Chinese New Year and the Year of the Snake: Why we love snakes – Part 1
I have loved snakes for most of my life. In fact I can tell you the exact moment I began to be interested in them. It was July 1963: I was seven years old and enjoying my summer vacation. I was hanging out with my best friend Raymond and asked him what he wanted to do. His response was utterly unexpected: he suggested we go catch some snakes. That was an activity that I had never even considered. I was certainly aware of the garter snakes we would see in the garden and fields, but I had never tried catching them. I don’t think I had ever even touched one.
San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia). © David Lawson / WWF-UK
But this sounded like an intriguing idea, so that is exactly what we went and did. As it turns out, this was a watershed moment for me. Catching snakes became the cornerstone activity of my summer vacation for years to follow. Sure, we also spent time catching frogs and grasshoppers and crayfish…but catching snakes was always our primary goal. I had a big old aquarium that sat on my front porch. It was a real beast made of angle iron and thick glass with a flimsy screen lid. We would catch our snakes and put them in the aquarium to watch them. Of course as soon as we turned our attention to something else, the snakes would promptly crawl out. The next day we would go out snake hunting all over again.
In order to catch snakes, we had to observe them in the wild. We needed to learn where they lived and how they behaved. That meant getting to know and appreciate the fields and bush where the snakes could be found. And that meant I also developed a keen interest in the insects, spiders and other critters to be found in these wild places. I developed a passionate interest in wildlife that was to shape the rest of my life.
I clearly remember sitting in class in grade three (I was eight years old) thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Mrs. Butler was teaching arithmetic, which of course I wasn’t paying much attention to—this might explain my mediocre math skills. Anyhow, up until then I had planned to be a palaeontologist. But I had spent some time the previous summer helping my mother dig the garden and had come to realize that digging was really hard work. I felt that I needed to reassess my priorities and determine what I really should do with my life. So I thought about what I really like to do more than anything else…catching snakes and generally enjoying wildlife. I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a zoologist. I never changed my mind. Another watershed moment for me thanks to snakes.
Grade three was almost a half a century ago. For half that time my career has been devoted to wildlife conservation. It’s safe to say that any good I have accomplished for nature on this planet is because one day, a long time ago, two little boys decided to go out and catch some snakes.
I still love those critters…