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Wednesday, July 09, 2008


Fear of reptiles

I sometimes wonder where fear comes from.

If you've ever looked at my flickr pages you may have noticed that I enjoy having my photo taken handling snakes. Yes, I'm showing off but the only reason it gets attention is that others find snakes—maybe reptiles in general, maybe spiders too—scary. Why? I have a feeling that this fear is learned. My siblings are not quite so comfortable as I am with reptiles so I wonder why I didn't pick up this fear.

One of the good things about my childhood was the environment we grew up in. Our home was on a half-acre block. Most of the houses around us were on similar blocks and on one side were several acres of bush. And it was crawling with reptiles—many species of lizards and quite a few snakes. We were warned to keep clear of the snakes as they could be poisonous—and some were. If Dad ever caught a snake it was killed.

Bearded dragons were extremely common and still are in Brisbane backyards. I realise that in some countries now they keep them as pets. If they are handled regularly from birth they become tame but ours were wild. They grow to about 60 cm long. When they are babies it is OK to pick them up by the body but the big guys will bite. There is a trick. You have to get their feet off the ground quickly. When they see you they puff their 'beard' out to try to scare you but it is mostly bluff. If you grab them by the end of the tail and quickly get their feet off the ground they are almost helpless. They try to reach you but they can't if you hold them at arm's length.

That was the technique I used as a kid. Bear in mind that this lizard might be 2/3 as long as I was tall at that time. My macho brothers were not brave enough to do this. But once I got one off the ground they were happy to take it from me. One day one of my brothers had one that I'd picked up. I'd asked for it back but he wasn't returning it. I reached out to take it from him. The lizard reared up and bit my thumb. I lost some of my enthusiasm for picking them up after that.

Snakes were another matter. I accepted what my parents said but I was probably also reading and learning for myself. Carpet snakes—Australian pythons—were relatively common. I knew they were almost harmless, at least not poisonous, and they were easy to identify by their strong pattern and their size. The bush next to our yard ran down to the Brisbane River and there was a boat shed on the river bank. One day there was a lot of excitement because one of my younger brothers had found a carpet snake hibernating in the rafters of the shed. My two younger brothers were with some friends. They managed to force the snake down with a stick, held it with a forked stick and one of them was returning home victoriously with it across his shoulders. One hand was holding its neck tight the other hand its tail. As I said, the snake was hibernating, but now it started to wake up. As I came on the scene it was starting to wrap itself around his neck and he was calling, 'Get it off! Get it off!' So I helped him to carry it up to our house where they made a pen for it from some pieces of old iron roofing. Many of my brothers' friends would come around to see this snake which was about two metres long. Even though the snake was hibernating and was not going to attack anyone they had a ritual to go through whenever they handled it. First its neck was pinned by the forked stick and only then would one of them grab it behind the head tightly and boldly lift it out of the pen. One day there was quite a crowd there and I was watching this procedure. I could see that the snake was too sleepy to attack anyone. I calmly reached over the side of the pen, picked the snake up and dropped it into the middle of the crowd of kids. They sure ran fast until one of my brothers came back with the forked stick. I just stood there and laughed.

Through my life I've treated snakes based on the following knowledge. A snake will usually only attack you for one of two reasons: 1). It is planning to eat you; or 2). It thinks you might attack it. When you consider this, you realise that at most times we have very little to fear from snakes. Most Australian snakes are too small to consider eating a grown human. However you have to be careful not to put a snake into situation number 2. They will attack to protect themselves. But generally, they will be trying to get away from you faster than you from them. There are exceptions, some species like the Australian taipan are both aggressive and poisonous but they do not live in the area where we lived so they were not an issue for me.

A little north of Sydney at Gosford there is a reptile park that was started by a man named Eric Worrell. When I visited they had a pit which was about 3 x 5 metres. It was literally crawling with tiger snakes. Tigers are one of the world's deadliest snakes. There were so many of them in the pit that if you were brave enough to get in with them you would have had difficulty finding somewhere to put your feet. While we were looking over the wall, Eric Worrell jumped over, into the pit and walked among the tiger snakes. One by one he picked them up and in front of the small crowd that had gathered milked them for venom.

On one of my early visits to Thailand a storytelling camp was held in Mahasarakham. After the camp was over, I was staying one more night at the campsite and some of the students had stayed back to keep me company. We were chatting in a circle when someone came from outside and said, 'There's a snake over there.' I immediately got up and started heading towards my room. 'Where are you going?' I was asked.

'To get my camera.' I came back with the camera and started walking towards the snake.

'Where are you going?' they asked again.

'To take a photo of the snake.'

'No! No! No! It might bight you.'

'That's OK. I won't get close enough.'

'Don't go any closer. You don't know anything about Thai snakes. It could be a cobra.' I was perhaps about 5 metres from it. I stopped. They were right. I didn't know anything about Thai snakes. It might be a cobra.

I followed the advice and took the photos from that distance. This was my old Kodak camera. It doesn't have the zoom I have on my fz20. With the fz20 I wouldn't have needed to get any closer but it wasn't invented at that time. Still I got this photo. I've cropped a lot of background here.

A few days later I was in Bangkok and I paid a visit to the Snake Farm. They had a show which included cobras. The handlers were working very close to the cobras. After the show I asked a few questions. I showed them my picture, told the story and asked if they could identify the snake. He did and said it was harmless. I asked how close it was safe to get to an unidentified Thai snake. He said one or two metres. 'What if it was a cobra?' I asked.

'One or two metres,' he replied.

After that they allowed me to hold one of their Burmese pythons and my friend took a few photos.

When I was in Kuala Lumpur not so long ago my friend, Shuenhuey, took me to Batu Caves. At the entrance to the caves there was a guy with a large python that for a small fee you could handle and take photos. I gave Shuenhuey my camera while I held the python. I wanted to get some photos that I could use to show off to my grandchildren. We got a few good photos and went into the cave.

On the way out Shuenhuey said she was thinking about getting her photo taken with the snake. I was impressed. For me this is no big deal but she had grown up with the same fear of reptiles that most people have. Seeing how casually I had handled it she had decided that perhaps she could face her fears. I encouraged her and as you can see, she did it. (But check out the kid in the background.)

People have all sorts of mistaken beliefs about reptiles. How many people, for example, think that snakes are 'slimy'? They're not. Sadly we also often take on beliefs about other people who we've never met. Just as we do with snakes and lizards we think that people of this race or religion are all .... You fill in the gap. Me, I do my best to travel to exotic countries, meet people and find out first-hand what they are like. Just as I do with reptiles.

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I've discovered another of my friends who is not afraid of different creatures. Take a look here to see my friend Nee getting up close and friendly with spiders, a monkey and even a crocodile.
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