Why Are We Afraid of Snakes and How Do We Overcome That Fear?

To this day, I don’t know what compelled me to return to the scene of the slaughter. Morbid curiosity? I didn’t know it at the time, but watching the neighbor kids ruthlessly attack and kill the Gartersnake we had found in a cow pasture that day in the early 1990s would set off a chain of events that would have a profound impact on my life for decades to come. Even at about eight years of age, I knew the snake posed no threat, yet the moment we encountered it my neighbors reached for the closest sticks they could find and struck the animal repeatedly, killing it within seconds. My neighbors were on auto pilot and likely didn’t even think about what they were doing, they just did it, even though every snake in the area was completely harmless. After returning home I replayed the event in my head until curiosity got the best of me and I ran back to the spot where it happened to get a closer look. As I cautiously approached the snake’s remains I discovered, to my horror, that its innards were not nearly as lifeless as the snake’s stiffening corpse. After poking it with a stick (a requisite act for any kid my age), two small wormlike creatures wriggled out of the entrails. While my attempts to save those premature babies would not be successful, the whole experience filled me with a desire to save neighborhood snakes from similar fates. From that point forward, whenever I found a snake near the neighbor’s house, I moved it to our side of the fence. This new hobby of mine would grow into a lifelong passion to conserve habitat for reptiles, which can be an especially uphill battle when it comes to snakes. Conservation is always an uphill battle, but it’s a simple fact that people just don’t like snakes and would rather have less of them around. But why is that? And is it possible for people who are passionate in their loathing of snakes to have a change of heart?

Raised to appreciate all wildlife, Clara was exposed to snakes at a young age. Thanks in large part to her upbringing, Clara is now a young adult and still very comfortable around snakes.

By far, snakes are among the most maligned animals out there, but most people’s fear of snakes is not at all proportional to the actual threat they pose. Most snakes in North America are harmless, and the small number of venomous species we do have will go out of their way to avoid humans. Yet, time after time again we see full grown humans react in terror to the presence of a snake, even though the same people are able to maintain a very calm demeanor around much more dangerous species such as squirrels, or worse yet, raspberries (which have been known to attack unprovoked). The minuscule teeth of non-venomous snakes aren’t good for much more than keeping frogs from escaping from their mouths and a bite from most species could be described more accurately as a “gumming” rather than a bite. Larger snakes might be able to break skin, but we’re talking about mild scratches, not a mauling, so the extremely common fear of these animals is really quite baffling. And when snakes are killed as a result, they aren’t killed because they are a threat, they are killed because they are there.

Raspberries rank highly on the list of things that people are not afraid of even though they are more dangerous than non-venomous snakes, but many people would gladly run barefoot through a patch of raspberries to get away from harmless species such as Gartersnakes.

Yes, some snakes can be harmful to humans if bitten (in the US those are vipers and coralsnakes for the most part), but even those generally won’t bite unless provoked. Venom is a last line of defense and is usually reserved for emergency defense when retreat is not an option. In truth, the majority of venomous snakebites happen as a direct result of someone messing with the snake. One good example of that was a recent case where a young man was bitten by a rattlesnake he claimed fell into his kayak from a tree, but once the man’s family spoke out we all learned that’s not how it actually happened. He saw the snake, paddled towards it, and picked it up… because he thought it was an alligator. I will not attempt to explore his logic on that one, but the point is he was messing with the snake and that is why he ended up in the hospital. Let’s also not forget the man who beat a rattlesnake with a stick in South Texas in an ill-fated attempt to protect his family. He ended up injuring his daughter when he tried to fling the wounded animal off the trail and ended up throwing the snake right into his child’s leg, fangs first, sending her to the hospital. If people would simply leave the snakes alone most bites could be avoided.

I was invited to a local elementary school to do a reptile program for young kids and quickly learned that the teachers had never held a snake. Always a good sport, my Rosy Boa, Phillipe, impressed them with his calm demeanor and the program turned out to be as beneficial for the teachers as it was for the kids. This is actually a very common occurrence.

I can understand why people are afraid of venomous snakes, but why the non-venomous ones too? While many people simply cannot tell the difference between venomous and non-venomous, the fear is also very common in places where there are no venomous species. The fact that most infants and toddlers are not afraid of snakes, but older kids and adults often are, suggests the fear is learned. Such was the case with my neighbors who learned the fear from their mother. Many people with a self-described crippling fear of snakes will even admit they were fine with snakes as kids but are terrified of them now, and sometimes they can even point to a specific event when their fear began (for my stepdad, it was when kids at his summer camp tossed a Ratsnake into his sleeping bag). There is some evidence suggesting humans have a genetic predisposition to easily learn a fear of snakes at a young age, and while experimenting on kids is generally frowned upon, one study testing fear conditioning in rhesus monkeys sheds some light on the matter.

When Chris took a field herpetology class he had a gut-wrenching fear of snakes. He wanted really badly to get over his fear and worked very hard to calm himself down in their presence. On one of the last days of class he was finally able to hold most of a snake, and while I am sure it was a very nerve-wracking experience for him, the grin on his face paints a very clear picture of how meaningful this experience was to him. Chris will probably always be uneasy around snakes, but that is no longer a characteristic he defines himself by.

Back in the 80’s Dr. Susan Mineka observed that wild rhesus monkeys are usually afraid of snakes, but captive-born monkeys are not. Exploring why that was, she conducted an experiment and put young captive-bred monkeys in a room with a rubber snake and had them reach over the snake to retrieve food; they willingly did so. These monkeys had never seen a snake, nor had they ever met another monkey who had seen a snake, but after being shown a video of an adult monkey reacting in fear to a snake, most refused to reach over the toy snake for food ever again; some even cowered in the corner of their enclosures at the sight of the toy snake or threw feces at it. It makes sense that young monkeys would rely on cues from adults to learn what is safe and what is dangerous, but when Dr. Mineka performed the same experiment using a doctored video of monkeys reacting in fear to a flower instead of a snake she found that the young rhesus monkeys did not become afraid of the flower; some even played with it afterward. Do rhesus monkeys have a genetic predisposition to more easily learn a fear of snakes? We don’t know for certain, but that is one very plausible explanation, and we see the same trend in humans. And it all makes sense – in Africa where the human species originated, snakes are dangerous, and our programming hasn’t changed much even though many of us now live in places where snakes pose zero threat.

Never too late, many adults who spent their entire lives nervous about snakes can become comfortable enough to handle them. Here, my former 6th grade teacher handles a snake for the first time.

So most of us develop our fears of snakes as children, but eventually we reach an age where if we haven’t already become afraid of snakes we are unlikely to do so. Likewise, children who are afraid of snakes can easily overcome that fear whereas it can be exceedingly difficult for adults to make the same change. And that is true even though most people with a fear of snakes fully understand that the fear is irrational, yet an encounter with a snake triggers an involuntary visceral reaction. Some even have it so bad they become physically nauseous at the sight of a snake, or even just the mention of one.

Whitney admitted to being nervous around snakes, but agreed to snake-sit for me one week back in college, after which point she and my kingsnake were best buds. She is actually the one who named him Theo! This photo of her handling a wild Common Gartersnake was taken some time later.

But there is hope. While it can be extremely difficult, unlearning a fear of snakes is not impossible, even in some adults who have carried that fear with them for half a century. The trick, it would seem, relies on being able to see other people have positive experiences with snakes. This works in both children and adults, but while the transition to appreciating snakes can take mere seconds in children, the process in adults may be very gradual, sometimes taking years.

Tyler was a little on edge about snakes at the start of a field herpetology class, but quickly got over any misgivings he had about snakes after several constructive encounters. He held his first snake within a couple days and was catching them on his own by the end of the class.

When I lead reptile and amphibian workshops or field trips, there are almost always a couple people really uncomfortable when the group finds its first serpent. As the group huddles to take a closer look, I’ll generally see at least a couple people slink to the back, sometimes even stepping a few paces away from the group and looking away while the snake is being examined. But for longer workshops or week-long classes, even people with very strong fears of snakes start to ease up a little after seeing their friends and classmates interact with snakes calmly. Once they see other people handing snakes and having positive experiences with them they might start moving closer to the center of the group whenever a snake is found, perhaps driven by the same morbid curiosity that prompted me to return to the snake’s corpse as a child. Eventually, they ask to touch the tail while someone else holds the head. From there, the transition from touching the tail to holding the snake on their own can be quite quite rapid, and while they might still be very nervous, they usually cannot stop themselves from grinning ear to ear as they accomplish this major milestone in their lives. And they always ask for someone to take a picture so they can show their wife proof they actually touched a snake because none of their friends or family would believe it otherwise.

Watersnakes are a bit larger and feistier than most other species and Sam was admittedly quite nervous about handling one, but quickly realized that even Watersnakes are really nothing to be afraid of. Later, after actually being bitten by one, her reaction was along the lines of "is that all you've got?" They might be bad news for frogs, but pose no threat to humans.

Some people don’t even know why they are afraid of snakes and just haven’t had an opportunity to realize they are harmless. Back in college I worked on a veggie farm and one girl there freaked out the couple times she uncovered snakes under a tarp. The second time it happened I caught one of the snakes and it was clear she was mildly disturbed, but also fascinated that I was handling the snake calmly. When I asked if she wanted to hold it her gut response was a panicked, “Are you serious?” When I said yes, however, she took a moment to think it over, decided she would try it, and within 24 hours she was catching snakes by herself and moving them out of harm’s way. Similarly, last year when I did a reptile workshop for a summer camp, I recall one girl remarking “If there is snake in that bucket I am going to freak out”. Guess what – half an hour later she was holding the snake and I overheard her telling her friends on the walk back to the bus that snakes are so cool and she wanted one as a pet now. No, it’s not always that easy, but even if some people never become comfortable with snakes, it is often possible to at least help them get to a point where they are willing to leave snakes be rather than kill them.

Harry came over to help me fell a couple large trees in my yard and asked what was in the outdoor pen. Upon learning there was a snake inside he admitted to being pretty "freaked out" by snakes, but before we wrapped up he asked if he could see it. Within a couple minutes it was in his hands and he was asking for a picture to show his folks as proof.

One landowner I work with used to kill every rattlesnake he encountered (and his property has many), but now he is actively working to improve habitat or the snakes on his land. In his own words, snakes still freak him out and he hates seeing them, but he appreciates them as living beings that deserve respect and he wishes them the best of luck. That is huge! It is not my goal to make every single person love snakes – that isn’t possible – I just want people to better appreciate their value as wild animals and give them the space they need to survive. Even in the case of venomous snakes – once you know the snake is there, it really isn’t a threat anymore. And if you don’t know what it is or worry it may be venomous, just walk around it or reach out to someone qualified to identify and/or relocate the animal (some Facebook groups are great at quickly identifying snake pictures ). Contrary to popular belief, they will not chase you, though they do sometimes put on an exaggerated show to convince you to leave them alone. 

If you're not quite ready for an in-person snake session, even just getting some exposure to snakes on social media can help. I have lost count of how many times people have made posts like this in the Snake Identification group on Facebook. The more you know about these animals, the easier it is to be comfortable with them.

With enough positive exposure most people can overcome their fear of snakes. We may be programmed to learn a fear of snakes very easily, but time after time again I have seen that fear unlearned — it just takes some time, patience, and often a helping hand. Most of the photos and captions in this post tell a story of someone overcoming their fear of snakes, so please, if you self-describe as having a snake phobia, or if you know someone who does, I encourage you to read those stories. Look at the smiles on those people’s faces. One day that could be you.

So, with that, I’ll leave you with the words of Chris Jenkins, CEO of the Orianne Society, who says often in his Snake Talk Podcast, “Maybe you’ll find that what you perceive as fear is actually rooted in a deep fascination. Snakes are animals too, and it is a privilege to see one in the wild.”

1 comment
  1. Great article, Kiley, and thanks for the shoutout to the Snake Identification page. It never gets old seeing people positively change their outlook on snakes!

Comments are closed.

You May Also Like