Beneficial animals Gardening

It Slithers, It Hisses… Ugh! The Fear of Snakes!

So, are you ready to brave your phobias?

On the menu today, we have… snakes! You can love them, hate them, fear them or charm them, but in no case do snakes leave you indifferent. So, let’s see what we know about the fear of snakes: ophidiophobia.

Tiny baby red-bellied snake in a human hand
Tiny baby red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) found in my garden. Photo: Audrey Martel

Why Are We Afraid of Snakes?

The phobia of snakes is written in our genes. It barely manifests itself in some people, while in others, it can be overpowering. The body can react with cold sweats, rapid heartbeat, fainting, etc.

Eons ago, our ancestors encountered very dangerous snakes and had very little means of protecting themselves from them. When you walk barefoot in the forest and live in a cave, you can imagine that being afraid of snakes is indeed a good way to survive. A human who is fearless may seem brave, but the reality is that if he is too fearless around snakes, he risks putting himself in danger and dying.

The fear of snakes has therefore become a survival advantage and has been transmitted in the genes of the following generations… And this innate fear still persists today!

Obviously, in Western countries, though, this fear is no longer relevant to day-to-day life, so the phobia has become rarer. In other parts of the world, where really dangerous snakes are common, it’s the innate fear that is more present.

Other people, while they don’t break a sweat at the sight of a snake, don’t particularly like these creepy crawlers for a whole other reason:

Cartoon snake
Honestly, how many movies have you seen that feature a good snake?

Movies, books, culture in general need to arouse emotions to entertain.

What would Jafar be without his snake staff?

What would Eve be without temptation?

What would Fort Boyard be without its legendary snake pit?

And we all need a villain for our stories. And what could be better than playing in the already sensitive areas of our brain? Snakes, rats and worms add a false belief to the story, and voila! A handsome movie villain who is very scary… and who will damage the animal’s reputation for a very long time!

Ghostly snake comming out of a skull
The Dark Mark, a serpent emerging from the mouth of a skull, a symbol of He Who Must Not Be Named. (Think for a moment of the Harry Potter series: all mentions of snakes are somehow related to black magic. Slytherin, the basilisk, Nagini…)

The 5 Secrets About Snakes Hollywood Doesn’t Want You to Know

  1. Snakes are not slimy, they are just very smooth. Their keratin scales are like your fingernails: they reflect light, giving them a shiny appearance. Think about it for a moment: if they were slimy, dirt and dead leaves would stick to their skin!
snake scales
These are particularly colorful, but you can clearly see the effect of light on the dry scales.
  • Not all of them have venom, and when they do, there is a limited amount of it. A poisonous snake doesn’t want to bite you. If it does, it will use up part of its venom stock and find itself deprived of this precious means of defense for a while. It then has to make more. That’s why many poisonous snakes have a way of letting you know they’re there and of being recognized. Think of the rattlesnake that makes a very recognizable noise before attacking.
King cobra snake
King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) being bullied. His decoded message: “Halt, in the name of the king! In our common interest, leave my royal lands, or suffer my terrible wrath! (Or maybe: Would you please go away? I just want to have a nice quiet day!)” Photo:
  • Snakes don’t normally eat humans, even though a few are very large. In fact, if a snake were to eat such a large meal, it would not be able to move for quite a while, making it vulnerable to predators. Does that make it an impossibility? No, but it would have to be a small, very weak human sleeping alone in the middle of the jungle, without protection, to be worth swallowing! As long as you avoid that situation, you’re not at any risk!
  • The tongue is not poisonous. It’s just… a tongue! It’s forked because the snake uses it to smell. Yes, yes, you understood correctly: it “tastes” the air. The odor molecules stick to its tongue, which it then inserts into its palate through two small holes called a Jacobson’s organ. It can thus analyze the smells, determine if they come from the right or the left, and continue its quest for food peacefully.
Snake with a forked tongue
Forked tongue. Photo:

There is no such thing as a snake charmer.

Yes, some snakes are trained to follow the movement of a flute after they have been beaten with it a number of times… not something very ethical, I grant you. And even though snakes can sense vibrations, it isn’t flute music that charms them, because they’re deaf. So, dancing to music is just not something they can do!

The Role of Snakes in the Garden

I hope with all these facts you are beginning to understand that snakes are not a big threat to you as a gardener. In fact, they are more afraid of you than you are of them! That’s why, when you come across a grass snake in your flowerbed, just give it some space. It will go away on its own. There is no need to hack at it with a shovel or shout at it (let me remind you that it’s deaf and won’t hear your cries, although it will feel the vibrations of your approaching footsteps).

Snakes mostly feed on garden pests, for example small mammals (mice, field mice and rats), plus all sorts of invertebrates as well, like slugs, snails and scarab beetles. They are very useful in farmers’ fields and in the United States, some gardeners even go so far as to voluntarily release corn snakes (Elaphe spp., Pantherophis spp., etc.) in their fields to protect them from pests.

Red orange Corn snake
Corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus). Photo:

These snakes are obviously not harmful to humans and by applying them, growers avoid using a ton of chemicals. This is biological control at its finest!

Poisonous Thoughts?

Ah, yes, but aren’t snakes poisonous? Someone was bound to ask! And the answer is… yes, but very rarely, especially in temperate climates.

Did You Know: Were you aware that that, far from being universally harmful, snake venom is being studied for use in producing beneficial drugs for humans? No kidding! We may one day be able to regulate blood pressure with a (very diluted!) dose of snake venom.

Ok, But Suppose I Still Get Bitten?

The cooler the climate, the fewer chances you have of coming across poisonous snakes. Where I live, in Quebec, no snake is considered poisonous to a degree worth noting. Our snakes have very small teeth that barely pierce the skin. In the unlikely situation that one bites you, just wash the wound with soap and water. The puncture wounds may not even bleed since the teeth are smaller than needles!

In the very unlikely case you have to handle a non-poisonous snake—say it has fallen into a container and can’t get out—, just wear gloves and grasp it by holding it at the base of its head. Most of the time, they manage to get out of awkward situations all on their own.

Snake bite on arm
Having worked with small animals much of my life, I’ve had a bite or scratch or two over the years. I found this photo of a corn snake bite. I remember yelping in surprise, then laughing, seeing the total lack of “seriousness” of the injury. In all honesty, a paper cut is much, much worse!

Snake bites would be rare in the extreme in northeastern North America, but somewhat more prevalent if you live in south, central and western parts of the United States, Western Canada or Europe. Any risk of venomous snakes is more likely in rural areas. In tropical climates… you’d have to check.

If you are bitten, your first instinct should be to observe the animal carefully or even take a picture of it before it goes back into hiding. How big is it? What color is it? Does it have distinctive signs like a particular shape, eyes of a contrasting color, a sound it emits?

Photo: George Grillo

This information is very important because that’s what doctors will use to determine if you should be given antivenom, and if so, which one. Each snake type has its own antivenom, so it’s vital to be able to identify the culprit quickly.

Finally, if you go to Australia… Well, get used to the fact that 8 of the 10 most venomous snakes in the world live there. Have a great trip! 🙂

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

7 comments on “It Slithers, It Hisses… Ugh! The Fear of Snakes!

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  2. Our “hardwired” bias is pretty profound. And I wonder how much our obsession with lawns is tied in with it. Great piece, thank you!

  3. In Texas, we have plenty of snakes. I find garden snakes quite a lot. We also have Copperheads, which as babies will bite at anything. So I am careful when weeding or reaching into a plant. I saw a beautiful ribbon snake a few days ago. He was about 4 feet long and making his way through my yard, which is mostly gravel and arid type landscaping. I’ve seen one Rattle snake in 3 years and it made no attempt to bite me.

  4. Had several Diamond pythons in my garden/backyard in Oz, such great vermin catchers! Beautifully patterned scales, completely inoffensive, quiet, shy, I could never understand why my neighbours were so terrified of them. OK, I guess they did deplete the egg/young bird population a bit, but you can’t have everything.

  5. Jt Michaels

    Here, in NW Lower Michigan, I waggle my finger at the garden snakes to remind them to not eat the baby toads or bird eggs. Happy to say there are plenty of large toads by the end of season. ?

  6. I was taught not to kill snake or wasp, bees & spiders, unless they were in the doorway.
    I did kill black chicken snakes in the chicken pens, but that was to protect the eggs.

    • A South African told me hard boiled eggs would be left out for unwanted legless visitations, apparently a effective last meal as snakes cannot digest/pass it.

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