Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
Giant Serpents
WE NOW TURN FROM FAVORITE PLACES to their inhabitants: specifically, long scaly ones who chal-
lenge our notions of superiority and safety, even our sanity. An official from the Centers
for Disease Control once told me, “Hazard equals risk plus outrage,” explaining why
threats loom out of proportion to their likelihood of affecting us. In that vein, at Cornell
University, where I now teach, cars bully pedestrians and a drunken bus driver once ran
over a student, yet dogs are banned from campus buildings to protect our “health and
welfare.” Likewise, despite the fact that the main cause of violent death in the United
States has a steering wheel rather than teeth, California, where vehicles kill four thou-
sand people annually, declared mountain lions a problem following their first predation
on humans in almost a century. Even naturalists are prone to warped notions of risk: al-
though my most dramatic field injury has been a fingernail kicked out by an armadillo
and I've usually stayed calm around huge vipers, bring on a tarantula and watch this
arachnophobic reptile lover jump and holler like there's no tomorrow.
However theatrically some humans react to spiders, visceral dread for serpents is
more freighted by prospects of an awful demise. After all, they strike from hiding, inflict
pain, digest us from inside out, and each year kill upward of a hundred thousand people.
Ophidiophobia (from the Greek ophidion, snake, and phobos, fright or panic) seems ra-
tional in countries where cobras and vipers abound—India has about forty-six thousand
snakebite deaths annually versus twice that many traffic fatalities—and we might forgive
missionary Albert Schweitzer, who famously revered all life but shot African snakes. 1 In
the United States, though, with maybe ten snakebite deaths per year, it makes no sense
that folks who otherwise value wildlife approve of killing venomous species in parks and
slaughtering them in front of children at rattlesnake roundups. 2 Among our supposedly
more learned brethren, scientists must strive harder to justify studies of snakes than of
birds or mammals. 3 One nature magazine editor even labeled my phrase “appreciating
rattlesnakes” oxymoronic.
Fear and loathing in the near absence of danger are all the more puzzling given that
serpents enthrall some of us and entire cultures revere them. As children, Henry Fitch
and I were neighborhood shamans, wielding harmless snakes before terrified adults and
gaining attention from peers. More generally, public reptile exhibits are popular, hun-
dreds of biologists study snakes, and millions of others keep them as pets. Serpents have
been carved on bone implements, painted on rock shelters, and sculpted on marble por-
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