I was waiting for Gina to post this, as I hate to be all "go read this" about my own stuff, but she's swamped with work today, so here I am.
I'm particularly proud of my column in SFGate.com this morning, even though it probably won't be the most popular of my articles there. It's about snakes, but it's not about how to care for them, or what species make good pets, or about their diets or health or anything like that.
It's about what happens to kids, especially little girls, who get directed away from the creepy crawly things and towards kittens, bunnies, and puppies. It's about parents who shudder in horror when their child shows up with a tiny snake clutched in their hands.
And it's about how I learned to see the world in a whole new way when I first started doing editorial work for kingsnake.com, the oldest and largest reptile web site in the world, and got to know people to whom that never happened, or if it did, it didn't work:
Many of the people I met never lost that childhood wonder at the natural world. They would devote endless hours to creating habitats for animals that evolved in environments ranging from the driest deserts to tropical rainforests, sometimes having to learn by trial and error what even the experts didn't know about their snakes. They became obsessive observers of their animals, noting the slightest deviation in activity levels or appetites, their interest and their patience apparently endless.
I also became aware of how much prejudice exists against snakes and the people who keep them. Snakes in our culture have often been relegated to roles as scary monsters in horror flicks and the "ewww gross" segment on nature shows.
I spoke to a couple of local people I found through kingsnake.com: Rolf, an easy-going guy who owned boas and pythons, and defied every stereotype of the anti-social, slightly weird snake owner, and Natalie, a woman not much out of her teens who had been wandering the hills of Marin since she was a little girl, looking for snakes:
Rolf told me that he grew up all over the Northern California coast, mostly in rural areas, where, from the time he was four or five years old, he remembers always being in the middle of a forest, field, or a stream or a creek. "All children look and see things that are interesting, and I always had been involved with these little animals," he said, "You see them. They see you. They go and hide. I can see the rocks and the trees and the water, but I can't see these little bits of life that I know are there. Where are they going? What are they doing?"
Marin County's Natalie McNear fits the snake-owner stereotype a bit more. In a phone interview, she described herself as a loner, happiest when by herself in the fields and forests. But simply by being a woman who loves snakes she challenges stereotypes, too.
"I've been going outside and looking for snakes ever since I was a little kid," said the twenty-year-old, who worked at a North Bay reptile store during high school. "I would catch bugs and snakes and everything else that other girls thought were gross."
McNear's quiet observations haven't just been of her snakes; she's noticed a thing or two about how people feel about the animals as well. "(Snakes are) probably one of the most misunderstood animals that people keep as pets," she said "A lot of people are afraid of them."
I got to talk about two of the best books I've ever read about snakes and nature, and raise the larger question about why even those of us who seriously, really don't like snakes should re-consider our prejudices against those who do.
Much of what we know about snakes and other small and elusive species comes from the hard work of field biologists like Kate Jackson, the author of "Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo." Jackson, just like Natalie McNear, was once a little girl lying on her belly in the grass, looking for snakes. Today, she's a biology professor and one of the first herpetologists to slog through the swampy forests of the Northern Congo, studying and cataloguing the reptiles and amphibians she found there.
(Cornell University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) Harry Greene opens the final section of (his book) "Snakes" with this quotation from Sengalese conservationist Baba Dioum:
In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.
My purpose here is not to convince you to love snakes. I still don't, and even Rolf and McNear say what they feel for their snakes is more respect and fascination than love. But I think Dioum is right, that we only save what we care about, and we only care about what we learn to understand.
Every day, hundreds of parents, older sisters and babysitters respond with a shudder and "get that thing out of this house!" when a child shows up with a harmless garden snake in his or her hands. What if instead we taught ourselves to understand and respect people's interest in snakes and those other "mean and lowly" creatures? Wouldn't doing that not only help kids to retain, but us to reclaim, some of that sense of wonder at the natural world and the desire to preserve it for the future?
I hope you'll read the article, even if you don't like snakes -- in fact, especially if you don't. And let me know if it worked or not; did I get you to think about them, and the people who love them, in a new way?