Why we fear snakes - and it's not because they kill us
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Why we fear snakes - and it's not because they kill us

It seems an unlikely combination. Gavin Smith is a sociologist, buried in data and learned journals - but at any time, faster than the flicker of a snake's tongue, he can pull on the garb and gaiters of a snake catcher.

Out he heads, if not to save the world, then to save a patch of his university campus from an eastern brown.

Gavin Smith, ANU sociologist and snake catcher, with an eastern brown.

Gavin Smith, ANU sociologist and snake catcher, with an eastern brown.Credit:ANU

The associate professor is from the far north of Scotland, but is now deputy head of the Australian National University's School of Sociology. He's one of those global academics who has worked at prestigious universities on three continents.

His sideline from sociology is wherever the most venomous red bellied blacks, eastern browns or tiger snakes turn up. His non-academic business is called ACT Snake Removals.

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But he's about to merge the two by conducting sociological research into the way humans perceive snakes - or misperceive them, as he sees it.

"Snakes are incredibly communicative," Dr Smith says. "People see them as dumb and inert, but they are curious when they become calm.

"They have a softness."

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He thinks he may even have won the affection of one, an eastern brown whose bite can kill a human within a few hours.

"I've seen amazing things like a snake resting its head on my boot when I'm releasing it, almost like a gesture of gratitude for not harming it," he says.

But it's as a sociologist - a student of the way humans operate in society - that he is really interested in snakes. His speciality at the moment is "surveillance studies". Dr Smith studies the fear of crime and criminals, the way we perceive and misperceive them, and where machines like CCTV cameras fit in to that equation. It's a recognised field of sociology.

He thinks it resonates with snakes and the way humans perceive them or misperceive them - and he says snakes have had a bad press for thousands of years.

It may go back to the Book of Genesis, with the devious, cunning serpent persuading innocent Eve to taste of the Tree of Knowledge and so bring sin into the world.

Dr Smith also wonders if snakes' bad image comes from colonialism. Snakes intrude on land that white humans believe they own.

"Snakes don't respect land ownership," he says.

"'Who is this creature?' we think. 'How dare it be here?' But actually it's been here for a long, long time."

On top of that, snakes are depicted as aggressive and evil in popular culture - just think of the Disney movie The Jungle Book, where Kaa, the hungry python, tries to devour Mowgli, the boy hero. Not nice.

And Dr Smith points out that snakes do not have the classic, humanoid "two-eyes-separated-by-a-nose-above-a-mouth" look, shared by the animals which get the oohs and ahhs for their cuteness. Bush babies, they ain't.

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Or as Dr Smith puts it: "They aren't cuddly."

"They are very much a pariah species, not a fluffy species like cats and dogs."

But, you point out, they are pariahs because they can kill us.

He accepts that. "I don't want in any way to suggest they aren't dangerous," he says.

"But almost all these situations can be defused, rather than trying to hit them with a tool.

"They aren't interested in us. We are just big predators. It's us that have to be trained to understand snakes."

But there's a long history of fear. There is academic debate about whether our phobia about snakes is something we are born with, or something which we learn. Do babies fear snakes? All kinds of academic experiments have been conducted, to no definite conclusion.

An eastern brown snake, whose bite can kill a human within a few hours.

An eastern brown snake, whose bite can kill a human within a few hours.Credit:The Australian Reptile Park

Dr Smith's view is that we may not be born with the fear, but it's now so hard-wired into our make up that it will take some shifting.

Dr Smith has a three-year-old daughter, Sylvie, and he has drilled into her the danger of approaching snakes.

But already she is curious. She is not allowed out with him when he catches them, but she has viewed from afar as he released a captured eastern brown.

"I've warned her about snakes, but she is starting to understand her dad's passion for scaly creatures," Dr Smith said.

"Dad, when I'm big can you train me?" came the response from the three-year-old, he says.

He will train her one day - there's little doubt of that - and teach her about what he believes passionately to be the wider worth of snakes.

He doesn't really separate the two roles, of sociologist and snake catcher. "Sociologists never switch off," he says.

He now finds himself increasingly musing on the relationship between snakes and humans, and particularly on why we demonise them as the lowest of the low.

They can kill us - but do they deserve such bad press?

Steve Evans is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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