Facing our fears: Ophidiophobia (fear of snakes)

From the July 26, 2012 edition

I’ve always hated snakes. My encounters with them — until last Friday — were while hiking or fishing. They jump out and strike at me … or so I thought. Terry Wilkins, exotic-animal expert and owner of Captive Born Reptiles, said all but one of the attacks I thought I experienced were all in my head; the real one involved a pregnant (and thus more defensive) water snake sunbathing on a rock. That one really did strike at me.

Other times, trudging through the bush, I would stumble upon a snake and scamper in the other direction without waiting to see how it responded to me. Wilkins said it probably ran away, too. Wild snakes will only attack when provoked, he said, and captive-born snakes are harmless because they don’t see humans as threats. The stigma surrounding snakes is from negative media depictions.

“Have you ever seen a positive story about a snake in the media?” Wilkins asked. “The reality is there’s no reason to be concerned.”

So it was seeing Indiana Jones in a snake pit in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at too young an age? But I also saw “The Exorcist” at seven, and neither Linda Blair nor Satan scares me. Was it my Catholic upbringing, with the Garden of Eden story teaching me snakes equal evil? But Moe Szyslak is my favorite “The Simpsons” character and he proudly states, “I was born a snake handler and I’ll die a snake handler.”

Whatever the reason, I’m proud to no longer hate snakes. Holding a baby ball python — named after their defense mechanism of curling into a ball — I actually found it cute. Upon realizing I wasn’t a threat, it peeked out its head and tickled my thumb with its tongue. Wilkins said captive-bred ball pythons never bite.

After prepping with the Fisher Price of snakes, I handled a full-grown ball python that was about three-and-a-half feet long. It was docile and way more interested in the photographer’s lens than feeding on my flesh. The hardest part of holding the dense bugger was my arm tiring out.