“I can’t stand to even look at a snake!” a visitor to the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora, Colorado, once assured me. But within 15 minutes, after I had convinced her to actually hold the kingsnake I carried, she changed her mind as the snake glided within her fingers. “It feels so soothing!” she said. When her son reached out to take the snake from her, she pulled away. “It’s my turn to hold it!” she scolded.
To some extent, keeping in mind that anything with a mouth can bite if provoked, nonvenomous snakes can be stress relievers. Our California kingsnake, Spike, has won the hearts of many who previously abhorred the thought of such a serpent.
“It had been many years since I had held a snake,” says Juliette Gutierrez, assistant manager of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, “but when you introduced me to your snakes, I took particular interest in Spike with his sleek and stunning appearance and mild-mannered presence.”
As a rock-climbing child of the desert southwest, Juliette brushed aside traditional Christmas card photos of whimsical starbursts, delicate snowflakes, and kittens in Santa hats in favor of a picture holding Spike, the kingsnake. “As Spike weaved through my arms, I was overcome with appreciation and honor to experience such a tranquil moment,” she says. “There was no Hollywood fang slinging, no constriction to slow purple death. There was just cool, quiet, still Spike.”
Several years ago, while presenting a snake program to children at a school in Yuma, Arizona, along with our volunteer coordinator, Sue McDonald, I turned to Sue when Chuck needed my assistance. “Here,” I said, handing Spike to Sue, “hold Spike for a minute while I help Chuck.”
What I didn’t know was that Sue’s experience with snakes was severely limited. I merely assumed that anyone wearing a refuge uniform was comfortable with every aspect of wildlife. But as Sue held out her hands to receive the snake, her eyes widened. “I’ve never held a snake before!” she said.
Later, Sue commented, “You just handed him over like it was no big deal. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t freak out; stay calm.’”
And Sue did stay calm as she held Spike for several minutes and let him undulate in the palms of her hands. “To my surprise,” she says today, “it was so easy, and I enjoyed the instant bond I felt with Spike. He was smooth and calming. It was ‘love at first touch.’ Thank you for this experience.”
Even those who harbor no fears of snakes and enjoy handling them find certain stress relief with one in their hands. When we volunteered at the visitor center in Jackson, Wyoming, bookstore manager Michelle Campbell regularly sought us out when we brought the snakes. Michelle especially liked holding Spike. “I love that snake!” she said. “What a great stress reliever he is!”
Spike and Karma have won over others as well. When appearing on KSWT in Yuma, AZ, we brought these snakes along with us. The weatherman, Joey Norton, took to Spike right away and held him while delivering his forecast. “Spike wouldn’t like the weather here,” he said pointing to a cold region on the map.
Former KSWT news anchor Susana Franco held Karma while interviewing us about an upcoming library program. It was her first experience with a snake. “Even though I’m not really afraid of snakes,” she says, “there’s always a small doubt in the back of one’s mind as to how the snake will react to you.” Because Karma was mellow, Susana felt a bond with her and was able to relax as the snake intertwined through her fingers. “It was truly a liberating feeling. I felt so excited!”
Many people enjoy their first time handling a snake and wish to repeat the experience. Many others, however, refuse to consider even touching a snake, much less holding one.
“I greatly wish a change of heart to any person doubt-laden enough to decline an opportunity to hold a snake for just that one moment,” says Juliette Gutierrez. “One simple moment could unearth the fear from your shoulders and reface your expectations. One moment could amend your outlook on the world and the creatures living within it. How much better we would be if we slowed down for just that one moment and felt distinguished in the company of cool, quiet, still Spike.”
Henry David Thoreau: “I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment…….and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”