Fear of snakes


Ophidiophobia is one of Americans’ most common fears.

Whether it’s the texture of their scales, the flicking tongue, the small eyes or their potential for danger, most Americans don’t like snakes.

Indiana Conservation Officer Phil Nale said he wishes that wasn’t so.

“The first time I saw a snake was when I was 7,” Nale said. “I stepped on it to hold it still to show my dad, and he came over and killed it.”

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Nale said that was a defining moment in his life. After that, he often wondered why snakes were killed on sight, and he spent much of his time researching snakes, trying to learn everything he could about them.

On May 5, Nale talked with kindergartners from five different classes at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School in Seymour about snakes and brought four different types from the Hardy Lake Wildlife Rehabilitation Center to teach the students about the reptiles.

Nale pointed out that snakes are a part of nature, and they aren’t meant to be handled in the wild unless you are a trained professional.

“Seventy percent of snake bites are to the hands, and that’s because people are messing with the snake,” he said.

Some snakes are more dangerous to handle than others, specifically those that are venomous, not poisonous, Nale said. Venomous means the creature contains venom, a substance that negatively affects the creature it bites. Poisonous, on the other hand, means that if a poisonous creature is eaten, the creature that eats it will die.

The students murmured, and one or two even screeched at the first guest, a copperhead snake, one of the venomous snakes that can be found in southern Indiana. 

The brown-striped snake was safely secured in a wooden and plexiglass case with a lock on the door.

Nale moved the cage around the room, letting the students see for many what was their first live snake. 

Using the copperhead as an example, Nale pointed out several aspects of venomous snakes found in southern Indiana.

These included cat-like eyes with a vertical pupil rather and a round one such as most humans possess; a wider, spade-shaped head; and a change in their scales on the underside of the tip of their tails.

Nale cautioned that many of these details required a viewer to be close to a snake to see and only applied to snakes in southern Indiana, and above all, if the children weren’t sure, they should simply stay away from the snake in the wild.

After showing his first snake, Nale moved on to three other snakes, all of which have spent their lives helping educate people about snakes.

None of the three snakes — a hog nose snake, a king snake and a black rat snake — are venomous. The king snake and black rat snake actually help people in public, feeding on snakes in the king snake’s case and rodents for the rat snake.

“I don’t like being bit. I’ve been bit about seven or eight times by snakes,” Nale said. “I’m not going to handle one of these if I thought there was any chance it would bite me.”

One-by-one, the students, teachers, classroom aides and even the assistant principal were invited to touch and in several cases hold the reptiles. 

“I hate snakes. I never thought I would do that,” said Lisa Speidel, assistant principal at the school.

The students gathered around Nale as he moved the black snake around, letting the kindergartners touch its scales.

“I liked the rat snake the best because it was really big,” kindergartner Keegan Niedge said. He added that he had learned that some are “calm and nice, while others can be mean.”

Brayden Roudebush also liked the rat snake because he thought its scales “felt like a basketball.”

Kindergartner Brylee Bingham said he liked the king snake the best, and he had been a little afraid but thought they were “cool” now.

“We did a unit on the life cycle of snakes and reptiles, and we invited Phil back to talk about snakes,” kindergarten teacher Daphne Waskom said.

Waskom said the class came about after Nale did a presentation on wildlife earlier in the year. He mentioned to Waskom that he also did a snake program.

Waskom arranged for him to come back and sent permission slips home to parents to sign saying it was OK to be around snakes and that the child didn’t have any extreme fear of them. Any students who chose not to participate were allowed to leave the room or not touch them if they chose.

“I had a couple that wanted to stay away at the start but ended up wanting to touch them,” Nale said.

Many students probably had never seen a snake, and snakes often are the victim of unwarranted hatred, Waskom said.

“I just want to give the students the knowledge and understanding that we don’t have to kill anything in wildlife for no reason, including snakes,” Nale said.

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