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October 3, 2018

It's time we gave snakes more respect

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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As a boy growing up in Egypt, I would rather have faced a ferocious lion than a snake. I thought I'd have a fighting chance of survival with the lion and, if unlucky in the encounter, perhaps a quicker demise. With the snake, however, I believed my survival odds would be zero, and I would suffer a slow and painful death.

In Egypt, there were expert snake-catchers we could call on for help when snakes stopped on their way from nearby fields or patches of desert to explore our homes. Today, Egypt’s urban and rural populations are so dense that snakes are wary of getting lost in built-up areas.

Unfortunately, snakes are often hated and feared around the world and many are killed for no good reason.

Among more than 3,000 species in this ancient reptile family, the King Cobra is the longest, reaching more than five metres. It can literally "stand up" and look a full-grown human in the eye.

It is mainly native to southern China, Malaysia and the Philippines, and is best known as the species preferred by “snake charmers” of the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent and South Asia. The snake charmer's flute, or pungi – not a flute as we know it, but an enclosed double-reed instrument like an oboe – entices the cobra by its shape and movement, not the nasal music it produces.

Cobras are actually deaf to ambient sound, but can sense even the smallest vibrations. This fact seems to have been discovered millennia ago, for an anonymous poet in the book of Psalms (part of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament) compares lying to “the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be” (Psalm 58:4-5).

While many people refer to snakes as “poisonous,” the correct technical term for those whose bite is dangerous to humans and other animals, is “venomous.” It means that they actively inject toxin into their victims, whereas toxins from certain plants like Poison Ivy contact the skin externally and are then absorbed.

Whether venomous or not, snakes may hiss, coil, rattle, or puff up before they bite. But if you encounter one, experts caution that it’s best to leave it alone.

A famous literary example of keeping a respectful distance is found in “Snake,” a poem from the collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers by British writer D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930). While patiently observing what he knew to be a venomous species drinking at his water-trough on a visit to Sicily in 1923, Lawrence reflected on the ancient tension between our attraction and loathing for these enigmatic creatures.

Very few North American snakes will bite humans unless they are stepped on, picked up, or threatened. For the most part, snakes are happy enough to stay out of our way. In fact, most snakebites (venomous and otherwise) occur as a result of people trying to kill them. Every year in the U.S. there are about 6,000 snake bites, compared to some 4.5 million dog bites.

While both the Old and New Testaments give snakes a bad name, the most infamous reference is found in Genesis 3, where the serpent (an older term for snake) is portrayed as a deceptive creature in league with the Devil. Through cunning deception, he persuades Adam and Eve that they may eat the forbidden fruit in the garden. As a result, God expels them from earthly paradise and they must learn to survive in the wilderness through pain and hard work.

As told in Genesis 3:14-15, God curses the serpent, saying: “Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (King James Version)

In fact, the Bible mentions snakes (also using terms such as serpent, viper, asp, or adder) more than 80 times, covering both testaments. These references almost always appear as a metaphor for evil. In Psalm 140:3, snake venom is associated with sharp tongues, or lying lips. And in Proverbs 23:32, the cumulative effects of drinking alcohol are compared to snake poison.

The coming of a Messiah, usually identified as Jesus, is prefigured in Isaiah 11:8-9, where “The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy…” 

On several occasions in the gospel of Matthew, both Jesus and John the Baptist famously denounce the contentious Pharisees as a “brood of vipers.”

In early medieval iconography, Christ is shown triumphing over evil which is depicted by two beasts, the lion and snake. In the New Testament, the Crucifixion was regarded as fulfilling God's curse on the Serpent, for snakes were often used to represent the “old law” which was superseded by Christ. In religious art, the snake of this old law is sometimes shown crucified, being pierced by the cross, or biting Christ's heel.

In many cultures today, calling someone a “snake” denounces them as being dishonest, deceitful, or having a generally bad character.

By contrast the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, does not refer to snakes in such a bad light. In the Qur’an, as well as in the Old Testament book of Exodus, God responded to Moses’ request for a sign or miracle by instructing him to throw his shepherd’s crook to the ground. The wooden rod immediately became a snake. Moses fled in fear, but God encouraged him to come back and pick it up by its tail; the serpent transformed back into a rod again.

The Ancient Egyptians held snakes in high esteem, using the image of a spitting cobra on the Pharaoh’s crown to represent power and sovereignty. Royalty of Lower Egypt regarded a cobra goddess called Wadjet as their protector. Although she wears a red crown, her name actually means “green,” to symbolize the green of vegetation along the Nile. Wadjet’s counterpart was Nekhbet, the vulture-god of Upper Egypt.

Although they have received unfair “bad press” through much of history, the importance and benefit of snakes as part of a balanced ecosystem is now being recognized. In many parts of the world, biologists are reintroducing native rat-eating snakes in an effort to protect harvested grain and even to repel deadly cobras that invaded areas where other species had disappeared.

And similar programs have reversed rat-damage in the U.S. as well. A state biologist in Texas reported that “the rat population exploded,” following an aggressive campaign to get rid of snakes. “It took two years, hundreds of people-hours, and thousands of dollars to get control of the rats and repair the structural damage,” he said. And that did not include the collateral cost of tons of damaged and rat-contaminated food. The economic cost of removing the rats’ natural predators was obvious.

If you are unlucky enough to be bitten by a snake (the reptile, not the human kind), don’t panic. Get immediate help, whether you believe it is venomous or not. And remember, sucking out the poison as we’ve often seen in movie and television dramas, is no longer recommended; it can do you more harm than good.

Instead of fearing and denigrating snakes, let’s respect these ancient creatures for the good they do.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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