Why did it have to be Snakes?

I found it in the garden last week when I was mowing the lawn. The shed skin of a snake. I saved it for my wife because I knew she would like to share it with the kids at her school. She was indeed pleased, but when she shared our find on social media, her friends were less than impressed.

“OMG,” one person said. “No Way. Burn the house down.”

Others had similar reactions.

“Just had a heart attack,” one moaned.

“I would have died,” exclaimed another. (This one will remain nameless, but he used to reside at our address.)

Only one person—a fellow teacher—mustered a positive comment. “The kids will love this.”

Most people, it appears, agree with Indiana Jones. When he was lowered into an underground chamber in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, he faced everyone’s worst nightmare.

“Snakes,” Indy said. “Why did it have to be snakes?”

What is it about snakes?

I spent over forty years managing zoos around the country and handled more than my share of snakes, but I still count myself among those people who suffer from a fear of snakes. It even has a scientific name—ophidiophobia. It is a common phobia that can be triggered by a variety of factors that sound familiar to me.

The gulf coast of Florida, where I grew up in the 1960s, was not the thriving metropolis it is today. St. Petersburg was a sleepy retirement village that was carpeted with miles of woodlands and abundant wildlife, including plenty of snakes. Snakes were a part of our lives growing up. We were taught to fear them, especially the ones that could kill us.

But my fear of snakes could also be intrinsic—a part of my DNA. Recent research has found that certain neurons in the brain only respond to snakes. These snake-dedicated neurons may be a legacy of our distant primate past since we share this bias toward snakes with monkeys. When primates evolved some sixty-million years ago, they adapted to living in trees, searching for food at night, and sleeping in the canopy during the day. Snakes creeping through those trees were among their deadliest enemies.

As my career advanced and I began doing education outreach programs on behalf of the various zoos I represented, snakes became a part of my life. It was the creature that audiences loved to hate. People often got up from their seats during my presentations and sometimes even left the room. I handled boa constrictors, ball pythons, and rat snakes. I learned not to recoil at the feel of their muscular legless bodies that were wrapped in a smooth, dry leathery skin. I marveled at their forked tongues as they tickled the hairs of my arm, picking up scent molecules to transfer to the “smell” organ inside the roof of their mouth.

I learned to overcome a powerful urge to recoil whenever I reached into a cloth bag to pull out a creature that terrified me. I handled snakes with feigned confidence and regaled my audiences with the importance of snakes to the ecosystem, all while trying to conceal my fear that one of the snakes might turn and bite me.

When we were growing up, if a snake came into our yard our dad dispatched it with a hoe. Later in life, that same man befriended a large black snake that lived in his tool shed. It seems my dad was more concerned with the mice that nibbled his seed packets than a big black snake that ate those mice.

My wife and I are similarly comfortable having non-venomous snakes inhabit our garden. We have seen a large, Eastern garter snake slithering into the iris bed on occasion. We also saw him swimming in the fishpond once. Garter snakes are known to eat fish, but at last count all of the goldfish are still there.

Snakes go through a process of sloughing the external layer of skin to allow growth. It is called ecdysis, and it occurs every few months, depending on how well they are eating and how fast they are growing. The shed snake skin I found in our garden was three and a half feet long. According to the Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles, Garter snakes don’t grow that large. So unless his skin stretched out when he was pulling out of it, the skin must come from something larger, like perhaps a gray rat snake.

For us, garter snakes and rat snakes are as welcome in our garden as box turtles and lizards. They are harmless residents of a healthy ecosystem. Venomous snakes, on the other hand will be dispatched without question.

The only concern I have with the snakes in our garden has to do with the location of that shed snake skin. I found it a few feet from the gnome home. Like the goldfish, I did a head count, and all of the little people are present and accounted for. But still, I wonder what kind of fence I could install to keep the snakes away from the gnomes. A rat snake might have a tough time telling a mouse from a three-inch tall gnome—even if he is wearing a pointy, red hat.

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