Why do we hate snakes?

by Gord Ellis | August 21, 2020
A brown snake sunning on a rock above water

If you ask any random six people in Ontario, I’d venture four of them would say they have a real problem with snakes. And not just a dis­like, but a complete and utter fear of them, verg­ing on hysteria. This is an unscientific belief, but as someone who’s had an interest in reptiles and amphibians most of my life, I know it’s not far off. Why this is the case is puzzling.

Biases of biblical proportion

It’s likely a complicated mix of instinct, super­stition, and upbringing. The Bible story of Adam and Eve in the garden hinges on the first woman being tempted by a snake with an apple. We all know how that worked out. Not the most flattering start for snakes. Perhaps this deep human distrust of snakes goes back even further, to our earliest ancestors. Some snakes are poisonous, and it could be that just avoiding them all was a good survival strategy. The snake fear got hardwired.

Snakes often feature prominently in movies, and not usually in a positive way. Even our most swashbuckling heroes (Indiana Jones comes to mind) are scared of snakes.

Snakes and I go way back

For some reason, snakes have never scared me. My earliest childhood adventures included a fair bit of snake handling. This lack of fear meant I was sometimes called upon to remove snakes from camping and cottage areas.

During a child­hood stay at my late grandfather’s deer camp on Manitoulin Island, several members of the extended Ellis clan were in attendance. I was instructed to remove all snakes from the vicinity, as a certain aunt was petrified by them. Of spe­cial concern were the water snakes that would make their way across the channel we swam and fished in.

I did my best to comply, and removed them any way I could. One of the snakes ended up swimming into a minnow trap and drowned. I remember feeling bad for it, but skinned it out and made a display on wood, which I own to this day. It was a beautiful animal.

Herptile collecting to gazing

Another childhood incident that has become family lore involves my pet garter snake. At about 14, I captured a garter snake during a herp-collect­ing trip north of Thunder Bay. Normally, I brought home frogs, tadpoles, or salamanders, but this day I arrived with a bag full of garter snake. I thought it was pretty and interesting. My mother, God bless her, was less enthralled, but, being the woman she is, allowed me to keep the snake in a five-gallon terrarium as long as the “lid was tight.”

All went well until one afternoon when my mother, carry­ing a basket of laundry up the stairs, was met by a tiny head with two beady eyes staring at her. Apparently the lid was not quite tight enough. That was the end of that snake’s captivity.

As a grown-up, my interactions with snakes have been fewer, but always interesting. I’ve been on canoe and fishing trips in the far north and have been amazed to find garter snakes sunning them­selves on rocks, often in weather just barely above freezing. I’ve come across snakes swimming many kilometres from land, apparently doing just fine. Sadly, I’ve also seen a lot of snakes run over by vehicles on highways and bush roads. The snake is a cold-blooded reptile, and road surfaces gather heat. The collateral damage is huge.

a sweet little snake interlaced in a child's hands

Save a snake

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I’ve seen as an adult is the wanton killing of snakes for no other reason than that they’re snakes. Mass snake slaughters for what seems like someone’s amusement are especially revolting.

Snakes have not been given a lot of love in this culture, despite the many real positives they bring to the table.

Enter Matt Ellerbeck, a champion of snakes from southern Ontario. Ellerbeck is a herp lover who has concerns for reptiles and amphibians in Ontario, especially snakes. He has started what amounts to a one-man crusade called “Save all Snakes.”

“My big objective is to hopefully alleviate some of those negative attitudes toward these animals and I hope that will then lower the number of snakes that are directly killed by fearful individuals,” Ellerbeck said.

Local snake species

Ellerbeck noted there are four species of snakes in northwestern Ontario alone, ranging from the small garter snake to the much larger northern water snake I was instructed to wage war on all those years ago.

“(Water snakes) can get around four feet long, they are a very heavy-bodied snake …” said Ellerbeck, ”and a lot of people think they are dangerous, but they are not venomous.”

Ellerbeck said several species of snakes in Ontario are listed as species at risk, with habitat loss and road mortality increasing the chances of their extinction. For this reason, he wants to help get the word out that snakes are our friends, eating pests like mice and grasshoppers. He’s brought his grassroots campaign to schools and parks, where he hopes to reach younger people.

My hope for anyone reading this column is that they will consider the snake as a vibrant part of Ontario’s wilderness and not as an enemy. Ontario would be a sadder place without the exotic presence of snakes.

Originally published in the August 2019 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.

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