I have had it with these motherf'ing snakes on my motherf'ing brain!
February 4, 2008 7:27 PM   Subscribe

I have a longstanding and semi-irrational snake phobia. As part of my ongoing quest to do new things and get over my damn self, I think it might be high time to deal with that. Just plain old trying to touch one would probably be enough for now, but... ew and eek. Any suggestions?
posted by Madamina to Pets & Animals (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
At least when I was a kid, you could pet snakes and other reptiles at The Franklin Institute, which is not helpful to you unless you are near Philadelphia. (I'm also not sure that I'm answering your question, which I'm reading as "Any suggestions on how to touch a snake in controlled environment?")
posted by Airhen at 7:33 PM on February 4, 2008

Best answer: Is it the scales or the fact that it has no legs? Are you afraid of lizards?

Your profile doesn't list your location but most major cities have pet stores that sell snakes and lizards.

Perhaps just try hanging out around snakes, maybe pet an iguana (they're cute!), then move on up to handling snakes?

Smaller (younger, baby) constrictors are definitely harmless to someone your size. If possible, handle the snake in a cooler environment so that it's a little more lethargic?
posted by porpoise at 7:36 PM on February 4, 2008

Response by poster: Heh, I think I encountered snakes for the first time at the Franklin Institute myself :)

I think I could probably find a controlled environment; I have a friend with several snakes of her own (and a phobic live-in fiance... still don't understand how they work that out...). I'm not exactly sure what the main thing I have to get over is. It's just dumb by this point.
posted by Madamina at 7:38 PM on February 4, 2008

Response by poster: I'm not afraid of lizards at all, but I don't pet those either. It's definitely something with the unpredictability of slithering around with no legs. Very creepy that it can go around and around your body.
posted by Madamina at 7:40 PM on February 4, 2008

Do you really see your snake phobia as irrational? I don't. I see this as an opportunity to find your strength where others may see a weakness. I am not afraid of snakes but I have always figured people who are afraid of them are actually pretty smart for feeling that way. How about deciding you are in possession of some good primal instincts and letting yourself feel a bit better about yourself in the process?
posted by mamaraks at 7:44 PM on February 4, 2008

I think porpoise forgot to mention that at most pet stores, you can walk right in and ask them to let you handle one of the critters. As long as there is no risk you'll drop one out of fright, this might be the quickest and easiest way to get a smooth, clean, calm boa into your hands. Get that under your belt, then go home and read up on both reptiles and reptile phobias and see if you can logic your way out of this whole problem.

I'm rather fond of them myself, but I would hardly call a snake phobia irrational. Maybe just unfortunate :)
posted by TheManChild2000 at 8:01 PM on February 4, 2008

Response by poster: Okay, here's the irrational part: I am so scared of snakes that I have avoided the outdoors for most of my life for fear that SOMEWHERE, a snake exists. I want to be less araid of going for walks in the arboretum for fear of a snake crossing my path. So we can accept the whole "yeah, they're gross" part, but the fact that it has limited me in such a dumb way is something I need to get over. It's damn symbolic, if I do say so myself :)
posted by Madamina at 8:02 PM on February 4, 2008

They say that Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is good for treating phobias. There should be a practitioner in your area. I'd definitely get professional treatment if your phobia is crippling.
posted by TigerCrane at 8:12 PM on February 4, 2008

Snakes can. indeed, bite you, and some of them are poisonous, but being afraid of them is not going to protect you from those things. In fact, were you in the presence of a snake that could indeed harm you, fear reactions, such as jumping and sudden movements, could frighten the snake and provoke it to bite. Snakes don't want to attack, and if you know to give them enough space and not to make them feel cornered or threatened, you are in very little danger.

Before you progress to actually touching or handling snakes, I'd suggest learning about them first. Get used to looking at pictures of snakes. Identify what it is about them that bothers you. Then, when you feel ready, find a herpetologist or someone who handles snakes regularly and is comfortable with them to let you pet and handle one of theirs. Let them know what you are trying to accomplish, so they know what your issues are and what you are trying to accomplish. Visit a few times, until you are accustomed to seeing live snakes moving in their environments. When you're up to actually touching a snake, I'd recommend something small and relatively even tempered, like a corn snake, but your best bet is whatever snake the person has that is most used to human contact.

I hope this helps. I love snakes myself, and find them really fascinating and graceful.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:13 PM on February 4, 2008

sully...that answer sucked... go read the rules for ask mefi...


find someone that raises snakes... and ask them to let them know when they have a litter (a pet store might do this as well)... very little, tiny, snakes are not scary... they tend not to bite, they can't hurt you... they tend to wrap around a finger to get warm......

one step at a time.... you'll get there....

/from someone whose sister (the biology teacher), once had over 100 snakes housed at my house... all the way up to a 15 foot python and a number of rattle snakes......
posted by HuronBob at 8:13 PM on February 4, 2008

I kind of chuckled when I read Sully's answer.....I thought it was funny.
posted by mamaraks at 8:19 PM on February 4, 2008

A close friend of mine conquered his childhood fear of snakes by finding out everything he could about them; he studied biology, became a herpetologist and a zookeeper, and now makes his living breeding exotic rainforest pythons.

That may be a little drastic for you. I'm not phobic about snakes, but I did start out with what I'd consider a healthy fear of handling them. Here's how I got over it:

1. Start small: snakes feel very strange; they're cold-blooded and we generally aren't used to handling cold-blooded things. The way a snake grips you is disconcerting and the combination of plasticity in the individual scales and elasticity in the muscular movement feels downright alien compared to cat's tails or puppy paws. Handling baby snakes or snakes that only grow to about a foot long gets you used to the way they move and the things they tend to move toward.

2. Drink beer: I'm sure, if you're not a beer drinker, a calming cup of tea might suffice. But the relaxing effect of one beer will make you so much less likely to jump when the snake turns its head toward yours (and yes, that can be frightening even to experts) that it's really worth it. Being jumpy alarms the snake, which alarms you, which alarms the snake, and then the snake eats its own tail.

3. The snake handles you: You are essentially a tree limb, albeit a very convenient one that usually moves in ways that allow the snake to stay active. Snakes usually like to explore their perches. If you don't like the direction a snake is moving, you can easily and safely introduce your other hand as an extension of the limb it's crawling up and transfer its exploration to a new direction. With a little practice, it's easy to guide a snake's travels up and down your limbs, or provide a place for it to rest, just by moving your arms a bit.

4. All snakes are not equal: Some live in trees, waiting to drop on mammals and squeeze the life out of them. Some swim around, catching fish, some bask under the desert sand, waiting for insects. There's a big difference between handling a milk snake, a corn snake, or a Kenyan sand boa, and handling a tree boa or python. The blunt, wormlike faces of the former are much less daunting than the deltoid snouts of the latter. Some snakes are easier to handle than others.

5. Get bit: This is why you should start with baby snakes. They're often quite active, and can be a bit of a handful, but their bites are ineffectual and painless. The best thing about being snakebit is that you learn from observation how to avoid being bitten again. Pre-bite body language is characteristic, though it may vary between species. If you are handling a baby snake, it may grow aggressive towards a fingertip (fingertips "look" like baby mice, which most baby snakes feed on). The snake's teeth aren't developed yet, so when it bites it might pinch a little but it won't hurt.

If you handle snakes a lot, you will be bitten. You won't be handling venomous snakes so there's little chance of poisoning. The worst thing about a snakebite is the speed and shock of it. You won't be handling snakes large enough to cause serious damage (as long as you don't ask to handle the seven-foot tree python with the head as big as your fist). It hurts, but not for long; the cuts are shallow, though the teeth are sharp; the snake won't follow up with a blow to your head or drain your blood or anything scary; and it's really liberating to be bitten for the first time.

NOTE: Snakes often lose teeth when they bite, and come with spares (it's fascinating). When a snake bites and doesn't let go, resist the temptation to pull it off. Instead, you grip it by the back of the head and if necessary use a tool to open its jaws until it lets go. Check any bite wound for broken teeth, as they can cause infection and/or migrate deeper into the flesh.

6. You are the dangerous one: You have the physical ability to kill any snake you might be handling. The snake probably doesn't recognize this. It's up to you to keep the snake from recognizing this. The worst threat you face from a snake is a laceration, probably on your hand or arm, that will heal in a week. Fling that snake against a wall and it's dead. That's the power dynamic at work, even though your fear tells you otherwise.

You see, for me, most of the fear of snakes was the fear of being bitten; once I understood that biting is about protection and predation, and that snakebites are much more surprising than they are dangerous, I understood that my part in handling snakes was to avoid unnerving the snake. I could do this by avoiding being unnerved by the snake. So that it wouldn't be unnerved and I wouldn' unnerve it and then we have the snake eating its own tail again but for good this time.

I understand where fear of snakes comes from. For most people, it's not even a real phobia, but a fear borne of larger-than-life fictional portrayals (and documentaries in far-off places where killer snakes lurk under bassinets). They look at things without the facial cues we recognize in mammals: when a snake turns its head towards yours, there's no way to tell if it's thinking, "My, you look pretty today," or "You have two seconds to move away from me."

So, in short: it is worth it to get over your fear, which is rooted in some valid notions, but is likely overblown. Snake-handling is about countering things you do reflexively, and can be a very meditative and rewarding practice. As you reduce the level of threat you feel from a snake, you reduce the level of threat you pose to the snake. This detente is quite harmonious and even soothing.

Take a deep breath. Take a lot of deep breaths. Drink a beer. Handle a snake or two. They aren't so bad. Some of them are even kinda cute.
posted by breezeway at 9:06 PM on February 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I hate to hitchhike on someone else's question, but this is all very interesting to me, as I've had a fear of bees since I was stung on the eye when I was little. I actually get nervous to go outside in the spring/summer. I'd really like to thank everyone who posted answers here, as some of this stuff will probably translate pretty well to me. I'll have to look into NLP.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:29 PM on February 4, 2008

I have avoided the outdoors for most of my life for fear that SOMEWHERE, a snake exists.

I heartily second louche mustachio's suggestion of learning more about the different kinds of snakes. Many are not harmful to grown human adults even if they're venomous. Snakes are quite interesting creatures - they have these pits in their head to senses infrared at a pretty decent resolution.

I'm not fond of snakes and never had a phobia, but after running a really large one over in my car by accident (I felt a bump and saw it in the rearview window), I've developed a weird sympathy for them since.

I'm not saying to go out and kill a snake but maybe just getting more familiar with snakes in general can let you enjoy the outdoors once again.


Are you similarly bothered by eels and lampreys, as you are to snakes - or do the fact that they're swimming around in water obviate the lack of legs?
posted by porpoise at 9:31 PM on February 4, 2008

Pick a friend or partner and have an adventure together: Your mission is to find and photograph a snake in the wild. Ideally, aiming for the kind of National Geographic photo that you can impress people with - "Wow... you took that? I wouldn't have the guts to get that close!", "Oh no, you just haven't seen the size of the zoom lens I was using!"

This involves research, gear (a camera, health insurance ;-)), a weekend out of the house with a friend, fun, nerves, luck, determination and adventure.

(If it makes you feel better, wear armour - strong boots and/or leggings, so you don't have to fear accidentally stepping on one).
posted by -harlequin- at 9:57 PM on February 4, 2008

(Forgot to add, the difficulty you'll have finding your snake in the wild might help with perspective, which in turn means that even if the mission failed and you didn't find one, you'd still potentially gain something.)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:02 PM on February 4, 2008

Best answer: if you really have a phobia, DON'T try to touch one immediately. First get used to looking at pictures without freaking out, maybe watch a couple in a pet store. Strolling into a place and saying "drape me with boas!" is probably not the best idea. I would recommend hopping down to Petco and looking at some of their lizards, then ask to handle one (not a Chinese water dragon, they jump and run away-- touch something easy like a gecko). Come back another day and ask to handle a ball python, which is a harmless and small snake.

Your chances of finding a snake in the wild are just about nil, unless you live in the desert and start digging around in rattler holes (don't do this, btw).

When you work up to snakes, don't sweat it. If you're reasonably careful with the snake, and handling it with someone who knows what they're doing, there's no reason to be afraid of getting bit. But if you're worried: kitten bites hurt more, unless you're holding something gigantic.

Just FYI, the media has really overblown how dangerous snakes are. A non-poisonous snake doesn't pose a danger to humans until it gets to be REALLY big, and only a few species get that big (Burmese Python, mostly).
posted by ®@ at 4:56 AM on February 5, 2008

A phobia is an irrational fear. Fear of snakes isn't irrational. I think it's normal and in our genes, to some point. We fear them for a reason.... they CAN be dangerous occasionally.

Your question is probably better phrase as "How do I overcome a reasonable fear?" If that's the case, then reason is probably the answer.

I was one of those kids who had a pet snake. I've handled live poisonous snakes. I have gone out intentionally looking for them. In my entire 54 years, I have run into four poisonous snakes in the wild, two of which were under a board and one of which was on a rock on the way to a favorite trout stream. The latter struck at my foot, prompting me to give it an introduction to the end of my fishing rod. Two of the others, I relocated to a safer area. The final one was a baby. All were copperheads. I have run into only a few score other snakes. They are secretive creatures and unless you step on one or startle it, you are unlikely to be successfully bitten. It just does not happen.

Depending on where you live (and that's unclear), there are many areas where snakes are both uncommon and mostly non-poisonous. Those that are poisonous are normally non-lethal, depending on the circumstances of a given bite.

You are at much higher risk of dog bite.

It is unlikely that as an adult, you are going to eliminate the fear entirely, but you can make a decision to not let it affect your behavior. In such a battle, knowledge is your friend. Find out what kinds of snakes are in your locale, and assess the actual risk, which you will no doubt discover to be extremely low. Then, act in spite of it. That's just basic adult behavior.

Petting one may desensitise you. Seeing that they aren't slimy or aggressive might be useful. But it may not, so I'd recommend study and knowledge as the best alternative to persistent fear. Once you are snake smart, curiousity may win over fear.
posted by FauxScot at 5:46 AM on February 5, 2008

Okay, here's the irrational part: I am so scared of snakes that I have avoided the outdoors for most of my life for fear that SOMEWHERE, a snake exists. I want to be less afraid of going for walks in the arboretum for fear of a snake crossing my path.

Without knowing where you are, I can't say for sure, but if you're in the northern U.S. or Canada, your chances of randomly encountering a snake in the wild are really slim. I'm someone who actively looks for snakes, and I really have to try to find them. Most of the snakes that do live in those areas are also harmless - again, study will be reassuring here. Of the snakes that I've just seen randomly, the majority have been green snakes, garter snakes, and hognose snakes; all completely harmless.

Any snake you encounter in the wild will be doing its damndest to get the hell away from you as fast as it possibly can. You may not think it's possible, but they are more afraid of you than you are of them.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:23 PM on February 5, 2008

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