Once again we attended a reptile program that delivered excellent information, as well as attempting to instill a respect for these misunderstood creatures. Once again, however, showmanship degraded the message.
When we present our snake program to schools, libraries, and RV groups, we emphasize safety for audience members and for the snakes. These animals are not fond of being touched and are easily stressed. To allow children or just any adult to handle them could result in injury to the snake or to the participant.
Latest Reptile Program
During this latest reptile program, the presenter asked for help from children in the audience. When a young boy came forward, he handed the child a ball python. Obviously pleased, the boy grinned as he accepted this treasure. While nothing happened to either the snake or the boy, the possibilities existed. What if the boy freaked out and dropped the snake? What if he held it too tightly and the snake reacted badly? What if the constrictor coiled around the child’s hands like handcuffs and scared him?
Several times during the program, the presenter placed a large python around necks of audience participants. Although people have been killed by “pet” constrictors choking their airways as they tighten around the neck in an effort to hold on and prevent falling, showmanship seems to demand draping snakes in this fashion.
Because a snake is untrainable, no one can predict exactly how it might react. Different smells and vibrations can elicit different and unpredictable reactions. Stress is also a factor as we once discovered with our bullsnake, Hatch.
While visiting an office one day after several school programs, we handed Hatch to the manager who had handled the snake in the past. As we performed other tasks, the manager showed Hatch around to others throughout the building. She was gone for 10 or 15 minutes.
“What’s she doing?” the manager asked us when she returned.
With mouth open, Hatch was “feeling” her way up and down the manager’s arm. We had never before witnessed this behavior. We immediately placed Hatch in the snake carrier. Whether or not she was preparing to bite the manager we would never know. But after a day of school programs, followed by more touching and handling at the office, she obviously had had enough. She was stressed and needed a break.
Hatch is our largest snake – a five-foot constrictor. During school programs, she serves as our “touch” snake. While we control the snake’s head, children use two fingers to gently run them in the direction that the scales lay.
“What is a constrictor?” we then ask. Usually at least one child can explain that this is the kind of snake that coils around its prey and squeezes until the animal can no longer breathe.
“So,” we continue, “how many of you think it would be really cool to put this snake around your neck?” Often, many children raise their hands. But after some consideration and discussion about the consequences, most of them reconsider. They realize that the snake could hurt them.
After one classroom presentation, however, two girls separately approached us, each with the same story. “I went to another snake program,” each said, “and they put a snake around my neck. Nothing happened.”
That’s right. Most of the time, nothing will happen. Most of the time nothing happens when you encounter a bear or a moose while hiking, either. Most of the time lightning won’t strike you when you stand in the open. Most of the time you won’t crack your head on a rock when riding your bike without a helmet. But putting a constrictor, or any snake, around a person’s neck shows no respect for that animal and puts the person at risk, as well as possibly injuring the snake. It also sets a poor example of proper snake handling.
Using a snake as a necklace to promote and glorify a snake program may spark an interest in this vilified species; but in the long run, these theatrics can diminish the message that we strive to deliver.