I recently read my daughter a bedtime story (for the 987th time) which centered on a young dragon taken in by Princess Aurora (of Sleeping Beauty fame). Starting with her husband, Prince Phillip, and continuing with each encounter with the story’s other characters Aurora is met with storybook disdain for her new pet. The universal reason: dragons are dangerous. The dragon, in an effort to fit in, tries to emulate other animals who do not suffer the same unearned contempt. But dragons are what dragons are and each attempt to be something he is not leads to moments of chaos involving, as you might guess, fire. It’s not until the end of the story that the dragon comes to terms with what he is and finds a place in the life of the story.
None of the characters in the story offered anecdotal evidence as to why dragons are dangerous; they just knew them to be so. Lacking direct negative personal experiences with dragons their seemingly innate knowledge must have come from somewhere. But where? I can only conjure one place: it was learned. This learning was not from direct experience, it came from others. It is second-hand knowledge from somebody else’s second-hand knowledge. It’s exponential hearsay. Hearsay isn’t sufficient to garner a conviction in a courtroom but it is happily accepted by people as gospel in many other situations. So why is it that dragons are always hated in fairy tales? Well, because somebody said they were dangerous and worthy of hate, that’s why. Now I have never encountered a dragon in real life. Despite this I know them to be dangerous. How? From a very young age every story I read and every person who shared told me so. But the people who assured me of their viciousness and ferocity had never met a dragon either. So how did they know they were dangerous? Someone else told them, of course. And I’m thinking it’s a safe bet that those people had also never met a dragon.
Now, to be fair, I will admit that dragons do have two characteristics that help them earn their reputation:
- They look mean. And to borrow from Eddie Murph in Raw, “[a dragon] don’t look like, you know
, like he can’t fight. He looks like he can whip some ass, right?” But looking mean doesn’t make someone mean, does it? Like Jessica Rabbit said, they are “just drawn that way”.
- When provoked they actually can wreck stuff. Having just typed that I wonder if that is really true. All the wrecking I have seen done by dragons has been done in stories conjured by people who were brought up with the same misinformation that was spread across my impressionable grey matter.
I have witnessed this form of false knowledge exchange first-hand. When I was young I was terrified of snakes because my parents, who, in my youth, were sources of unwavering truth, told me they were bad and dangerous. An oft heard quote from my father while growing up was, “The only good snake is a dead snake.” Unfortunately, there were a handful of times that snakes died because we happened to cross their path. The memories of those events, which were celebrations at the time, are sad in hindsight. Had it not been for a few select events during my college years I would still hold an angry fear of reptiles. Through no intentional effort I was able to break the cycle of fear and see reptiles for what they really are. The irony of my being a snake breeder having come from a seemingly long line of snake haters is not lost on me or my parents. My parents, I’m glad to report, have been reformed. They aren’t snake fans by any stretch but in recent years my father has coaxed a snake or two around his house into a bucket and let them go in the woods a few miles away.
Now let’s consider a recent poll from foxnews.com where the the question was asked, “Should people be allowed to keep exotic animals as house pets?” As I type the 25,000 or so respondents are split with 45% saying “no” and 44% saying “yes”. The missing percentage points are people who are otherwise undecided. I’m a yes-voter, of course, so I am left to wonder why almost half of the respondents said no. I’m going to wager that the answer can be distilled down to one word: fear. Fear, unfortunately, is a very powerful thing.
- Fear is an emotion the inhibits rational thought.
- Fear is a weapon used to manipulate the opinions of others.
- Fear is a barrier to the expansion of knowledge.
- Fear is a motivator that leads to aggression.
People in a state of fear are not open to logical discourse. I know a woman who is so fearful of snakes that even seeing a snake on TV or snake jewelry causes her to become panicked. How can I ever hope to have a rational discussion about keeping reptiles as pets with a person like that? In short, I cannot.
Ours is a culture that has long let fear be the impetus for casting derision on snakes. From Adam and Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden to Samuel L. Jackson battling it out with Snakes on a Plane snakes have been cast as the sinister enemy that is actively, thoughtfully and intelligently scheming toward your demise. The fact that someone would want to keep such a malevolent creature as a house pet is, well, unthinkable. When we look at it that way the fact that only half of the people say that snakes (exotics) shouldn’t be kept as pets is a pretty low number. As skewed as our culture is toward snakes that number should probably be a good bit higher.
And so here we are, trying to be left alone to keep the animals we choose as pets in the midst of a culture that believes them to be dangerous. Fear is the fuse and government control is the dynamite. Animal rights groups (e.g. HSUS) are both the match and accelerant, constantly scheming to ‘start something’ and make it happen quickly. Dragons! Dragons! Run for your life! Dragons! They are going to eat your children, kill all of the native wildlife and disrupt the continent’s ecosystem. They are going to lower your home value, eat your dog and wait in your toilet to bite you at night. Crazy keepers are going to let them go and marauding groups of snakes will be cruising your neighborhood stealing cars, knocking over mailboxes and spray painting graffiti on fences and bridge overpasses. And heaven help us all if a snake gets loose on a plane…
Dragons, they are! Or as close to the real thing as exists. They are dangerous and dangerous things should not be kept as house pets. That was the exact message being sent to Princess Aurora in my daughter’s story. The most vicious barrage from a corn snake or a ball python isn’t going to cost me more than a few drops of blood so I know that snakes are not dragons. A larger or more aggressive species can do a little bit more damage and are worthy of some additional respect to be sure but anybody who has ever kept snakes (even big ones) knows that I am way out of line to accuse snakes to be in the same danger category as dragons. But there I go again; accusing dragons of being dangerous despite having never met one…
My own fear of snakes didn’t go away until two things happened. First, I was removed from the source of information that reinforced that snakes were dangerous (e.g. I left my parents house and went to college) and found myself in an environment where people felt just the opposite. Second, I mustered the courage to not only be in the same room as the snake but I actually touched and then held one. And it was then that the wall of fear melted away. Once my irrational notions had been dispelled I began to see things more clearly.
I can’t force people who have a fear of snakes into a room and make them hold a snake (nobody forced me). For many that would only intensify their anxiety and push them further from where I would like them to be. Therapy of this type is likely to only succeed in perpetuating their fear. And that fear would prevent the rational thought I need them to have to understand that these animals are not dangerous.
It has long been apparent to me that the basis of the efforts to ban or otherwise legislate reptiles is, at a fundamental level, rooted in an exploitation of fear. Misinformation, intricately intertwined with truth becomes almost indistinguishable; the ability to separate fact from fiction becomes increasingly difficult and clever wordsmiths can get people to agree to things that are in direct contrast to their stated objectives. Salt the recipe with fear and people will react in very predictable ways. Our society’s attitudes towards snakes and the recent modification of the Lacey Act are exhibits A and B to this point.
So how does it happen? How does the fear of snakes continue to be perpetuated? And more importantly, can we do anything about it? The sources of fear are:
1. Our parents and teachers. When I was growing up I remember my mom telling me something to the effect of, “Babies have a natural fear of sudden loud noises, falling and snakes”. What the…? How’s that for mixing a lie in with some truth? The first two seem perfectly valid so the last one, despite any reason why, must also be true. When you’re five it’s easy to believe and tough to argue with mom. My mom didn’t have an evil-must-mislead-Colin agenda. She had a fear that she had carried her whole life and she was imparting that fear to me. One of the key things that makes humans different from other animals is the ability to pass knowledge to each subsequent generation …even when it’s wrong.
What to do about it? Not much, really. People who appreciate snakes for what they can add to their life will impart that same love and wonder to their children. People who are afraid of snakes will pass that fear on to theirs. My daughter loves snakes. From day one they were presented to her as, “look how pretty”, not “Dragon!!! Run for your life!” The difference in her attitude compared to her classmates is as stark a contrast as you could see. I have even found that her teachers are great purveyors of fear, teaching that snakes are bad and “they will bite you”.
2. Hollywood and the media. In addition to an overwhelming lean to the left, they will say what sells. Focusing on the things that instill fear is what sells movie tickets and gets people to ‘stay tuned’ through the commercial break. Forked tongues, eating prey whole, constriction, fangs, venom, slithering, scales, escape, massive size, etc. All the stuff that makes snakes seem so mean is what they focus on.
What to do about it? Sadly, there is little we can do. Buy a television network if you can.
3. Reptile keepers. Huh? The same people who love being able to own a reptile as a pet are participating in the spreading of fear? Yup. How so? I have more than a thousand pictures and videos of my dogs stored on my computers. Almost every single one of them is of them doing something cute, funny or otherwise endearing. I don’t have any pictures or videos of my dog killing a squirrel and eating it. I don’t have pictures of my dog baring its teeth at the person who knocked on my front door, either. And even if I did do you know what I would not do? I would not post them on YouTube or elsewhere on the Internet. But that is exactly what people do every day with their snakes. We make videos of our snakes feeding and post them on YouTube for the world to see. We show videos of fresh blood flowing from our recently bitten hand and we show video after video of them lunging at keeper and camera. Let me taunt my dog to the point that it is angry, annoyed and fearful enough to bite me. Better still, let me video it and then post the encounter on YouTube for others to watch. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Just as stupid as videos of people taunting their snakes to bite them in some body part.
What to do about it? I should hope it’s obvious. Stop acting like the media, posting only the things that have shock/coolness value. That lighting-fast strike and constriction and the scream of the rat is cool and fascinating to you but it’s fodder for other people’s fear. Stop feeding that fear. Doing so will help make sure you can keep feeding the thing you really want to feed: your snake.