Shaking and trembling, I could feel the muscles of the snake contract as it slithered across my shoulders. I could feel the cool scales slide through my hands. I could sense its head close to mine, its piercing eyes looking at me, its tongue reading my scent. I could feel its tail wrapping tightly around my arm. I could feel tears roll down my cheeks, my heart race, my muscles tense, and my breath grow thin and frantic. I was trying to overcome my fear of snakes by allowing one to crawl all over me.
This wasn’t the first time I found a snake on me, in my hands, or nearby in my pursuit of overcoming my fear of snakes. In my mind, it is not a matter of if but when I encounter a dangerous snake in the wild, because I spend a substantial amount of time hiking in snake country and other areas with snakes. So, at one point of my life without any research to back me up, I decided that I would get over my fear by learning everything I could about snakes, watching videos about them, going to museums featuring them, and interacting with them. What resulted was an acute morbid fascination cradled in an ever intensifying crippling phobia of snakes. Here is a brief glimpse into the madness of my journey.
Fear is a natural part of life, an evolutionary necessity. It’s what helps us stay alive and keeps us from situations that could kill us. Having a fear of poisonous dangerous snakes, is rational, having an extreme debilitating fear of snakes in general isn’t and is called Ophidiophobia. I’m not alone in this phobia, as a fear of snakes is very common among adults around the world.
I have been to three live snake museums, the Superstition Serpentarium in Arizona featuring rattlesnakes, the American International Rattlesnake Museum in New Mexico featuring the “largest collection of different species of live rattlesnakes in the world”, and the Nairobi Snake Park in Kenya featuring some of the world’s most deadly snakes.
I cried my way through the American International Rattlesnake Museum. The snake enclosures filled with rattlesnakes of all types lined both sides of several narrow pathways, which meant snakes were very close to my back the entire time. I couldn’t look into one enclosure without my back mere inches from another. My mom thought it would be funny to grab a fake snake from the gift shop and drape it over my shoulder. That resulted in me screaming, and the employees running to the back fearing a snake enclosure had been compromised.
Rattlesnakes are my most immediate threat as I commonly hike in rattlesnake country. They get their name from the rattling sound they make with their tail when they feel threatened and want to warn the threat to stay away. They don’t always rattle before a bite though, if you happen to get too close to one, it will just bite. Sometimes they dry bite, bite with no envenomation, but when they don’t, most species will inject a varying amount of hemotoxic venom that causes tissue and muscle damage, and internal bleeding. They tend to avoid human contact, but will be aggressive if human contact comes or happens upon them. Without proper timely treatment, one bite can result in death.
The Nairobi Snake Park came later in my journey, after the fascination settled in, and I was ready to see some of the most deadly snakes in the world – the snakes I had been researching for years. One enclosure featured more than 20 black mambas, which seems utterly mad to me as they can grow up to 14 feet (4.3 meters), they can move at speeds up to 12.5 miles per hour (20 kilometers per hour), and they can deliver several bites before a person even blinks injecting neurotoxic venom that will kill unless antivenom is administered in a timely manner. It seems like they would need a little more space and precaution. The other enclosures featured a brown spitting cobra, a few green mambas, a forest cobra, an Egyptian cobra, a gaboon viper, a red spitting cobra, a puff adder, and some non-venomous snakes.
I still trepidatiously moved between enclosures, but this museum scared me in a couple other ways as well. For one, the entrance to the museum features a small open garden area brimming with snakes, the tree in the center was writhing with more than 50 of them, and the short perimeter walls showcased several snakes trying to slither out but falling just short of escape. A sign directly in the middle read, “Trespassers will be poisoned.”
The second thing that had me on guard, was the overall slightly dilapidated state of the museum and the enclosures. I expected the world’s most deadly snakes to be in enclosures similar to that of a maximum-security prison, instead I found shoddy looking cages. The door to the back of the enclosures was left open, and I could only think how easy it would be for a snake to escape or for someone to access the cages. And while I’m scared of snakes, I’m not for their mistreatment, and I could tell many of them were in a state of anxiety, partly because many tried to attack me through the glass. This doesn’t necessarily mean mistreatment, but it did have me feeling bad in the very back of my mind behind all the fear. And then my fears were more supported when I saw a large box, next to a much smaller suggestion box, near the exit that said, “Report Corruption Cases Here.” Yup, compromised enclosures will be discovered via a handwritten notification much later. Alright, so it doesn’t mean they don’t check them often themselves, but you must see the comedy in that report box.
The next major component to my journey is interacting with snakes. I have held snakes three times once in Belize, once in Nevada, and once in Arizona. I have also been around live snakes a number of times, including seeing one in the wild the first night I was in the Amazon Jungle, seeing a couple held by a snake fighter in Morocco, and getting up close to an Egyptian Cobra for a picture in the Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh. In retrospect, I should have approached each of these encounters with the intent to create positive cognitive connections with snakes, but instead I just reinforced my negative ones, further deepening the phobia.
The next step in my journey is figuring out what to do if I encounter a snake in the wild, and what to do if I am bitten. I constantly run through scenarios in my mind, hoping that will train my reflexes to overcome the likely paralyzing fear I will have, and spur me into action. From my research, I have deduced the keys to survival if bitten are to get help and antivenom as quick as possible, to keep the bite below the level of the heart if possible, to remain still and calm if possible, to remove any binding clothing or jewelry if necessary, to take a mental note of the snake appearance, and to use a sharpie to periodically draw a circle around the bite area and denote the time to track the progress of the bite. Those steps seem to be the general consensus I have found, but know there are several theories out there, and I’m still researching them myself.
My challenge though is I typically hike alone, am typically without cell phone service, and am typically several hours from help. So, if I’m bit, I’m pretty much screwed. Snakebite statistics have been a hard one for me to find, particularly how long I have till serious injury, like amputation or organ failure, or death from the time of the bite. I have concluded that in every situation where I could have encountered a snake and have been bit, I would not have made it because I wouldn’t have been able to get help soon enough.
So, realizing I likely can’t survive a snakebite in most the situations I find myself in and wanting to continue hiking and adventuring, then I must work to avoid getting bitten (Pro-Tip: Don’t google snakebites, some things you just can’t un-see). I have studied snake behavior patterns and photographs to help decrease potential confrontations. I have also purchased snakebite proof gaiters. I have also looked into purchasing antivenom, but due to costs, availability, and expiration dates, that is not an option. I have even researched mithridatism, building an immunity to venom through ingesting gradual small doses over time, and that has yet to be proven effective so that’s off the plate (Alright, I never really considered this option, but it is neat to look into).
I don’t know when the fear began or why. My earliest memory of it was in elementary school during an assembly and they were passing around snakes. I opted not to hold one, but the girl next to me wasn’t paying attention so the guy next to me just held a snake in front of my face for what seemed like forever. It resulted in my crying and becoming hysterical. I’m sure it’s a combination of reasons, genetic and historical and cultural representations.
Regardless, they continue to play a starring role in my nightmares, and illicit fright. One day I may have a healthy fear, but until then I’ll be watching the next episode of Snake City, and dreading the day I meet one in the wild.
“There’s no shame in fear, my father told me, what matters is how we face it.” ― George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings