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By Frederick Boyce
The fear of snakes, like most other fears, can do so much more harm than snakes
themselves. Franklin D. Roosevelt certainly spoke the truth when he said .. the
only thing we have to fear is fear itself ....’’Asa person who knows firsthand how
utterly harmless the great majority of snakes are to people, and how reluctant even
venomous snakes are to bite or interact with humans in any way, it truly pains me
to see how much harm the fear of these extremely shy and secretive animals can
cause. So afflicted are some that they are virtually afraid to venture outdoors due
to an unreasoning fear of an animal that they are extremely unlikely to ever catch a
glimpse of, much less with which they wiU ever interact.
The opportunity to observe any wild animal should be viewed as a huge bonus,
not a deterrent to anyone’s enjoyment of nature. The condition of ophidiophobia—
an abnormal fear of snakes and the most widespread phobia in the world—deserves
to be taken very seriously as it can indeed be debilitating. For this fear I blame not
snakes, nor those who suffer from it, but rather generations and generations of
fear mongers who have deeply inculcated this fear into the human psyche, often
for reasons that have less to do with actual snakes than with the desire to control
others. Fear can be a powerful tool in the hands of manipulators (and a very
lucrative one for writers or movie makers).
People who have an unreasoning fear of snakes usually have had very little
firsthand contact with these animals and have often been taught to fear them by
others. The true object of their fear is some monstrous and wholly fanciful notion
of a snake that has taken shape in their minds and which bears only the most
superficial resemblance to any actual snakes. This is the only explanation that
makes sense to me, as I have spent over half a century in the close company of these
remarkable creatures and am certain that there is no quality at aU present in these
animals that warrants such an almost supernaturally phobic reaction. Only a very
small percentage of snakes are dangerously venomous, and almost everywhere are
far more scarce than harmless snakes.
Snakes are just animals, much like any others, that are mostly interested in
eating, drinking, reproducing and maybe lying around in the sun on a pretty day.
One thing that does set them apart from most other terrestrial vertebrates, besides
their obvious lack of limbs, is that they lack any sort of voice with which to cry
out in pain. Sadly enough, I believe this to be the reason why so many otherwise
nice folks who are generally kind to animals and children are capable of inflicting
unspeakable acts of cruelty upon even the most harmless and beautiful corn snake.
Snakes may not be able to scream or squeal, but believe me, they are extremely
sensitive to touch—and to pain.
The fear of snakes does an awful lot of harm, to both people and snakes, and to
ecosystems as a whole, since the ongoing, unremitting slaughter of snakes (almost
invariably harmless snakes, too) in backyards and on nature trails, and especially on
roadways, takes a huge toll on these important predators.
In the aftermath of Flurricane Florence, I was extremely dismayed to see
sensationalized and alarmist internet posts and “news” stories warning that rising
flood waters were going to wash hordes of venomous snakes out of their wetland
habitats, further menacing an already beleaguered populace. The truer menace,
however, is the proliferation of such stories themselves (and anyone who has a hand
in spreading them). With all the very real and dire problems, hardships and hazards
facing residents during such a cataclysmic event, the last thing anyone needs is
such unwarranted fear mongering, which is essentially akin to yelling “Fire!” in a
I have not noticed or been made aware of any invasions of large numbers of
snakes displaced by storms, and certainly not venomous ones. On the contrary, I
have seen relatively few snakes this fall—far fewer than I was seeing last year at this
time. As the herpetologist at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, I am usually
aware of any unusual variations in local snake activity, and all I have noticed, sadly
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enough, is the same continuing decline in their numbers that I have been observing
now for over a decade in coastal North Carolina.
Not surprisingly, there has been very little actual research into what snakes do
during hurricanes, and most of what I have been able to find is just assumption. We
can surmise that they most likely try to take shelter underground, and that in some
cases these refugia get flooded out, in which case the snakes must either drown
or make a swim for it. All snakes can swim to some degree, so they are unlikely to
drown, but any snake that might indeed be displaced by flood waters is going to be
extremely disoriented and far more concerned (as anyone would be) with its own
safety than with seeking out human victims to bite. That’s just B-movie stuff.
The best policy during such events is to be acutely aware of one’s surroundings
(there are also downed power lines, trees and other hazards). Stay out of flood
waters, keep hands where you can see them, wear boots and protective clothing,
and exercise common sense. If you see a Snake, just give it lots of room and wait for
it to go away.
For more information on what animals do during hurricanes visit the National
Wildlife Federations interesting page on this topic at nwforg/Magazines/National-
Frederick Boyce is the stajf herpetologist at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
A curious oottonmouth keeps its distance —Photo by Fred Boyce
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