Consider the lowly serpent. Whether allegorically personified in Genesis, presented factually in a responsible nature documentary or portrayed as man-eating monsters by Hollywood, snakes are a source of fascination and mystery, even if that fascination is the icky, scary kind.
Since the beginning of time, snakes have been deified and vilified by various cultures, filling dual roles as both gods and devils. But what makes snakes a source of powerful attraction for some and the target of unmitigated hatred for others?
Fear of snakes is called ophidiophobia. There may be a self-preservation response buried deep within our psyche that protected our primitive ancestors from the threat of venomous snakes, but modern humans often choose ignorance over knowledge when it comes to understanding snakes.
It is incredible that any creature can crawl, swim, dig, climb, capture prey and in some cases, glide through the air, all without the benefit of limbs, fins or wings. Rather than fear them, we should be in awe of their beauty, mystique and diversity.
There are over 3,400 snake species in the world, ranging from the semi-frozen tundra of northern Canada to the steamy jungles of the equator and most of the world’s oceans. As highly effective predators, snakes play a vital role in maintaining the balance of nature in each of these realms.
Snakes have a prehistoric lineage, giving us a glimpse back to a prehistoric time when the earth was ruled by reptiles; modern reptiles are literally the living, breathing cousins of dinosaurs.
Believe it or not, snakes make great pets. They don’t claw the drapes or leave hair on the furniture. They don’t poop on the lawn or bite the mailman or bark and keep the neighbors awake. You don’t have to fence the yard, get them licensed or have them vaccinated.
I have kept snakes as pets since I was 10 years old and they provide an equal or greater amount of aesthetic enjoyment than any aquarium filled with tropical fish. (Have you ever tried to hold a pet fish?)
It’s true that a snake won’t come when you call it (they are essentially deaf and not sufficiently sentient to react to verbal commands even if they could hear), and they don’t seek affection or play the way some mammals do, but they are as individually unique in their personalities as any other animal. But because I like my pets to like me back, I also have a cat.
Snakes are not the malevolent creatures portrayed in the Bible. Over time, they have become convenient victims of superstition, bad movies and the anthropomorphic misassumption that animals can be evil. It is entirely possible that if Satan had appeared to Adam and Eve as a squirrel, humans today would try to justify an irrational fear of squirrels.
Far from being harbingers of evil, snakes are merely creatures like any other. They live, eat, reproduce and do their best to survive in a world that holds them in contempt, yet humans owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
As voracious predators, snakes (including venomous snakes) provide an indispensable contribution to human survival. If snakes were to disappear, we would be besieged with vermin, pestilence, plague and crop destruction within a matter of months. This fact alone should make us appreciate snakes, but instead we revile them based on a perceptual (and scriptural) misunderstanding.
The only venomous snake along the Wasatch Front is the Great Basin rattlesnake. These gentle serpents want nothing to do with us and they are certainly not “out to get us” as some people mistakenly believe. The only venomous snakes in Utah are rattlesnakes. All others are harmless to humans.
July 16 is World Snake Day. Forget all the hype, wives’ tales and urban legends. Put aside old prejudices and replace them with new knowledge. Snakes do a lot for us and we should be nicer to them.
Dave Jensen is the owner of Wasatch Snake Removal, Inc. in Salt Lake City. He has never met a snake he didn’t like.