That’s what my grand-mom jokingly calls me, on account of my uncanny tendency to run into snakes in the most unlikely places. I saw one under a bridge in New Milford, Pennsylvania one chilly afternoon; one on a poor excuse for a hiking trail in Bronx, New York; and one while taking the dog for a walk in Atlanta, right outside the apartment.
The irony in all this?
I am terribly afraid of snakes.
And when I say terribly? I mean, Michael still laughs about the morning I sprang ten feet into the air and landed one mile up the street; all because I almost stepped on a ribbon snake, while we walked the dog.
“Snake! Snake! Snake!” I had squealed – never trusting the grass again, or what might be slithering beneath it.
Michael, on the other hand, reached out to touch the snake. It was only a garter snake, and harmless, and I knew it. But it didn’t make me any less afraid. By the time I mustered up the nerve to try and touch his tail, he slithered through the fence and off into the woods.
“Aww,” I pretended to be disappointed, while my heart fluttered dangerously in my chest, like an epileptic child. “Maybe next time…”
I then trailed behind so Michael couldn’t see me suspiciously inspect every inch of dirt before I set my feet down. Every rustle of grass, every kiss of wind to my skin – I was certain another snake was about and it terrified me.
So imagine my horror when I went to the Renaissance Festival in town and found snakes on display. Still curious, I walked ten miles around the people holding the snakes and inspected every last one still in the cages. The colours were gorgeous – whites, yellows, greens, browns.
But there was one that caught my eye out of all the rest – a slithering stretch of white, dotted with black, wrapped around a young lady’s arm. I would learn later that he was a High White California King snake.
The Fateful Moment
“Go ahead – touch it!” Michael coaxed, just as he had that fateful morning when the ribbon snake gave me wings.
“Can I?” I asked the lady who was already holding him.
She was eager to share, and turned a little towards me so I could touch him. I was amazed by how soft and smooth the snake felt. She noticed, and asked if I wanted to hold him.
“What?! No!” I stepped back. “I’ll pass – but thanks.”
“Oh, you’ll love him! He’s so sweet!” she insisted.
She then handed the snake over to a professional, so he could coax me into taking it. Meanwhile, Michael was doing his best to encourage me as well – holding the camera at the ready.
I wish I had gotten the man’s name, because he definitely played an instrumental role in calming me enough to take the snake. Amazingly, it immediately took a liking to me. So much so that when I shared him with another girl, he came slithering right back to me.
“He really loves you!” she noted.
The man laughed. “I think he saw your hair and sensed his kindred spirit,” he joked.
The Lesson: Ignorance Breeds Fear
A fear of snakes is by no means irrational. After all, there are many venomous and deadly snakes out there that no human should ever want to run into. Even so, not all snakes fit into that category; especially harmless garter snakes, and pet snakes that have been deliberately tamed for human handling.
“Seeing these snakes don’t bother me,” I had confessed to Michael while I looked around. “But if I saw one of them on a hiking trail I’d have a heart attack, because I don’t know if it’s poisonous or not.”
When I repeated that to the man who helped cure me, he nodded understandingly. “There are about 40 species of snakes in Georgia. How many do you think are poisonous?” he asked me.
“I remember looking that up, but I’ve completely forgotten,” I admitted.
“Only six,” he replied. “The copperhead, coral, cottonmouth, rattlesnakes… Memorise what they look like, and you’ll be alright.” After a pause, he asked, “Do you know where’s the most frequent place people get bitten by snakes?”
“Their feet?” I guessed.
He smiled, but shook his head. “You would think so, right? But most people get bitten on their hands – from trying to pick up the snake, or from stopping to rest and putting their hands down and touching the snake without looking.
“But if you see a snake on a trail, just back away and you’ll be alright. We have to remember that like us, they are living things, and we must treat them with respect.”
It really drove home the fact that ignorance breeds fear in us. Any of the 40-plus breeds of snakes in Georgia would have sent me running – poisonous or no. Just think of how I ran from that poor little ribbon snake outside the apartment.
But armed with a little knowledge, suddenly not every snake looks like a cottonmouth. And before long, you learn that six bad apples don’t describe the whole bunch.
This isn’t just true of our bias against snakes, sharks, pit bulls and other animals with a bad rep. It’s also true about our biases against each other as human beings. We do the same when we judge people based purely on their ethnic origins, or their outward appearance.
For instance, my dreadlocks and Jamaican nationality means I must have been smoking all the best weed all my life, right?
I’ve never had so much as a puff of weed.
Not one time. Not ever.
And never will.
Developing pre-judgements of people and things is a natural and (I think) necessary instinct that protects us, time and time again. However, it’s also time we become a little more open to having those pre-judgements shattered by any evidence we encounter to the contrary.
Otherwise, we may never learn, never grow, never conquer our fears.