O serpent heart hid with a flowering face

There is a noble tradition of seeking out that with which we are comfortable, and ignoring everything else; I am pleased to announce a temporary detour.

I am afraid of snakes. I don’t know why, and would ordinarily be happy to leave the subject in the unexplored shadows, but something has come to my attention about them that I find… well, if not fascinating, then at least interesting.

Ever since I inadvertently uncovered a ball of hibernating snakes (or whatever they do to ride out the winter) under a slab of concrete in our front yard, I have been wary of cracked, wobbly sidewalks. I was only four or five at the time, I think -at any rate, far too young to be introduced to the concept of personal death. I was never keen on picking up wriggling worms in the garden, even less so with something larger with teeth. I remember running for my father, as I recall, and he tried to explain how natural that was for snakes, but I couldn’t help noticing how he stood a stick’s length away from them as he reassured me.

When I was about ten years old and living in Winnipeg -a place not known for its wealth of snakes- I was befriended by a classmate named Russel Wimbush. He was from South America somewhere, and maybe as a result, had a pet boa.

“Don’t they constrict people or something?” I remember asking him when he told me about it.

“Not if you keep them fed, G.” His answer seemed overly defensive -as if I was accusing him of improper feeding and caring for his pet. “And anyway, mommy said I’m too big for him to swallow.” He smiled when he said that, I remember. “But I’m not allowed to sleep with it…” he added somewhat ruefully.

“Just in case, you mean?” -I had to ask.

He shook his head vigorously -too vigorously, I suspected. “No, but that’s why she won’t let me get a dog, I think…” Then, just after he’d proudly admitted that his snake was no sissy, I remember he asked me if I wanted to come over and see it. All through grade five I never did, and then he moved… Damn.

My kids don’t share my dread -they used to race garter snakes in the back yard- and my cat would bring in what I’m assuming were the losers through the cat-door in the laundry room and put them behind the drier. It did that with mice as well, but only selected organs. Funny, that.

At any rate, whenever I had to take my kids camping, my caution about snakes extended to scotch-taping the bottom of the zipper on my tent so one of them wouldn’t come wriggling through looking for food. Of course, that was whenever I couldn’t convince my wife that we should stay at the camp’s motel and let the kids rough it. The closest I ever got to that, however, was sleeping in the back seat of the car -admittedly after losing an argument.

But, I suppose I’m digressing. I don’t usually -ever, actually- read articles about snakes. I don’t even look at pictures of snakes if I can help it; fortunately the area of British Columbia in which I live, the lower mainland, has no poisonous snakes -just garter snakes. I still take precautions, though.

Sometimes, of course, curiosity gets the best of me when there is a catchy title to an article -and I am lured into the hibernaculum unawares. I suppose the word ‘snakes’ in the title should have alerted me, however -not to mention the ‘venom’ part: https://theconversation.com/why-do-snakes-produce-venom-not-for-self-defence-study-shows-134189 It was written by Wolgan Wüster at Bangor University and Kevin Arbuckle from Swansea University.

I have to admit that except to disable a victim it wanted to eat, the idea of a snake having to use venom for self-defence hadn’t risen to any level of conscious awareness. Anyway, it occurred to the two herpetologist authors for some reason, and I wanted to know why.

‘Snakes use these venoms for two main purposes. The first is foraging, where venom helps the snake to overpower its prey before eating it. The second is self-defence against potential predators.’ A bee’s sting, for example is not to incapacitate you so it can fly you back to its hive -it’s to deter you from something or other. So if a snake’s venom is for deterrence, it should do the same, right? It should hurt right away so you back off. The authors realized this: ‘The function of a defensive venom is to deter and repel a predatory attack before its bearer is killed or injured, and pain is a universal deterrent. If the evolution of snake venom was driven by natural selection for defence, we would expect to see the same pattern – almost immediate pain that is severe enough to be a deterrent.’ If it wasn’t immediate, by the time the predator had felt the pain, the snake would be in its stomach.

So, I figured snake venom would do just that, but a study on human snake bites to fellow herpetologists was surprising. ‘By far the most common experience involved relatively low pain levels after a bite within the first five minutes, when the pain might deter a predator in time for the snake to escape injury or death. More severe pain often followed later.’

The authors ‘also investigated the presence of venoms that caused early-onset pain throughout an evolutionary tree of snake species. [They] found that venoms which cause early pain evolved on several occasions, but were usually quickly lost again during the course of snake evolution. Again, this suggests that snakes don’t develop venom as a response to the need to ward off potential predators.’ Uhmm, so…?

Never having been a snake predator, or anything, their conclusions didn’t worry me too much, except as a potential prey specimen. Especially when I read what they perhaps intended as a codicil: ‘There are likely exceptions though. For instance, some coral snakes and pit vipers have specifically pain-inducing toxins in their venoms. Spitting cobras have unique behavioural adaptations for defensive venom use, and their venoms cause intense pain upon contact with eyes.’ Great.

But, now I know, eh? I’m still gonna use Scotch tape.

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