Why People Fear Snakes

While walking at Cherry Creek State Park near Denver, Colorado, Chuck saw a man in the distance striking toward the ground with a stick.  “He’s trying to kill a snake.”  We hurried forward.

“Look!  This rattlesnake is trying to bite me!” the man cried as we approached.  The snake struck violently as the man continued hitting it with the stick.

“Put the stick down,” Chuck said.

Clutching it tightly, the man complied and lowered the stick to his side.  The snake settled to the ground and began slithering away.  Chuck reached down and gently picked it up.

“First of all,” said Chuck, “if you were hitting me with a stick, I’d try to bite you, too.”  The snake coiled in the palms of Chuck’s hands.  “Secondly, this isn’t a rattlesnake.  It’s a bullsnake.”

Obviously terrified, the man breathed heavily.  Perhaps in the past he’d had a traumatic experience with a snake, or perhaps he inherited his fear from friends or family or even movies and myths.  Whatever the reason, had he merely given the snake wide berth, this scene could have been avoided.

Most people bitten by snakes are trying to pick them up, move them, kill them, or demonstrate machismo.

Fear of snakes usually results from fear of being bitten.  Part of that fear, of course, stems from the possibility that the snake is venomous.    But, whether venomous or nonvenomous, there are only two reasons a snake will bite.  One is to defend itself, the other is to eat.  Since people are too big to eat, a snake has no reason to chase or attack a person.  If someone attacks the snake, however, it will respond with its only weapon – its mouth full of teeth.

Other Reasons

Another reason people may fear snakes is because they are so different.  With no arms and no legs, they’re forced to slither on their bellies.  With no eyelids, they appear to stare in defiance.  And the scaly body may unnerve those who prefer the soft fur of a cat or dog.

Of course, myths and legends perpetuate fears and hatred as well.  Because their myths, stories, and legends promoted treating snakes with respect, many Native American cultures respected rattlesnakes and avoided harming them, even though they may have feared them.  These beliefs broke down with the influence of American settlers whose myths and stories promoted hated and fear of snakes.  Killing snakes, especially rattlesnakes, without compunction has become the norm, with no regard or respect for the animal or its place in nature.  Attitudes towards snakes, both positive and negative, are mostly learned.

While volunteering near Grand Teton National Park, we marvel at the tourists who dash from their vehicles, cameras in hand, for a close encounter with a grizzly, a moose, or a bison with little consideration for their safety.  Snapping away at a bear that has potential to crush a skull with its bite or rip muscle from bone with its claws does not faze many people as much as a garter snake slithering along the ground.  The fact that the moose or the bison may suddenly resent the intrusion and gore or stomp a victim does not deter the gawkers as a rattlesnake that may issue a warning buzz.

Respect

Sensationalized by movies and vilified by myth, snakes repulse those who don’t understand them.  We confine our snakes to locked reptile cages when not needed for a program.  However, this doesn’t always pacify those terrified of encounters.  Yet, if one of our snakes escaped, it would merely slither off in search of a rodent or a hiding place.  None would defecate in a neighbor’s yard as have some dogs we’ve lived near.   None would create a disturbance barking or yowling or fighting.  And none would attack a person as we have been attacked on two occasions by two different dogs.

Chuck relocating rattlesnake at Imperial NWR
Chuck relocating rattlesnake at Imperial NWR

We love dogs and cats and other furry critters, but the problems that come with them can be greater and more numerous than those presented by a snake.  No one has to like snakes.  But it’s important to have a respect for the job they do and where they fit into nature.

To Avoid Contact With a Snake:

  • Clear brush from around the your house.
  • Watch where you put hands/feet in snake country.
  • In snake populated country, avoid hiking after dark.
  • If you hear a rattlesnake, stop and make note of its location.  Then move away.
  • Don’t attempt to move a snake from your path.  When possible, walk around it.
  • Don’t try to kill, move, or pick up a snake.
  • Assume they’re venomous unless determined otherwise, and leave them alone.
  • Call authorities to relocate a rattlesnake.

6 thoughts on “Why People Fear Snakes

  1. O.k.There has actually been research done on ophidiophobia .Researchers put people in a classroom setting with observers behind the subjects.They then presented them with a paper that had a snake with several other objects and said pick out the dangerous object.Most immediately pointed to the snake.Then they were presented with a paper that had many snakes and several other objects and then asked them to pick out the object that was not dangerous. And they looked and looked,appearing to think snakes are not harmless! Ahh… human nature.Some scientists even believe that it could be genetic.

    • Hello, Maggie,

      Most people have to be taught to fear snakes, or any other animal for that matter. In doing our reptile presentations at schools, libraries and other groups, it’s usually the adults who back off when a snake is taken from its cage for all to see. The younger viewers usually come forward to get a closer look! Knowing this, we often have to keep the snakes out of harm’s way, or vice versa. I’m not sure what items were shown to observers to determine which item was dangerous, but if the items were everyday things, picking a snake as dangerous would be expected.
      Educators like yourself do a great service in removing un-needed fears, thanks!

  2. I loved this! Thank you. I spent 14 years in a herp society down here in Florida. When I left there I began a website/blog for education purposes. I’m researching fears, myths, and truths right now.

    • Hello Carrie,
      Thanks for your comments on our article dealing with why people fear snakes. That is one of the topics we discuss when we present our program to schools, libraries, and civic groups. And, it appears that we are both passionate in the education field of stressing the importance of a very misunderstood animal. Volunteering with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the past 12 years has given us many opportunities to get the “word” out to thousands of folks via live presentations, TV appearances and print media. Like you, I developed my interest and love for reptiles as well as other animals while growing up in Tampa. Our volunteer pursuits continue at our new location near Phoenix during the winter months. We are presently volunteering at the Nat’l Elk Refuge in Jackson (Hole) WY for our 13th year. We have five snakes that accompany us to our summer position and they have become very popular in an area that doesn’t really have much reptile representation. Keep up your fantastic work and blog! It’s extremely beneficial to both humans and our scaly neighbors! Stay in touch.

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