To the editor:
Whether slithering gracefully along branches, peeking out from log piles or absorbing heat from warm surfaces of blacktop roads, snakes give many folks the heebie-jeebies. Otherwise rational people get weak in the knees when they see snakes.
I study reptiles. Some folks show an interest in my work, but expressions of loathing are more common. When I speak to students, Scouts or even adults, question-and-answer periods often metamorphose into stories of encounters that usually end with dead snakes. When I ask permission to search for reptiles on private property, many landowners encourage me to remove every snake.
What generates such strong emotions? Some blame the evil serpent that led Eve astray. Others note that snakes can kill, although antipathy is equally strong in regions without venomous species. One study suggested that human close-up vision evolved specifically to spot potentially dangerous reptiles, implying that ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) is ingrained rather than learned. Still others propose that paranoid parents have “scared children out of the woods,” promoting instead a culture of fear that favors “safe,” regimented activities over imaginative play and exploration.
Is ophidiophobia isolating us from nature? Most of us experience wilderness only on television, so how can we appreciate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where few visit and oil is abundant? Why worry about endangered species when their disappearance affects our lives not at all?
Although snakes are not solely responsible – fear of sacrifice driven by selfishness and failure to think beyond the next election or quarterly statement may be more important – environmentalism is dying. Earth Day, which is next Monday, is barely acknowledged. Concerns about excessive development are associated with extremist views of radical tree-huggers and animal-rights activists, and gasoline prices are far more important than the consequences of global climate change. No wonder politicians of both parties pay only lip service to environmental issues. Voters don’t care, having lost all connection with nature – at least in part because we don’t like snakes.