This article originally appeared in Total Pet Magazine
We’ve spotlighted the snake as a pet, discussing its care and briefly touching upon a few of the sources for culture’s negative perception of the snake. We’d like to look into this negative perception further by exploring the history of the snake. Is that a little too broad? Absolutely. But we promise there won’t be any preaching about learning to love a snake or imploring you to go to your nearest herp-stocking pet store for a meet and greet. Okay, to be a little more honest, there won’t be much preaching. At best we’re asking you to consider the snake as a figure of historical and cultural significance, like Abraham Lincoln, Tattoo from Fantasy Island, or the guy that discovered gunpowder. Perhaps you’re seeking more relevancy? How about the use of a snake as symbol during the seeds of the American Revolution?
Though the keeping of reptiles and/or amphibians may still appear to be a fringe or alternative hobby, there are more than two million families who dabble in herpetoculture; however, they’d probably just prefer to be called “herpers” for short. “Herpetoculturalist” sounds rather pompous, and all these herpers don’t particularly wear pompous well. They’ll also be the first to tell you that a snake’s skin is not at all slimy; rather, it is smooth and dry and composed of the protein keratin, which is found in human fingernails. File that one away for Trivial Pursuit. It’s guaranteed to impress.
The word herpetoculture comes from the Greek “herpeton” meaning “one which creeps.”
If you ask the average John or Jane on the street what they think of snakes, it’s more than likely that they’ll cringe, make an “ew” sound, or ask why in the world anyone would want to keep something like that as a pet. At this point you can at least refute the sliminess. If the naysayer goes after the whole fang and potentially poisonous issue, you might need to give them a concession or two, because many snakes have fangs and some are dangerous and/or poisonous. Do stress, however, that a few bad apples don’t spoil the entire crop and more often than not these poisonous/deadly snakes would rather slither and hide than ever confront a human. Unless of course you’re beating the Australian bush (for anything other than the betterment of scientific research!), and in that case you’re just bloody insane and probably deserve what’s coming to you.
Though the snake has made some headway into the mainstream, it still has a long way to go to convince the average pet owner of its usefulness as a domestic animal. Much of this distrust of snakes (and reptiles as a whole for that matter) stems from an ingrained cultural perception of snakes as a subversive species. Sure, snakes aren’t the perfect pet for everyone but maybe, just possibly, getting to the root of our ophidiophobia might make those snakes a little less scary and icky.
A Stigma of Biblical Proportions
The majority of the Western World might cite Genesis, the first book of the Bible, as the beginning of the “snake is evil” movement. The story goes as such… a serpent appears before Adam and Eve as an undercover agent of Satan, tempting the pair with the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. This they eat and you know the rest. The bottom line here is that you’re really kind of set up for a widespread blacklisting if you’re the embodiment of Satan in the first chapter of a book placed in every motel nightstand. So snakes have the Gideons to thank for that. The snake’s dilemma, however, didn’t start or stop with Christianity.
The snake also figured heavily in archaic Greek mythology. Snakes were often associated with antagonistic figures such as Medusa and her fellow Gorgon sisters defeated by Perseus, the nine-headed hydra defeated by Hercules, or Typhon, the enemy of the Olympian gods, who was described as a monster with a hundred serpents originating at his thighs. These kinds of visions make that deceitful snake of the Garden of Eden sound pretty harmless by direct comparison.
With these kinds of symbolic attachments it’s a wonder that snakes, and reptiles in general, ever made it into anyone’s good graces, but paired with each of these negative images there seems to be an opposing side that reveres the animal for some of the same reasons that it was feared.
Snake vs. Serpent
The word “serpent” derives from the Latin serpens or serpentis and was most commonly used in a specifically symbolic value. The serpent was not the earthbound snake of zoological concern but rather something of mythic or religious context. So the next time you speak highly of your “serpent,” please consider the context.
Throughout history the snake has enjoyed periods of reverence and worship as well as extensive use as a symbol of evil by Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Ophiolatry, the practice of snake worship, originated from the snake’s relatively unusual behaviors and survival practices – graceful, low-to-the-ground stealthy travel; the swiftness and power of its bite; and the molting of its skin, followed by a kind rebirth or renewal, a skill which lends itself without much imagination to the godlike quality of immortality. Though there are dozens of examples of cultures that worshipped or revered the snake, we’re just going to stick to the highlights.
The earliest documented images of snakes date to around 9000 BC from the southeastern Turkish tribe called the Göbekli, a hunter-gather society. Sumerians also worshipped a type of snake god; however, the most pervasive image of the snake in the ancient world belonged to the Egyptians. The Ureaus; the symbol of the divine sovereignty of Ancient Egypt and representation of the goddess Wadjet, one of the oldest of the Egyptian deities and protector of all Lower Egypt; was worn by the pharaohs as a head ornament at all times during life and often still after death. The symbol, with which many of you might be familiar from watching Hollywood’s various incarnations of The Mummy, often depicts a stylized Cobra in its upright, rearing position. Once Upper and Lower Egypt were united, the vulture Nekhbet joined Wadjet on the Ureaus to maintain their individual importance (rather than merge, as with most other Egyptian deities whose comparable Upper and Lower incarnations were joined as one). Together they became known as the Two Ladies – the protectors of unified Egypt.
The most known and recognized example of ophiolatry comes from India – aka the Land of Snakes. It was named the Land of Snakes as much for their continued worship of the reptile as the general abundance. There are more than 270 species, 60 of which are poisonous. Snake worship in the subcontinent can be witnessed in cultural legend, daily ritual, and yearly festivals (Naga panchami). They are considered the protectors of springs, wells, and rivers. Sarpa Kavus (serpent groves) are sacred groves, isolated fragments of dense forests representing the tradition of worshipping plants and animals. The Mahābhārata, one of two major Sanskrit epics is an inextricable component of Indian culture. To summarize the roughly 1.8 million words in the Mahābhārata in one sentence would probably be a disservice to the text, but we’ll do it anyway. And this is where it gets tricky because we’re going use some backwards logic. Generally the epic discusses artha (human goals), dharma (duty), káma (pleasure), and moksha (liberation) and it contains frequent references and passages portraying the snake (or nāga – the class of deity depicted by a snakelike image) in a, stay with us now, negative context, including a reference to the snake as the “persecutor of all creatures.” If this text, as it is said, is one of the most influential works in the Hindu culture and it creates this image of the snake as the judge, jury, and executioner of the animal world, it provides an interesting starting point in the history of Indian snake worship because although the text tends to fear the nāga they are also no more frequently evil than most other major players in the text and often turn up in favor of benevolent causes. Admittedly we here at Total Pet haven’t read the text cover to cover, but for the purpose of this article, all you need to know is that, like the Godfather, though they were feared, these nāga were seriously respected. This same concept of fear breeding respect holds true for the real live corporeal animal inside our aquariums and roaming our forests and backyards.
And that is really what we’re trying to stress. Though many of us might fear the animal, we should fear and respect the animal. The snake is a complex animal with a fascinating evolutionary past as well as a spiritual importance to many varied religions, both on the good and evil side of the equation. Total Pet is not encouraging you to rush out and find your nearest snake worshipping sect or secluded Sarpa Kavu; we are hoping to instill a sense of the snake’s cultural niche: why it’s viewed as a type of monster by some and a god by others.
“Snakes! Why’d it have to be snakes?”
But how does any of this apply to keeping snakes as a pet? Whether we’re conscious of it or not, snake legend and rhetoric all factor into our perception of the animal. We may be afraid of being bitten. We may be afraid or distrust snakes because they’re scaly (but not slimy!) rather than furry, lack the charisma of a Welsh corgi, or hide in the shady, secluded corners of our backyard like some sort of shadowy grifter in a Richard Widmark movie. But we’re also cognizant, whether we’ve read the Bible or not, of the culturally supplied stigma of the snake as manifestation of evil. Just take a look at the list of cheap B-movies made with a snake as the featured baddy: Boa, Python, Boa vs. Python, Komodo vs. Cobra, Anaconda, Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Snakes on a Plane, Sir Hiss in Disney’s Robin Hood. Name one movie with a villain Koala bear. King Kong fought a snake. Indiana Jones crawled through troughs of insects as big as toy poodles and battled legions of Nazis, but what were the only creatures that ever made him shudder in fear? Snakes!
All of these ideas and theories really do feed into our slow adoption of the snake as an animal that we can allow to cohabitate down there in the seedy underbelly of our backyard – never mind keeping as a domestic pet. Snakes in fact really didn’t even enter our homes regularly until the middle of the 20th century. And even then they were probably just Garter snakes trapped by young boys who’d yet to be influenced by the cultural snake-ism or just admired the perceived danger of keeping a dangerous pet. Of course, the Garter snake is no more dangerous than a Guinea pig, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince a mother of that fact. The modern appeal of snakes as pets also draws from this historically negative stigma. Reptiles in general appeal to an alternative type of pet owner that enjoys the shock and awe factor. “Check out my pythons!” this kind of owner might say, encouraging his guests to take a closer look at his beloved pets. We’re not pigeonholing the snake owner with the “alternative” label– snake owners come from all corners of life – even our already cited old-fashioned conception of the 1950s-era mother demanding her son “remove this snake from my house!” is receding. The most common thread connecting all these people is a fascination with the uncommon life of the reptile. Snake owners, more so than most other pet owners (except home aquarists), are home biologists who observe their animals and try to recreate its natural environment to the best of their abilities. Of course, they also might also just enjoy the way their friends take a step back from the aquarium glass when they see a coiled Burmese python looking back at them. And this too is a type of behavioral observation.
There is one obvious word of caution that needs to be said as we conclude this intellectual exercise. Keeping a pet is one thing, but with any wild-type animal, respect its space, and should you come across a snake in the wild, respect its role within the local ecosystem. The majority of snakes that appear in your backyards, sheds and garages are nonvenomous, harmless, and beneficial to man. However, in nearly every corner of the United States you’re likely to find a dangerous snake if you look hard enough, and in these instances, keep your distance whenever possible, allow the snake to do whatever it is that it needs to do, and call for Animal Control when necessary.
Now we’ll take some bonus questions from anyone still remaining in the gallery.
Can a snake be trained to sit up, rollover and play dead?
The short answer is yes it is possible. The long answer is you’d be wise to let the snake live as he chooses. The stress the animal would need to incur in order to learn any of these rote tricks is not worth the effort, should it even be possible with your particular snake. It’s likely all you’ll receive for your efforts is a good swift bite. A snake can learn routines such as feeding times; it can also learn your smell allowing it to respond with certain patterns of movement, but by no means is the snake trained. In most cases reptiles will just become more aggressive with any kind of behavior modification techniques. If you love a snake, you love him just as he is. Now you’re thinking but what about the snake charmers? Well, this is the snake responding to either the movement of the flute itself or the vibrations from the tapping of the charmer’s foot. Snakes are not influenced by sweet, sweet music – not even Barry Manilow. There are some species of snake such as the Hognosed snake and Grass snake, however, that can fake death to avoid predation by flipping on their backs, opening their mouths and expelling a foul odor from their anal glands. Let’s see Fido do that.
I want an Anaconda.
That’s not a question and no you don’t. Anacondas are probably the most aggressive of all snakes and because of their size you’d be hard pressed to provide enough space for the animal unless you turned over your entire house.
What is Snake Oil? And why is this guy trying to sell me some?
Snake oil originally came to us from China where it was a common remedy for pain and inflammations such as arthritis and bursitis. It is composed of the fat from the Chinese water snake, the richest source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – the material our bodies use to make the series 3 prostaglandins that inhibit the inflammatory series 2 prostaglandins. A prostaglandin, to further clarify all this science, is basically just a fat compound found in virtually all tissues and organs. And as you can see, come in both good and bad varieties. Since there was no regulation of snake oil in American until the 1906 Food and Drug Act, salesman and manufacturers exploited demand for the mystical remedy by creating secret formulas containing exotic ingredients paired with pseudo-science mumbo jumbo that only gave relief through the placebo effect. 19th century peddlers in the States then became linked with drifting and gave birth to the snake oil peddler stock character of the old Westerns. Even if the manufacturers of the bogus American snake oils had the technical know-how to produce real honest-to-goodness snake oil, no American snake could produce nearly as much EPA as the Chinese water snake, further promoting the stereotype.
Man, I really do miss the old WWF and Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Why was he called “the Snake” again? All I remember is that DDT finishing move of his.
The wrestler Jake Roberts earned his nickname because of his slender, wiry physique and to encourage this nickname would “slither” into the ring on his belly. When Jake made the WWF in 1986 he began bringing a large Burmese python called “Damien” into the ring in a canvas bag. After executing a successful DDT, Roberts would coil the snake around his opponents’ neck allowing Damien to slither around the fallen wrestler giving the impression of strangulation. Of course, this was all part of the theatrics and some wrestlers would twitch and foam at the mouth for embellishment (see George Wells’ pitch-perfect performance as Damien’s victim in Wrestlemania 2). It should be noted that we do not condone this kind of animal exploitation (or wrapping pythons around anyone’s neck), but Damien (the many different Damien’s actually) is part of the great snake canon and deserves his reverence as much as the next serpent. This same disclaimer holds true in the future should we ever discuss Jake Roberts’ arch-rival Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and his Komodo dragon.