2005/11/08

The Mild Mannered Snake

Question: What do you call a mild mannered snake?
Answer: A Civil Serpent.

What is it with humans and snakes? Some people don't mind them, but most people I know are at least a little afraid of them. I have a healthy respect for things which may be harmful to me. I don't "freak out" when I see a spider, a centipede or snake, but I do go into a cautious mode of awareness. (My oldest sister on the other hand, goes ballistic at the sight of anything with 8 legs or more).

In the foothills of south California I used to come across snakes on occasion. Some were "garden (or garter) snakes" which are docile and, I discovered, will let you handle them and can even swim well in one's swimming pool. Another was the "southern pacific rattlesnake". Those I tried to keep my distance from for obvious reasons, and the bigger the distance the better.

In Hawaii, I didn't think much about snakes because there aren't any. That was fine with me. However, upon relocating to Japan I was promptly reacquainted with that kind of our herpavore cousins. Japan has a number of snake species that call this archipelago home - and no, I'm not referring to the ones found in every government. I mean the reptilian variety.

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I have met two of them so far. The first was at the local Shingon Temple. It was a rather large "Aodaisho" or Japan Rat Snake that was soaking up some sun atop the gravestone of one of K's ancestors. It looked harmless enough, so I reached out to pet it and ...... JUST KIDDING!. I am not one of those whacky Aussie naturalists you see in documentaries. I kept my distance and took a photo. It turned out to be a pretty harmless snake after all, and actually good to have around. I'd rather see a few snakes than an infestation of rats. I've seen several since around Tsubaki shrine, down the street, but mostly ones that didn't make it across the road. Interestingly, when Momo saw one, her reaction was not fear, but mild curiosity.


The other day while riding my bicycle near lake Kitaura, I saw a snake sunning itself on a back road next to an irrigation ditch. It was actually very pretty as snakes go, with black, green and red markings. I stopped well short of it to take a picture. The one shown here is someone else's find. My digital camera is so slow that if I tried to take a photo of an iceberg, I am sure it would be melted before I got my picture. My snake disappeared into the grass. That was not altogether a bad thing, for the "Yamakagashi" or Japan Grass Snake, is a very poisonous variety.

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They are shy, living off of small fish and frogs, and don't usually bite humans even if handled (what genius figured that out I wonder?-"crikey, mate, let's see if he'll bite when I pick him up...."). If they do bite you, the venom can be fatal. They don't have hollow fangs to inject venom as vipers do, but rather have glands in the back of the jaw, which secrete from the gums around their teeth. Just getting the venom on your skin can cause you problems and if it gets into an open wound, such as the one it just put in your finger!, you'll need a trip to the hospital to avoid a painful, lingering death. From what the Moody Minstrel has posted about waiting times in Japan's hospitals, I'd rather not take a chance.

So what about Fiji? Don't think for a minute I didn't look into what kind of nasty critters they have down there before deciding to even take a look at the place.

As it happens there are just two snakes in Taveuni, Fiji. One is a sea snake, which one is not likely to encounter except while scuba diving. Even then, unless you go poking your fingers at them, they are not likely to be a problem. While they are deadly poisonous, I could find no deaths attributed to them in Fiji in recent years.

The other snake is the Pacific Tree Boa, a constrictor which lives in the rainforest and lives off of small animals. The only picture I have to offer is a Fiji postage stamp set which shows one. It is so rare to see one that even scientists out to find them have a hard time. In any case, they are no threat to humans.

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For some reason many of us develop unreasonable fears about these creatures (as evidenced, I'll admit, by my questioning of Taveuni natives). We often fear snakes, poisonous insects, sharks, bears and so on. All of these things can be dangerous, and warrant caution at some level, but usually to a much lesser degree than things we deal with every day and never have a second thought about. In the USA, auto crashes are the leading cause of death of people aged 3 to 33 years. Cancer and heart disease are major causes as well. Yet, most people think nothing of driving down to the fast food restaurant to eat, or the grocery store to buy cancer and heart disease causing items like alcohol, cigarettes, or foods laden with fats, pesticides, and other chemicals.

So what is it with snakes and people? Is it in our evolutionary history? Do we learn it culturally? It seems strange to me. Almost as strange as those nutty Aussie naturalists who seemingly have NO fears. Crikey!

5 comments:

@ロウ 。LOW@ said...

Lucky you, i would say. Snake encounter while doing trekking is an extra bonus for me : To see them move with elegance in the wild...fantastic!

Well, if you don't step on them :)

And yes, normal point-and-shoot digicam certainly can't perform in the sense that, 5 -10 second start-up time is more than enough for the beautiful creature vanished into the bushes.

Finally if they are in your house, you'll be happy to have some crazy Aussie naturalists around your area, i guess :)

YD said...

Chinese beliefs: if you find a snake in your house compound, luck is on the way.

Indian beliefs: If you dream about snake, luck is on the way too.

Despite all the good omens, people still have ophidiophobia. and as you said, despite all the higer mortality intensities of other causes, people tolerate those risks, and yet have extreme fear for those with lower probabilities.

i think that's what phobia is...
(p/s: my friend's sister actually has a phobia to chicken! and yet she eats them. cause of phobia = seeing a chicken pecking at people when she was small) :-D

The Moody Minstrel said...

My family get yamakagashi (also known as "backbiters" in English because of the venom glands and "fangs" being located in the backs of their jaws) in our yard every once in a while. Once we heard a horrible racket, and it turned out to be a large frog in the process of being swallowed by one of those very beautiful snakes. They are quite unaggressive. (I've had one pass by me really close once...and I stayed right where I was till it left!) Their bites rarely cause any envenoming because they really have to score a solid chomp even to activate the venom glands.

Still...it's better to take a hint from the bright coloration and stay back.

Hmm...that's interesting that Asian religions tend to value the snake. So did ancient Babylonian religion. However, in Judaism and especially in Christianity and Islam the "serpent" is immediately associated with the devil.

Modern fundamentalist Christians are often fond of saying that Asian religions are really satanism in disguise. Would they consider love of serpents as evidence?

Pandabonium said...

Interesting to note the cultural differences regarding snakes. In Japan, a white snake in one's attic is also good luck. Perhaps it would keep rodents at bay.

How people react to snakes may be due to cultural conditions along with our experiences. Certainly the Judaeo-Christian tradition has the Adam and Eve story to draw from.

And the Aussies who are the butt of my jokes, may be part of Western culture, but they grow up on a continent which if full of dangerous critters. So their attitude may be just as valid as that of those who have a lot of fear.

Still, I am glad I haven't found any yamakagashi around my home as Moody has.

Judging from your responses, perhaps there are not so many people who are phobic about snakes as I assumed. Low's reaction is one I would expect from a young intrepid adventurer, and quite rational.

plrmqwu - Algonquin word for a deady water snake found in Quebec.

Anonymous said...

Well, in Japan they say if you put the cast-off skin of a snake into your wallet, you will be rich. I've never tried that, though. I think phobia has something to do with your past experiences, or something you saw and felt scary.