Ophidiophobia

Back in the 1980s when I was the managing editor of South Carolina Wildlife magazine a lean, tall drunk staggered into my office one afternoon. He wore a big cowboy hat, fancy boots, and a string tie adorned by a silver and turquoise clasp. He looked like a Texan, an older version of Josey Wales. He was sun-and liquor-burnt and burning mad.

“You got to do something about folks killing snakes,” he said, red-eyed, agitated, and smelling of Jim Beam. He had just seen a car swerve across a country lane to deliberately run over a rattler. It upset him so much he drove a long ways into the city to find the wildlife magazine boys and state his case. He wanted me to write a feature pleading with people not to kill every snake they see. We, he figured, could do snakes justice.

“People will run over a snake and it keeps on crawling,” he said. “They think it’s fine but all its organs are crushed and it goes off to die a long slow death. We got to stop that.” He paced about, visibly upset. I knew the source of his troubled mind. “The only good snake is a dead snake.” How many times have you heard that? A Biblical fear of snakes seems to inhabit way too many people. Just the other day a fellow told me he killed a king snake in his back yard.

“That’s a most beneficial snake,” I told him, “one that will run off or kill its venomous cousins.”

“I didn’t like how it looked,” he said. He paused before saying; “I don’t want any snakes in my yard.” He’s not alone. Way too many people don’t want a snake of any kind slithering about their property. They want it dead.

Later in the week a relative back home emailed me a photo of a handsome copperhead, dead, of course, crushed by the wheels of her car. “The only good snake is a dead snake.”

Psychologists say two fears are hardwired into our DNA: a fear of heights and a fear of snakes. It’s true and the fear of snakes is called ophidiophobia. Last spring I was holding a bright green hose watering my St. Augustine grass. Suddenly the hose wrapped itself around my right wrist. A beautiful garter snake had crawled up the hose and found my hand to be a good place to wrap its lithe coils. I threw the hose and the snake into the air and screamed like a third-grade girl who had just seen Frankenstein.

Embarrassed I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed my moment as a bona fide sissy. No one did thankfully, and as for the snake it hightailed it through the grass as scared of me as I was of it.

In the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” In this era when we try hard to eradicate racism, sexism, and other isms maybe a little education can alleviate much of our snakeism. Snakes do good things. They keep  smaller members of the animal kingdom from becoming over populated. They eat insects and rats, neither of which will benefit the garden. One rodent-eating snake can wipe out a rat family in weeks, and several small snakes can rein in a grasshopper population in a confined area in just one summer.

And snakes do these good deeds without hurting the environment. They don’t dig holes (they commandeer holes burrowing animals create). They don’t chew or damage the landscape. (Can you say that about squirrels and your decking timbers?) They don’t hurt plants. They don’t make one bit of noise, no noise pollution like yapping dogs make, and they avoid people at all costs. Sure if you mess with one or inadvertently step on it will defend itself but by and large it will leave you alone. Why don’t you do the same?

Give snakes a break. The snake is the farmer’s friend, protecting his crops and feed from insatiable rats. And there’s one other reason to be nice to snakes, one you probably haven’t thought of at all. Snake venom is miraculous stuff. A component of snake venom has demonstrated its ability to inhibit cancer cell migration in two different cancer models. Snake venom, some scientists believe, might hold the chemical key to curing diabetes too. Save a snake and you may be saving the life of future generations.

Most of us are aware of antivenin and what it does. Snake venom is extracted through a series of steps and processed into snakebite serum. The serum is then distributed to hospitals and doctors. If someone is bitten by a poisonous snake the antivenin renders the snake venom in the body ineffective.

All this venomous stuff aside, from a sheer aesthetic perspective I find snakes to be beautiful… from a distance. Indigo and corn snakes are mighty handsome animals. A king snake is pretty too as are bright green garter snakes.

Now I’m no different than you. I don’t care to be close to snakes but neither do I kill every snake I come across and I dare go into their world now and then. Last week I was in as wild a place as I’ve been in years. My co-author Robert Clark and I explored swamps and tangled jungle-like greenery in Darlington County along the banks of the Pee Dee River. We were so deep into woods we had no cell service. If something bad happened we would have been in a world of hurt.

From main roads to dirt roads to paths to wild terrain did we go. I drove my Honda, which has four-wheel drive, through as rough a terrain as that little SUV has ever seen. Robert and I then got out on foot and slogged through dangerous places following folks on marsh tackies, those wild horses reproducing here since Spanish explorers left  here in the late 1500s.

Snakes cross paths near the Pee Dee River

Carrying camera equipment we plunged through tall grasses, bamboo, and many places where cottonmouths and rattlers no doubt hold court. We made plenty of noise, a good thing. We never saw one snake but we did see evidence that they were around. If one wanted to bite us it would have, but it didn’t.

As you can see from the photo running with this piece, snakes were definitely about. And I might add they had nothing to fear from us.

The next time you see a snake put yourself in its place. Imagine you’re a cold-blooded animal with no way of controlling your body temperature other than using the environment you live in. Your serpentine travels suddenly bring you to a flat warm expanse of sun-struck asphalt. It’s just what you need. You stretch out on the highway to warm yourself up. You just want to feel better. But here comes a truck and the driver veers over into the opposite lane to end your short sad life. With internal organs crushed you manage to get out of the road but just barely. Much to the glee of local rats and vultures, you die in a nearby ditch.

I imagine the above scenario is precisely what happened the day Josey Wales walked into my office upset. I remember he said a rattlesnake was one of the more beautiful creatures God created. His sincerity got to me. I told him that if he would take a stab at writing an article about the good things snakes do I’d give it a chance to see print. I never heard from him again but I never forgot him. I’m sure that he, like many of his beloved snakes, is no longer with us. Too bad I can’t recall his name.

In the middle of a busy afternoon in the city this country fellow, drunk and upset, paid me a visit. He wanted me to persuade people to quit killing snakes just because they can. All these years later, consider his request fulfilled.

 

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Photo by the author, Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]