Ophidiophobia and Ophidiophobes
Fear of snakes and working with those who fear them
©1997 Melissa Kaplan
Everyone who wants or has a snake has, at some time or another, encountered someone who is ophidiphobic--afraid of snakes.
One of the key things to understand is that fear and loathing of snakes is usually a totally irrational fear. The times it is not totally irrational are those times where there is some basis for the fear, but the fear has expanded beyond all proportion to the causative incident.
First, never, ever belittle anyone, adult or child, for his or her fears. We all fear something at sometime, and fears, once ingrained, will not be changed by chiding or teasing.
Find out what why the person is afraid of snakes. From talking to many people who are afraid of snakes, I have found that most started fearing snakes as a result of one of the following events:
Someone shoved a snake into their face or into their clothing, often when they were very young (since boys are more likely to shove snakes at girls or down a girl's shirt, it confuses me as to why these girls grow into women who hate snakes instead of men...).
The person had a scary (to them) experience with a snake, such as getting bitten, or seeing someone freak out after being bitten.
Their parent(s) was morbidly afraid of snakes and drilled into them that snakes were dangerous. (Parents or other authority figures respected by the child who jerk the child away from even controlled, neutral encounters with an educator holding a snake, nonverbally tells that child that all snakes are scary and dangerous.)
Catholic upbringing. (I have a friend who keeps visualizing one of the saints cards she had as a child of the Virgin Mary pounding on snakes with a staff--she doesn't even remember what the card was trying to portray, just that snakes "must" be evil. She has since come around. Sort of.)
Completely irrational fear (one person I know became afraid after seeing the B (or was it a C?!) movie Hssssss when a kid).
If I can, I try to start with a small albino (amelanistic and anerythristic), with a preference for corns. The size is not threatening, and it is so different looking from any image of a snake that the person has in their head or seen in movies or tabloid television shows that it makes it a little easier for the person to look at it. If I don't have such a snake on hand, or am already holding another snake, I just work with what I have.
The reason for finding out what triggered the original fear is to try to address the fear by talking about it a bit. Ask them what it is specifically about snakes that bothers them. While you are going through this stage, let them see you handling the snake, letting it move around in your hands, see you pet it or gently manipulate it as you both try to get more comfortable. Keep the whole snake as much in the open as possible, however, so the person doesn't get nervous about the parts he can't see.
Some people raise objections to touching snakes for reasons which have no basis in reality. Address those objections quietly and reasonably as you try to focus their attention on the parts of the body discussed, the snakes markings, etc.:
They don't blink
In the many of the mammals, a dead-on stare is an aggressive behavior, one engaged in when trying to make a competitor to go away, or to establish the individual's place in the group's hierarchy (wolves, for example, and cats). We are not so far away from our own ancestral forms that we do not react to being stared at. But the snake really isn't staring - he can't close his eyes. He even has to sleep with his eyes open. This doesn't mean that they are looking around them all the time, even when asleep. Even though a sleeping snake may have one or both eyes facing you, you can still scare the bejeezus out of them if they don't "hear" you coming! (Which is how I think a lot of off-trail hikers get bit.)
It's trying to sting
me with its tongue
All snakes are poisonous
Where do snakes,
uhm, "do it?"
Show the vent. Everyone is secretly curious about where snakes "do it" - go poop (many people are surprised that they do!), where they mate and where babies come from. If it is a male, show how you can tell (short tail; hemipenal bulge; large spurs). If female, show how you can tell. Do let them know that, while most snakes lay eggs and leave, some lay eggs and stick around to protect them (pythons, gaboon), while others actually have live babies.
By this time, the person should be pretty well relaxed and interested, if still a bit leery. You will, of course, have answered any questions they might have asked. If you see, during the course of your discussion, that there is some breaking through of the fear (if you are a good observer of people, you can usually tell when someone has decided that maybe they do have enough nerve to reach out and touch the snake with a single finger tip), ask if they would like to touch. Tell them that you will control the head if that will help. Ask them if they would feel better just touching the tail. Be neutral when giving the options: to someone who has spent a good portion of their life terrified of snakes, briefly touching a pinkie to a tail is a major accomplishment. Be encouraging, but not overwhelming, praise any change of mind, and let them know they are welcome to come back again and talk or look some more if they like.
And that's about it. At this point, the person is either touching or holding the snake, or they've asked for me to place it around their neck. If I do it around the neck, I drape it down the back a bit, with the rest of the body over the shoulders, explaining that that gives the snake's body better support, and so they will both feel more comfortable. If someone holds it and I see that they are shaky, or getting nervous as the snake starts constricting around their arm because it is feeling the person shake, I tell the person that the snake can feel the nervousness, and is just trying to get a better grip so it won't fall.
If the person still can't touch or hold the snake, they are still now more comfortable with the whole idea of snakes, having met one as an individual, then they were before they started talking to you (or, you to them). That is why I think it is important to have a snake present when working with someone (well, someone unlike my aunt, who requires tranquilizers just to be able to look at the word "snake" printed on a piece of paper!)
I have been at all day education events where it has taken some people three or more hours, and several returns to my exhibit area, before they were actually able to touch or hold a snake. I've even received phone calls days, weeks, even months, later from people who were still too afraid at the event but who later were able to build upon what they learned and observed and were thus able to bring themselves to touch or hold a snake, some even going on to become wonderful and caring snake keepers themselves.
Once you have converted someone like a spouse or parent, it may still take some time, however, before the converted person is truly comfortable with a snake around, and s/he may never become more than just tolerant of its presence under the same roof. Keep that in mind if you are thinking you can get out of town for weekend or summer, leaving the snake in their care!
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