Changing Fear to Fascination With Familiarity

This article was written by Jeff Smith & Melissa Amarello, Co-founders, ASP

“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.”

Baba Dioum (1968)

“How do people understand something that terrifies them?“

Whitney Barlow Robles 2021

In a recent essay, Robles (2021) details attitudes toward rattlesnakes in the eighteenth century, when Timber Rattlesnakes ranged across the original 13 Colonies. European colonists viewed these large and potentially dangerous beasts as an impediment to expansion, and she documents discussions among naturalists considering the need, and methods, to remove them from nature.

Ironically, while working to eradicate these impressive natives, the magically unassailable reputation of rattlesnakes was co-opted by those seeking independence for the nascent federation. Under the banner of the rattlesnake, colonists both threw off their monarch and mounted campaigns to eradicate this misperceived reptile. Persecution and bounties were widespread, even until the middle of the last century, and sadly, many eradication efforts were successful. As settlers continued the westward expansion, into territory of more and different forms of rattlesnakes, they carried with them their rigid intolerances.

Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake catching some last rays of the season in a Turpentine Bush.
Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) catching some last rays of the season in a Turpentine Bush; photographed by Jeff Smith.

The exaggerated threat posed by rattlesnakes (and by affiliation, all snakes) was passed down through the generations. Misapprehensions about snakes still compel their execution, even in wilderness, where any danger posed to humans is easily mitigated by being aware of one’s surroundings and staying a few steps away.

Our supporters will understand this particular problem well, but the solution is more complex, as it involves the psychology of changing one’s mind about a deeply held belief; studies of humans suggest that supportable facts that refute a belief are treated as a threat by the brain, and may serve to fortify the misapprehension. For some, observing or interacting with a snake may be enough to open the door to a new attitude, an escape from the malignancy of intolerance.

And that’s why the focus of ASP’s work has always been to make snakes more familiar: through an article in this newsletter, an educational post on Instagram, a video on YouTube, a multimedia presentation at the local library, or an opportunity to meet face-to-face with one of our friendly snake teachers like Pipsqueak. We are always looking for creative ways to get people to let the light in.

Dr. Emily Taylor is an ASP board member and Professor of Biological Sciences at California Polytechnic State University. Her passion for rattlesnakes often infects her students, who are typically already biologically inclined. Next quarter she’s offering a new seminar, “Team Rattlesnake Rebrand,” which will engage an interdisciplinary team of students to approach the problem of rattlesnake intolerance from as many angles as possible. Even the title itself connotes a modern approach to an old problem. We’re so excited to see the new ideas and approaches they come up with!

Our shared mission, to change how people view and treat snakes, will benefit from every tool at our disposal. We know snakes are captivating, and the threat rattlesnakes pose is often overblown. Finding new ways for people to let snakes into their hearts is exciting and vital to helping snakes survive the Global Extinction Crisis threatening all life on our shared planet.

By his own admission, prejudice initially kept one eighteenth century naturalist from pursuing his interest in studying rattlesnakes. But after getting to know some individual snakes, he realized what many of us do: they possess a “considerable share of intelligence” and “showed not any disposition to injure any person” (Benjamin Smith Barton in Robles 2021). When real snakes are given the opportunity to eclipse their myth, intolerance wanes and fascination unfolds.

Robles, Whitney Barlow. 2021. The Rattlesnake and the Hibernaculum: Animals, Ignorance, and Extinction in the Early American Underworld. William and Mary Quarterly 78: 3–44.