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Summer Classics: Some are born afraid of snakes, and others have snake-fear thrust upon them: Part I

Due to the extreme busyness of this summer, I’ve decided to replay some of my earlier posts that were not seen by many (less than 10, according to the data). Don’t forget that ‘Thought Experiment August’ is coming up and I’ve got some real delights coming up. Until then enjoy.

While spiders used to terrify me, I’ve never been afraid of snakes. Lots of things are. Especially mammals and birds. Especially mammals and birds eaten by snakes. And especially mammals and birds that snakes can bite with lethally poisonous fangs. Nothing sets a troop of monkeys howling like a snake slithering through their midst. Chimps despise the beasts and become agitated and upset when they find one hanging around the encampment and they will let everyone in the forest know that this dust-eating beast is not welcome. Apparently, even chimps raised without ever having seen a snake will become alarmed when one is introduced for the first time. I don’t know about elephants. Something in the back of my mind says they are afraid of them too, but I’m too lazy to look it up. Snakes. Ever since Eden they’ve been a hated scourge. Many of you will relate to this sentiment. Not me. Well, that is until an event which I’ll relate later. Here are two proofs that I’m not afraid of snakes.

First Proof. Once, my son came running into the house and told me there was a snake in the back of our student apartment. I dashed outside and found a circle of screaming kids blocking the harangued serpent’s escape. Charging from the distance, came my neighbor, shirtless and grim faced, with a golf club gripped in his hand, ready tee-off the poor thing’s head down the fairway of our collective backyards. I grabbed the black rat snake and marched it to safety. It was ever grateful and became part of our family until about a year later when it was seduced by a gopher hole and disappeared forever from our lives. To this day the name Crazyhorse will elicit a collective sigh from my children and the statement, “I miss that snake.”

The second proof I offer in evidence of my fearlessness of snakes was while on a Boy Scout canoeing trip in North Carolina, a six-foot long black rat snake (yes same species as Crazyhorse (you can tell I’m not making this up or I would have chosen a different species to add variety and texture to my narrative)) came swimming past us. I grabbed it, but as I did, I realized that I’d grabbed it too far from the head and as it swung around to bite me I remember the thought flashing helplessly through my mind, “Man, I hope this isn’t a water-moccasin.” It’s funny how what you know in theory (small round head, must be a rat snake) is really put on the line when you commit yourself to those beliefs in irrevocable ways (oops, a really big black snake in the water, could be a ‘moccasin). It bit me hard. Two of my sons were there and both their reactions made me proud, one noticed that blood was streaming down my arm from the bite and said, “Dad are you OK?”, and the other observed, “Dad you are hurting the snake!” as he noticed that the snake’s jaw was askew where it had become disarticulated (as they do naturally to swallow large prey) as I held onto it’s head. Held it tightly, mind you. Both questions were delightful, for one son had focused on the fact that one of God’s precious creatures was being hurt and the other son had focused on the snake.

Now I am sad to relat that my relationship with snakes has suffered a dark reversal. Not one that made me afraid of them, but I no longer pluck them willy-nilly from their habitations. You see while at my wife’s grandparents a garner snake went by, and I, meaning no harm, grabbed it. Holding it properly by the head, I raised it up for my kids to see and it shat upon me. [Shat is a technical term among biologists, the present-tense form being a vulgar swear word, but as a past-tense verb it seems a calm and benign accoutrement and carries with it none of the harshness of its present-tense/other past-tense cousin. In fact it seems perfectly pleasant company. I can picture the scene: a proper Victorian couple having a continental breakfast on a garden terrace; a large English pastoral estate visible over the balustrade.

“Edward Dear, has the bear shat in the woods this morning?”
“Why no Pumpkin, he has not.”
“Well, I do hope he does so soon.”
“As do I.”
“More tea, My Dear?”
“Why, thank you Pumpkin, I think I shall”
“No. Thank you, my Dear.”

It’s something you might read in Trollope! (Although I fear my use of the word will be misconstrued and vulgarized by some and will once gain provide NothingWavering.org reason to continue to reject my beleaguered request for legitimacy as a faithful Mormon Blog.)]

My arm was covered with poop [note my refusal to use the vulgar noun]. But this was no ordinary poop. It stunk like nothing I’ve ever smelled. I mean we are talking Dante’s Ninth Circle stink. A stench of unimaginable vileness. I dropped the snake and hosed off the putrid guano, then ran to the sink to wash it clean and remove the smell. But the smell wouldn’t come off. Not with soap, Comet, laundry detergent, ammonia, vinegar, Ziff (only at a grandmother’s house could a bottle of this wondrous cleaning agent still be found), and Clorox—used as a last, skin destroying, futile attempt. It was as if the snake had placed an olfactory tattoo on my arm. It lasted two days. I kid you not. And I had to sniff at it about every hour to see if it was still there. I have not picked up a snake since.

Well, I’ve been over long in my preamble (preramble?), and I had to tell all this to set the stage for what I really want to talk about which is consciousness, free agency, and evolution. So I will break this into two parts.

In the meantime debate the use of certain Anglo-Saxon words in various conjugations (but be warned this is a family blog and I will censor the comments as ruthlessly as NothingWavering.org), and consider whether olfactory tattoos fall under the general tattoo prohibition. We’ll get to consciousness in Part II.

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5 comments to Summer Classics: Some are born afraid of snakes, and others have snake-fear thrust upon them: Part I

  • I’m so glad you brought this back for a rerun, as I missed it somehow on the first go round. I’m speculating how consciousness, free agency, and evolution come in. Is there a link to part 2 somewhere?

    I like snakes, but I’ve never been shat upon by one. (I hope I got that past-participle correct.) I used to be terrified of spiders ever since I was a teenager and woke with them crawling across my neck… big ones that we call “Chinese Writing” spiders. The first time I decided it was a nightmare but the second and subsequent times I actually squished the spider in my hands to preserve the evidence until full waking. It was unfortunately corporeal.

    After decades of arachnophobia, I cured myself inadvertently after I began (in a fit of Christlike forbearance) rescuing the little critters and finding a good spider-home for them outside, rather than killing them. It took about two months (or 10 rescues) to take effect. Unexpected but nice. I now love the little six-eyed eight-legged beasts, but still prefer not to have them crawl on my neck while asleep. I save that honor for kittens, who, judging by the scars on my extremities, are more noxious by far. And yes, I’ve been beshatten by kittens before, however no olfactory tattoos remained that I’m aware of. It’s amazing how much forbearance creatures earn by having fur, four legs, two eyes, and youthful mammalian head and body proportions.

    Had the phylum Hallucigenia survived the late Cambrian and given rise to intelligent members, no doubt they would feel similarly charmed by any creature with no head and seven pairs of spines along its back.

  • Tatiana,

    Thanks! That’s great! I used to be plagued with dreams of spiderwebs, but then as I got to know spiders, and like them, the dreams completely disappeared. It was as if my subconscious said, “This isn’t working anymore. We need another shadowside image to terrify him.”

    Yup, part two will be the next summer classic to go up in a day or two!

  • Great post, Steve!

    Okay, I have been bitten, shat upon, vomited on, constricted by, musked on, and otherwise olfactory-tattooed by HUNDREDS of snakes with various levels of tattoo-esque staying power.

    And guess what, I still LOVE snakes.

    To me, they are just the crowning JEWEL of all Creation (and I suppose women are a close second. LOL j/k). A coiled snake, to me, looks like a coiled gem.

    As far as I know, I was born with this love and attraction to snakes and other reptiles. A weird thing that herpetologists have noted is that most people aren’t neutral about snakes — they either hate them or love them. Whether they elicit oohs and ahhhs or screams, there isn’t much of a gradient between the two.

    Snake breeding for morphs has long been my hobby, like breeding pigeon morphs was for Darwin. I even wrote a 300-page book on all North American ratsnake species west of the Pecos River called “The Complete Suboc” (ECO Herpetological Publishing, 2008).

    However, I’ve recently in the past year or so fallen in love with evolution, and have morphed my love of finding, breeding, and reading about snakes into a love of understanding their evolution.

    Having such a background, I’ve often thought it odd and have been annoyed that there are no LDS hymns that mention reptiles ANYwhere. Plenty of birds upon the wing, velvet roses, and lilac trees, and other niceties, though.

    I think I need to write one that mentions the rainbow-like iridescence of python scales. :)

    I also find the activities at rattlesnake round-ups very disturbing. These animals are often LITERALLY butchered alive in front of a paying crowd. Rattles are cut off, animals are hung by their necks alive and while various organs are being removed, and others are placed on a chopping block and decapitated — and you get to see it all for the price of admission.

    The fact that snakes cannot scream somehow makes doing these things acceptable to many people.

    When I have been around groups of people outside and a mouse or rat happened to cross through the same yard or field, the men in the vicinity would all be chasing the rodent and trying to stomp it — I’ve often noted that the women present usually did not scream after initially seeing the animal until it started to squeak and squeal in protest to being stomped to death.

    There was even an anti-roundup campaign and exhibit at the Ft worth Zoo years ago called “Rattlesnakes Can’t Scream”.

    I think one of the reasons people are so afraid of snakes, is that among all of the vertebrates, they are the most silent when approaching or passing through. They’re just there, all-of-a-sudden. Even small frogs and lizards rustle the grass or leaves when they approach. Even cats, though silent stalkers, are noticeable just by breaking the visual continuity of the horizon. Snakes are usually not seen until they are VERY close, and almost never heard, unless they are even closer.

    Logically thinking, snakes are the most disarmed of the vertebrates. They don’t have any arms, and hence, no claws or feet to kick you with. Their bite is very weak with not much pressure. They have TINY (but sharp) teeth. The ONLY weapon you have to worry about is their mouth (okay, and perhaps their anuses :-)…e.g Steve’s experience). Even the few venomous species are easily rivaled in the damage they can do by the smallest of mammals like raccoons. Get bit by a snake on the finger, and you have to wash your hands. Get bit by a parrot on the finger, and you likely will be picking your finger up off of the floor.

    Also, since they are more distantly related to us than mammals, you don’t have to worry about many diseases after getting bit.

    I’ve worked at veterinary hospitals, a zoo, pet stores, a python breeding farm, and I had my own snake breeding business — let me tell you first hand that I’ve been bit by most things that can bite you, and I’d take a snake bite over a dog, cat, rat, bird, ferret, gerbil, turtle, iguana, or fireant bite ANY day of the week. And yep, I’ve been bit by ALL of those aforementioned things.

    Okay, more rambling later…(And yeah, that Garter musk is potent. Just don’t let it ruin your tolerance for snakes, Steve. There are a lot of species with weaker olfactory-tattoo inks, and some that just don’t resort to musking at all.)

  • *p.s. BTW, that Victorian dialogue was HIL-AR-I-OUS.

    *p.s.s. I’ve got a great idea for a new American pastime called “‘Puppy Roundups”. We can make wallets and keychains out of their skins and tails, we can charge for admission while we show the slaughtering process, and it will help with the wanted, surplus stray dog and cat population.

    I wonder if that would have an effect on stopping snake roundups?

  • Mark Olsen

    Steve, where is part II of this post. I just gotta know how this relates to consciousness and agency!

    Mark

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