Despite how low-maintenance of a pet snakes are, being a snake owner isn’t always easy. It’s common to hear plenty of backlash from non-reptile owners, and even more common to get told false horror stories and myths. But why do snakes have a bad reputation, and is this infamy undeserved?
Snakes have a bad reputation due to the major misconceptions and myths surrounding them. Humans are instinctively wary of snakes, and animal-related phobias are easily learned. Although many people believe that snakes are aggressive, these reptiles are actually known to avoid conflict and confrontation as much as possible.
In this article, we’ll examine the nitty-gritty of why snakes have a bad reputation, from popular myths, learned phobias, and even some basic biology. Hopefully, by the end of this article you may come to respect these beautiful creatures rather than fear them.
Why Are Snakes Misunderstood?
Although snakes are beautiful and incredibly important members of the animal kingdom, they are undoubtedly one of the most misunderstood. This comes down to a combination of a poor reputation mixed with being unrecognized for their important role.
Do Snakes Have An Unfair Reputation?
As we’ll cover below, snakes have a poor reputation, and for the most part it is very undeserved. Snakes fall victim to a variety of myths that portray these timid creatures as vicious and malicious, and they are commonly used as monsters and villains in the media. With cruel events such as rattlesnake roundups occurring in numerous states, it would be accurate to say that snakes are one of the most persecuted animals.
As numerous studies on snake behavior have shown, this reputation as an evil, man-hating creature couldn’t be further from the truth. As animals that tend to eat rarely (sometimes fasting for two years in the wild!) and do not naturally produce their own body heat, snakes spend much of their lives in a delicate balance of looking for food while not expending too much energy. That means that while snakes can move quickly in small bursts to protect themselves, there is no reason they would want to chase after a person.
Furthermore, snakes are naturally fearful of humans and only bite as a final effort to protect themselves. They would much rather camouflage or hide from humans, and most bites occur when humans are trying to catch or kill snakes. In other words, the reputation snakes have is practically the opposite of their true nature.
Do Snakes Do Anything Good?
Believe it or not, snakes are actually an important part of our ecosystem, economy, and even our health. Although captive snakes tend to mostly eat frozen rodents, a wild snake isn’t a picky eater in the slightest. While certain species do have their preferences and niches, the average snake will eat anything that it can take down and swallow. So when an ecological change causes a species to take over their local ecosystem, snakes are able to level the playing field. And as mesopredators, snakes not only play the role of predator, but also prey. Animals like the famous secretary bird depend greatly on snakes for their diets, and without a stable snake population, their numbers can potentially dwindle.
Snakes are often called a farmer’s friend, and for good reason– snakes are some of the most powerful pest control in existence, with various species eating rats, mice, aphids, and other crop-eaters. Like other reptiles, snakes can carry bacteria on their skin that can cause a nasty stomach bug, but the damage these bacteria can do pales in comparison to the sorts of diseases spread by the critters snakes eat. Hosts of Lyme disease, rat-bite fever, hantavirus, leptospirosis, rabies, and even the plague are all found in the diet of the humble snake.
Simply put, snakes are quite a valuable member of the animal kingdom!
Why Do Snakes Have A Bad Reputation?
As we explained above, snakes are peaceful, fascinating creatures that are vital caretakers of our forests, farms, and personal health. Now that we’ve discussed how snakes are so misunderstood, it’s worth asking why they got this notoriety in the first place.
1. Snake Phobias Are Common (And Taught!)
Along with arachnophobia, ophidiophobia, the intense fear of snakes, is one of the most common phobias around the world. As we’ll discuss below, there are many theories as to why most people are a bit put-off by our slithery friends, and it’s worth wondering why so many people get a chill down their spine at even seeing the word snake.
While many phobias are caused by a negative experience, developing fear due to observing another person’s response– known as vicarious fear learning— can be just as powerful. The fear of snakes tends to run in families, especially among women. While studies have suggested a genetic tendency to be more alert to snakes, recent studies have demonstrated that young infants rapidly pick up a fear of creepy-crawlies from watching how the adults around them react to them. This does not require even having direct contact with a snake– a scary story or snake-themed movie is enough to start a phobia for many of those susceptible to anxiety.
2. There Are Many Negative Myths Around Snakes
One of the first responses I get whenever people find out that I own reptiles is being told a story. I often hear about how some distant cousin was run off by a pack of snakes, or how a friend of a friend had a snake that stretched out by them every night to see if they were big enough to eat. I tend to smile and nod and let the peaceful critter around my neck speak for itself, but it can be frustrating realizing just how many myths are out there.
From tall-tales about baby venomous snakes being more dangerous than adults, snakes being able to bite their tails and roll around like a wheel, or even things such as milk attracting snakes, there are countless old wives-tales that are practically fact to the general public. This is an unfortunate case of most people fearing what they don’t understand.
The average person doesn’t spend a lot of time around snakes, to the extent that many people don’t actually know what they feel like. Instead, most people have only heard stories about snakes, and believe them without question. Even when someone does interact with a snake, they may be biased and misinterpret harmless things such as a friendly snake wrapping around to prevent themselves from falling as a dangerous snake that was trying to constrict them.
3. People Are Afraid of Venom
For many of us, the coral snake rhyme has been drilled into our heads from a young age, and we’ve been taught to keep a close lookout for anything that slithers. It is true that in some cases, snake venom has the potential to be painful or even fatal, and officials recommend keeping your eye out for venomous species whenever you are in their habitat.
While a fear of potent venom is certainly justified, only 10 to 15% of snakes are actually venomous. And of those venomous species, none have been recorded actively pursuing humans. After all, why would a venomous snake waste its most valuable resource on attacking a non-threat that could easily harm it? Furthermore, many of the snakes that people mistake for being venomous in the wild are actually harmless snakes using Batesian mimicry, a defense mechanism where an animal mimics an undesired prey item so that predators avoid it.
But even if the coral snake in front of you is actually a coral snake, that doesn’t mean you’ll be bitten. Stumbling across a venomous snake in the wild can be startling to say the least, but if you leave them alone, move slowly, and respect their boundaries, they’ll be sure to return the favor.
4. Humans Are Naturally Vigilant Toward Snakes
For as learned as the majority of snake-phobia is, there is actually some degree of instinct involved. As with another commonly feared critter, spiders, babies are born to naturally be attentive toward snakes. Studies on infants as young as 4 months old have shown that babies will immediately look at pictures of snakes and pay close attention to them.
This tendency to fixate on these animals continues even into adulthood, and is as automatic as it is instinctual. Some theorize that humans naturally keep an eye out for anything that could be remotely venomous, while others argue that snakes provoke a disgust response due to their close association with vermin and other disease-bearing critters. While phobias are certainly learned, and exposure to snakes can make you no longer fear them, being a critter that humans are naturally wary of to some extent won’t do wonders for your press coverage.
Despite their passive natures and tendency to flee confrontation, snakes are infamous among the animal kingdom. The fear and disgust that many people express toward snakes is largely learned, with countless myths worsening the reputation of these timid reptiles.
Hopefully, as more people become educated about snakes, they will shed their bad reputation and instead be appreciated for the peaceful and fascinating creatures they are.