An unholy alliance

Posted March 07 2019

This is a tale a younger version of myself could never have penned, yet it is one that commenced in my youth.  I was about 13 years old and living in country Victoria when a snake was spotted in the house yard.  A robust fear of snakes was something all us kids held since I cannot remember when. We’d been taught to fear snakes for their deadly, slithery and evil intent to obliterate our species at every opportunity. At the time there were five kids in our household and we all screamed at the sight of the snake sunning himself on the driveway in front of our house. As one of our courageous crew raced off to alert any adult we could find, the others including myself, sought out a vantage point some distance away. From here we watched on as the now disturbed creature attempted to make good his escape. Taking refuge in the nearest thing he could find, a pile of neatly stacked bricks became his fortress. One of us stood guard, shovel in hand as we had been instructed, praying all the while we would not have to come good on the deed should the snake rear his serpent-like head. I must have drawn the short straw that day as I was charged with this task until the male of the household arrived home. In what seemed like a sweaty eternity, he finally did arrive. Several forthright and determined strides saw him, brick by brick, dismantling the reptilian hideaway. And as each brick was dislodged from its place, for me at least, the pendulum started to swing and in doing so the snake began to morph from deadly villain to desperate victim. Yet sadly that was not enough to spare the hapless animal his life, as the snake was mercilessly killed before our eyes and never again would the man or the snake be seen in the same light. 

And as the sun came up the next day I was unable to convey to those around me why I declined to take what was left of the once vibrant yet vulnerable being to school for show and tell. My choice however, made perfect sense somewhere deep inside my soul. For some time, I beat myself up over the snake episode and for many years it has raised its ugly head to haunt me.  So much of my world changed on that day, perhaps it was even my “crossing the Rubicon” moment. Whilst at the time I did not know why, I do today.  I take some measure of comfort in recognising that on that day I was just a kid struggling to conform with the social norms around me. I was that round peg not fitting into that square hole that formed both my family and my tribe, and at its heart was my recognition that taking the life of a being who desperately wanted to live was wrong.

Today I cannot claim to be a card-carrying ophiophilist. Snakes still send quivers up my spine, cause my palms to sweat and adrenaline to course through my veins. However, I recognise this is but my perception of them and their reality should not be condemned by this. I am a student of evolution and as I search the archives of my then 13-year-old brain to find the source of both my fear and knowledge (or lack thereof) about snakes I unearth one branded by myth and shaped by the common thought that “the only good snake is a dead snake.” Science, fact and compassion play no part.

So why do we believe what we believe? And are our thoughts really our own, or are they ones we have inherited from others and never really thought that much about?

We are indeed a tribal species; the need to belong drives much of our behaviour. Ultrasociality, tribal groups and a sense of moral community have been what has woven us all together for thousands of years, if not longer, a lot longer, bridging us from small groups or foragers who eked out an existence to the successful collective tribes we are today, working together toward communal goals.

From the vantage point of survival, it paid dividends to cooperate with those around you, sharing the same beliefs and values, to work together and to scratch the back of a mate so they can return the favour. It most certainly was counter-intuitive to cause a fuss. Or was it? We so much like to think of ourselves as beings of free will and thought, yet so much of what we do, think and say is shaped by those around us and the environment in which we live. Yet counter to this, what has enabled our species to evolve to “higher” levels has indeed been those courageous enough, inquisitive enough and compassionate enough to step beyond these lines in the sand and psyche and challenge popular thought.

Some years back, yet another close encounter of a wiggly kind came my way as a tiger snake stole his way into our houseyard. Yet before I could gather my thoughts, those childhood chills zipped up my spine as someone called a young lad from down the road to “deal with the snake”.  With history repeating itself, I was charged with watching which way the snake headed. Locking eyes on his reptilian form I dared not blink as the cavalier chap, armed with a spade entered the scene.  Having watched the snake for what seemed an eternity, although it was probably only a matter of minutes, I saw a being who was seeking to flee, for the very same reason I would seek to flee should I be pursued by someone many times larger than myself.  As evolution told the snake it didn’t pay to stick around, something inside me spoke. Moments later those words were echoed, “He went thata way,” I said. “Are you sure?” quizzed the spade-wielding young gladiator. “Yes, I’m sure.  He went thatta way”. And off the would-be snake-slayer was directed as the snake safely slithered in the opposite direction.  Although I know my actions that day will never wash away my part in the deadly demise of the snake killed in my youth, it did remind me that we humans have so much power over animals.  Power that we so often do not even realise we have, power that has escaped scrutiny and ethical thought, sanctified by societal norms -a most unholy alliance indeed.  And just because we are not attuned enough to see the commonality we share with animals who sit outside our tribe, it doesn’t mean it is not there.


There are several footnotes to this story.

The first is that between 2000 and 2016 there have been 35 deaths attributed to snakes in Australia and most of them have occurred when people either attempted to kill the snake or accidentally disturbed the animal (thereby posing a threat to the animal’s life).

Snakes are known as middle-order predators and play a key role in natural ecosystems.  They are predators to prey species which would otherwise rise to unnatural levels and snakes are prey for predator species who would struggle to survive in their absence.

Snakes are protected under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 and should not be killed or taken from the wild.

Keeping dwellings and properties clean and free from debris can greatly limit encounters with snakes.

Safe to say, there is not a snake alive today (or even one who has passed at the hands of humans) who awoke in the morning with the thought “I’m off to hunt and kill humans” sadly we humans cannot extend such a kindness.

A final word; what makes us human is the comfort we take from living in our “tribe”. What makes us humane is having the courage and the kindness to step beyond this.