I have spent the majority of my life in pursuit of snakes. I don’t know what caught my attention but I have stayed strongly transfixed on these wonderful creatures since I was a child. My first snake was apparently a dead snake that I found in a lot near my home. I was at this point a sweet child, prone to picking flowers for my mother. This day, however, the present behind my back wasn’t quite as sweet. The gift of a dead snake signified the start of the difficult job for my mother of raising a child enamored with all things scaled (furred, feathered, slimy and slick too).
I have handled all sorts of snakes, both venomous and non (snakes are not poisonous). I’ve captured coral snakes, cottonmouths, copperheads, and a number of species of rattlesnakes including western diamondback, prairie, Mojave, timber, black-tailed, and rock. Please trust me when I say I have explored the behavior of some of the most irritable of the non-venomous serpents too but in the interest of space I’ll save that list for another time.
I am trying to establish that I am qualified to speak on the topic of being chased by a snake. I have never been chased by a snake myself but find people regularly that are compelled to tell me of their harrowing encounters with wild serpents. Over time I have worked hard to develop an understanding of these encounters because they seem counter to my experiences with snakes. I have found, with no memorable exceptions, that snakes do their best to avoid me. Cottonmouths will chase you, or so I’ve heard so many times. Last summer at Caddo Lake, the Texas side, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of many cottonmouths. I rarely traveled more than 20 or 30 feet along the edge of a slough without catching a coiled cottonmouth in the beam of my headlamp. Every encounter ended the same, with the cottonmouth working very hard to put space between itself and the guy in flip flops.
The same holds true for rattlesnakes, their behavior fall short of the stories I have been told for years (when people find out you like snakes, they tell you things). Western diamondbacks are big and dangerous snakes and they very aggressive, or so I’ve been told. Here in the Panhandle of Texas, diamondbacks rule the roost in our canyons and rough country while prairie rattlesnakes swim through our grasslands. I would prefer not to step, sit on, or otherwise accidentally meet either species. But I have encountered many of these square-jawed beauties and say confidently that I have never been chased or received as much as an unprovoked threat from a rattlesnake. I did watch a meaty diamondback I captured get 2 fangs in a museum curator in a fraction of a second, he suffered permanent tissue damage and loss. So I’m not saying these animals aren’t potentially dangerous, I’m simply speaking to behavior, both snake and human. I’ll save the bite story for another time.
I made a serendipitous observation while fishing on the Kansas River at a place called Rocky Ford. I had the place to myself and was fishing a pool off the main river with a white plastic jig thrown in hopes of tangling with a feisty white bass. To my right I detected movement and turned to see a northern water snake headed towards the center of the pool. The snake swims uninterrupted to the center of the pool, directly in front of me. I ceased casting at first sight of the snake, I had no bait to attract the snake, and I just arrived and had yet to catch a fish. I did nothing to attract the snake but she stopped swimming, paused briefly, turned and swam directly at me. I watched on curiously. She didn’t waver on her course and disappeared under the rock I was standing on. What was that about? It was about coincidence, the snake just happened to decide the rock I was on was the place to be. The funny thing is the snake didn’t even know I was there.
It occurred to me that if I had been afraid of snakes there would be no way to convince me that I wasn’t pursued, with malice and contempt, by a vile serpent. I was getting somewhere in my quest to understand snake attacks. I started to notice some patterns too. Being frightened of snakes seems to be a risk factor for a variety of issues. For example, the more frightened you are of snakes the more likely you are to be chased by a snake. I have never met a person that wasn’t afraid of snakes that had been chased by a snake. Think about it folks.
Similarly, snakes become increasingly abundant and commonly encountered as fear of them increases. I ask people regularly about snakes, from park rangers to camp hosts to hikers and mountain bikers. The poor people that are most afraid of snakes see snakes everywhere and all the time. Is this just sick irony, maybe?
If you are afraid of snakes I am sorry to say that you are more likely to encounter larger and more aggressive snakes. Don’t doubt me folks; I have talked to many people about this. The average size of a snake observed by those comfortable with snakes is about half that of those frightened of snakes, based on witness testimonials.
If this isn’t enough, those with a fear of snakes encounter a greater proportion of venomous snakes or they encounter snakes at a higher venomous:non-venomous ratio. These are the people that screamed at me when I would play with snakes because all snakes “were poisonous”. They are also more likely to know someone bitten, chased or otherwise harried by a snake.
I am left with 2 hypotheses that will require testing. The first hypothesis, developed from these observations, is that snakes know if you are afraid of them and respond accordingly. Let’s call this the “smell fear” hypothesis. Perhaps frightened individuals give off an odor or even a pheromone that triggers a reaction in snakes such that they are more likely to behave aggressively and engage in chase. This same odor attracts more and bigger snakes and these are more likely to be venomous. All my observations are addressed with this hypothesis.
My second hypothesis is called the “panic in the same direction” hypothesis. This hypothesis is elegant in its simplicity. Simply put, people and snakes are afraid of each other and sometimes panic in the same direction. Humans can run around 20 miles per hour while snakes are far slower. The snake trails the human as they clumsily flee giving the appearance of a chase. The other relationships perhaps could be explained by fear-induced misperceptions common in individuals suffering from ophidiophobia.
I’ll be finalizing my experimental design this spring and will be conducting experiments designed to test these hypotheses this summer. Volunteers are sought to aid in this research. You must be terrified of snakes, be willing to have your scent altered with industrial chemicals, and most importantly, be willing to sign a release form.