There is only one venomous snake in Britain, the remarkably
hardy adder. It was highly unlikely that an adder would be basking on this particular exposed, muddy path beside a square of
grazing land in the north of Scotland. I didn’t know a lot about
snakes at the time, but I knew that much. The adder is a fan
of moorlands, of clear-fell, of dunes. This just wasn’t an addery
place. Yet I continued to see snakes, and not always while I was
with my son. The visions followed the same pattern. My mind
contented and idling, my body bristling with the pleasure of
activity, I would pursue a sightline until a small, sudden outburst of misinterpretation sent my heart spinning out of order. A
snake? Shit. No, not a snake. A stick, goddamnit, a stick.
GLOBALLY, it would seem that there are fewer snakes than there
used to be. Censuses from over a twenty-year period on several
continents have shown consistent declines in numbers. Why?
Habitat loss, changing land use, introduced species, climate
change, many of the usual hypotheses for the falling abundance of other animals. This can hardly be a surprise. Brian
Todd of the University of California Davis noted wryly in his
wide-ranging study of decreases in reptile populations around
the world that Linnaeus considered reptiles “foul and loathsome animals.” Since then, attitudes have scarcely improved.
The least-studied vertebrate group, reptiles have been viewed
historically, quite wrongly as it turns out, as of limited importance to ecosystems. Even the good guys aren’t on their side.
By 2004, while 100 percent of birds had been evaluated by the
International Union for Conservation of Nature, only around 3
percent of snakes had received the same attention.
There’s an added dimension to the disappearance of snakes:
fear. In most places, snakes are persecuted. It’s di=icult to put a
figure on it, but many thousands of snakes are killed each year
by humans, through disturbance or trapping. In some regions
of America the hunting of snakes as part of an earlier practice
of pest control has become a beloved and lucrative hoedown.
The annual Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, which takes
place in Texas, draws hundreds of visitors and participants who
rack up capture totals of twenty thousand or more, often using
gasoline to fumigate the animals in their communal dens.
There are prizes for the largest and longest snakes (as well as
snake-eating contests), and the events, rightly or wrongly, have
become embedded in the identities and economies of some of
these rural areas.
Conservation groups and animal protection organizations
argue against such activities, but the participants advance
counterclaims that the hunts inject much-needed money into
struggling communities. They also argue against any perceived
threat to snake numbers, pointing out that the hunt is a relatively minor aggravating factor in the decline of snakes. This is
a fair point and serves to expose the confounding ingredient of
emotion in our calculation of the rights and wrongs of humans
killing animals. Compared to the nearly thirty million cattle
slaughtered each year in the American agricultural industry, or
to the vast quantities of animals that die as roadkill, the rattlesnake harvest is a pretty paltry a=air. Of course, the relative
size of any culling doesn’t logically follow as a justification. But
what is meaningful is the place of fear in both the grounds for
snake persecution and in the weak compulsion to resist it. It’s
hard to feel sorry for something that terrifies you.
WHEN MY SON TURNED THREE, we moved to America for a
year, where we lived in a wooden cabin close to the Taconic
State Park on the borders of New York and Massachusetts.
In the woods nearby, we saw the skinny, silvery outlines of
coyotes, their spare frames like tattered wedding dresses on
hangers, so that it was as if nostalgia flitted between the trees.
We had all kinds of encounters with wildlife. We came home
one afternoon in the fall to find our entire home overspread by
ladybugs, a scarcely undulating redness as if the pine timbers
had come alive and the house might fly away with them. The
ladybugs went on to congregate in our cellar, where they
mistook a dehumidifier for a source of water and died one by
one in their hundreds. My son and I felt so sorry for them that
we hibernated the twenty or thirty survivors in a box in our
house and released them in March the following year. In the
evenings, we tiptoed down to a small pond in the woods to try
to spot an owl nesting there. Once, when the snows came, we
measured a set of prints outside our front door and guessed
they’d been left by a bobcat. We delighted in all this.
But some of our encounters were frightening. In the late
summer, my son and I were walking alone together along one
of the old railroad lines. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a
thick coil, ticked like stalks of hay and the shadows in between.
The e=ect was as if the flat path had suddenly become swollen
into a small hump, so deceptive was the continuity. Before I
When it comes to our fears, stories
matter deeply. We can tell stories
that trigger our biases or we can tell
stories that steady our arm.