afraid of Snakes? Read this…

A harmless garter snake

A harmless garter snake

Growing up with parents who enjoyed the outdoors and four brothers, I spent the majority of my free time as a child outside. My brothers and I wandered freely the wild lands around our house–the wide, meandering creek behind the house and the acres and acres of undeveloped fields and forest across the street. It was possible to leave out the back door, walk through the yard, scramble down the cliff, walk along the creek, cross our road miles away and return through the fields to our front door. In my explorations, encountering snakes was not uncommon.

I was terrified of snakes. (And spiders. Read about my spider experience HERE.) Sometimes when I’d see one it would be the cause of terrible nightmares that equaled many restless nights. It didn’t help that my mother was also afraid of snakes. When she’d find one in the garden or flower beds, she would frantically use the spade to kill it, then distastefully deposit it “down the bank” where it wouldn’t be seen again.

A black rat snake crossed the Appalachian Trail.

A black rat snake crossed the Appalachian Trail.

When I was 20 I spent the summer working at a nature center in southern Michigan and one of the job requirements involved handling a black rat snake during programs with children. At first the idea of this frightened me, though of course I never said any such thing at the job interview. Having never touched a snake before, I thought –as many people mistakenly do–they were slimy. During my training week before the summer campers arrived, I was introduced to the black rat snake, coached by my boss Sue, who gently showed me the snake and helped me hold it. I was surprised when I touched it and found it dry and soft. The more I handled it, the more comfortable I became with it, seeing that the snake was not “out to get me” and that it didn’t bite every chance it had. In fact, it was gentle and calm and I became amazed at all of its remarkable adaptations. I learned that snakes smell with their tongues–the reason they flick them in and out of their mouths so frequently. I leaned that snakes’ eyes get cloudy when they are about to shed their skin.

Though I am opposed to keeping wild animals in captivity, I witnessed life-changing moments throughout that summer when I brought out the snake after some discussion and allowed those who wanted to reach out a hand and touch it as I walked around. Kids went from thinking they were afraid of snakes to begging me to let them hold it! 

In the United States, fear of spiders and snakes is common and what it often means is that the snakes and spiders are killed. This breaks my heart. Are people just programmed to fear things we don’t know much about? Is our fear based on negative portrayal of snakes in the movies, on TV and in popular media?  How can such small creatures inspire such fear and hatred? If your parents fear nature and the animals in it, are we destined to fear it too? Can we change the way people treat snakes and spiders? 

As a child I was petrified of both snakes and spiders and now actively seek out both to photograph and observe. I am fascinated with both and enjoy encountering them on my wild outings. These days when I see a snake or a spider I am THRILLED, because I know I can photograph it and then use my photograph to help others overcome their fears. It is possible. I am proof. You just have to be open-minded enough to consider that maybe all of what you “know” is not really truth at all, but just more myths, passed down through the ages.

A ring neck snake is easily picked up.

A ring neck snake is easily picked up.

I recommend that if you are afraid of snakes, next time you see one, try watching from a distance you feel comfortable. Just observe. See what it does and how it acts. As you do you will get more comfortable with the idea. From the comfort of your own home, look at pictures. Notice the beauty in these misunderstood, feared and often, hated animals. You CAN overcome your fear!

Have you overcome your fear of spiders or snakes? If so, use the comment box below to let us know your story!

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This entry was posted in Call to Action!, My Outdoor Classroom, Myth Busters and tagged , , , .