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Look! There’s a huge snake, up on the tree!!

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When it comes to reptiles, especially the slithery snake, I belong with the vast majority that reacts first with fear before being able to switch on any other impulse in the brain engulfed by panic instinctively. The mere sight of a snake, spells ‘Danger’ for me like a flashing red beacon, ordering every part of me to act defensively to protect my own life and all those I care for. This natural reflex doesn’t follow a real-life encounter involving a venomous species, in my case. I think my extreme caution comes simply from being hard-wired to react that way. It’s probably an innate tendency reinforced by conditioning. The reason why I’m writing about snakes today is because of this rather rare sighting over the weekend at my brother’s farm.

Rat snake wrapped around acacia tree on our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu, India

Rat snake wrapped around acacia tree on our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu, India

This incredibly long rat snake resting on an acacia tree was photographed by one of my brothers, during their fortnightly visit last Sunday. I hadn’t accompanied my brothers, but my son, was with them. I have to say, this is the longest snake I have ever seen. It’s hard to tell just how long it might be, from the way it seems to casually spread its body rather languorously around the thorny branches of this tree. An Indian rat snake can apparently grow as long as 11 ft. From the looks of it, this is probably a healthy adult living up to its potential, and perhaps some more!

Looks like it went up to catch something- maybe a squirrel or to visit a bird nest for food, and then decided to sun itself because the weather’s been somewhat wet lately. I got to see the images only hours later in the evening, when everyone returned from the farm, but my first reaction was a jaw-dropping ‘Oh My God’!

For all my fear, I was still struck by the sheer magnificence of the creature. Its massive size seems to suggest an environment that must be rather conducive to its well-being. Lots of food- mostly mice, rats, bandicoots, squirrels, birds, eggs etc I suppose. I wonder what I might’ve done if I ever got up-close and personal with this snake. Given its huge body, it might have taken the snake a while to slither away, but I’m sure I’d have bolted out of there in a real hurry!

   

I’ll admit that I did not grow up with the kind of people who think of reptiles as being ‘beautiful’ in the way we tend to admire and dote over puppies and kittens. I have always been surrounded by animals, mostly dogs and cats, apart from the occasional bird or rabbit. I love nature and all things natural, but snakes… well, not really. I wonder if I’d have reacted differently, if I had been ‘trained’ to, in a sense. These days, there are lots of places you can go to where experts will help you overcome your fear of snakes through ice-breaking sessions where you get to know them better, in controlled situations. Once you find the nerve to touch them, you can actually learn to hold and handle them with guidance. Be that as it may, I doubt I can ever shake off my instinctive revulsion for snakes at my age. But regardless of how I feel, I don’t let the ‘fear’ dictate a violent reaction. There are many for whom the only good snake is a dead one. But I’d rather not get down to carnage. I realise that snakes are just as scared of humans and if you simply let them be, they’ll mind their own business and wander off. It’s not as if they’re on an aggressive mission to get you, just to get even for all the snakes humans wantonly kill or hunt for trophy. Snakes are not social creatures. They don’t seek association or approval from humans like domestic animals and they’re better off wild in their habitat.

I quite like how my little 6 yr old managed to stand alongside his uncle, a retired Army officer and a graduate in Environmental Science, as he patiently filmed the snake-on-the-tree episode. In the background commentary picked up during the recording, my son asks to know about every move the snake makes- from the flick of the forked tongue, to the turnabout it makes, wondering if the snake is stuck. “Lets get out of here before it comes down” he says before checking whether the snake can see and hear him, whether it will come down the tree and make a charge at him, and if there’s a chance snakes are “afraid of sticks”, because he has one. 

While he seems to cover a lot of ground, most of his comments are interspersed with genuine, heart-felt pleas to beat the hastiest retreat possible! The boy can’t for the life of him understand, why his uncle would put himself in harm’s way, along with his little nephew, just for a few pictures!! So, he tries repeatedly to draw the attention of his older uncle, in the hope that at least he might be a little more ‘sensible’ in the face of what he seems to perceive as an ‘imminent threat’. “I’m afraid of snakes…A lot” he can be heard saying. “I’ve never seen a snake this huge,” he goes on to say, before admitting outright, “holy crap! It’s so scary!!”.

When I posted these pictures on Facebook, I received a range of responses. Some found the snake “beautiful”, even “magnificent”, others went “eeeks!” I suppose, that pretty much describes the general spectrum of perceptions. Some are plain averse to the slithery snake, others find themselves “drawn” to them and are “fascinated” by them.

Turns out, a third of adult humans, actually suffer from a phobia of snakes. This makes ‘herpetophobia’ or the fear of reptile, and/ amphibians one of the most common reported phobias ever. There’s also ‘Ophidiophobia’, a more specific type of abnormal fear of snakes. In extreme cases people might even fear thinking about snakes and react adversely to pictures in a book or even on TV. No wonder so many films have been made around that theme- the fear of snakes. You might want to watch this incredible video showing the unedited display of fear by celebrities including Hollywood actress Salma Hayek a few years ago, when a snake suddenly appears on the location of a live TV show that she’s on.

Research suggests that humans are not born afraid of spiders and snakes, but that we can learn these fears very quickly. One theory about why we fear spiders and snakes is because so many are poisonous; natural selection may have favoured people who stayed away from these dangerous creatures. So, the fear of the ‘creepy-crawlies’ has been explained as an evolutionary bias that predisposes us to fear things that have posed a threat throughout human history.

Interestingly, researches have been able to prove a consistent gender difference in the incidence of snake and spider phobias. Women are apparently four times more likely than men to have fears and phobias for these, but not other stimuli like injections, heights or flying.

David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon University conducted an experiment with 11-month-old infants. He showed them a series of pictures- a snake, a spider, a flower, and a mushroom, paired with either a happy face or a frightened face. Baby girls quickly associated the snake and the spider with the frightened face, while baby boys did not. Amongst the explanations offered, one possibility is that social transmission of fears and phobias is more common or promoted among women than men. Alternatively, women’s fear mechanism may be more sensitive to snakes and spiders than males’ fear mechanism because they were more exposed to them over evolutionary time (e.g., during child-care, while foraging and gathering food). It has also been suggested that a fear of snakes and spiders was particularly important in women because it protects both their child and themselves. In other words, the fitness costs of being bitten by a snake or spider would have been greater for women than for men because infants and young children, historically, rarely survived a mother’s death. Finally, because of the higher reproductive variance for men, evolution would have selected against males with overly powerful fears because it could have inhibited risk taking involved in, for example, large game hunting.

I’m not trying to find scientific evidence to justify the way I feel and respond to snakes, but the empirical proof appears to explain my reaction to a great extent. I don’t know what kind of person you are- the kind that could bring home a snake as a pet, or the type that might wet their pants at the first sight of a reptile. Whichever it is, I hope you can find the calm and wisdom in your heart to teach your children that all snakes are not dangerous. Some, like the huge rat snake being discussed here are actually non-venomous, and will be glad to just hide someplace, doing its own thing, rather than get in your way and create trouble. Also that snakes are crucial to maintaining the delicate balance in the ecosystem.

Their presence or removal from an area can directly impact the environment. As a natural form of pest control, snakes are actually good for you. They tend to control rodent populations in particular. As predators, they feed on a variety of creatures. Small snakes feed on many harmful bugs and insects. Larger ones eat mice, rats, and other small mammals that can destroy crops or damage personal property. In the food chain, they serve as the link going higher up- becoming the food source for larger predators such as hawks, owls, herons, and carnivorous mammals. Mindlessly removing snakes from the equation can cause a crash, we can ill-afford. So, like them, or hate them, we sure as hell need the slithery snake in the backyard.   

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