Are we born with a fear of snakes or do we learn it? Scientists have spent considerable effort in answering this question over the years. If we humans are born fearing snakes, Rom and I must be mutants.
When I was 12, I saw a slim, green vine snake crawling from a tree branch onto the clothesline. Excited, I ran indoors to tell my parents. To my surprise and disappointment, they were indifferent. This was my first encounter with a snake, and I expected some drama. When I went back, the snake had disappeared.
I was not alone in my lack of fear. Some years ago, a pair of young monkeys lived in the Croc Bank. They had been captives and associated with humans more than animals. We thought they would be ideal subjects to test. Rom let a captive python, a species that would prey on monkeys in the wild, crawl towards them. They were curious and approached the snake. The python bunched up as the monkeys advanced. When they were close enough for the snake to strike, we shouted and waved our arms to scare them away. The monkeys jumped back and looked at us with perplexity. They were babes in the woods and wouldn’t have recognised a snake even it crept up and bit them. We weren’t aware that in the 1980s, Susan Mineka of Northwestern University, Illinois, had already established that monkeys learn to fear snakes by watching others. Monkey see, monkey fear.
Rom and I have seen children watch snakes with fascination at zoos around the world. Kids are very quick to spot the reptiles that are sometimes so well camouflaged. But adults are a sight to behold. They hold their children’s hands in a white-knuckle grip as they rush past the enclosures with faces averted, or yell at kids to stay away from the glass. Many shriek hysterically and some may even faint. The adults’ response seem comical to us, but they make a lasting impression on kids.
In 2010, Vanessa LoBue of Rutgers University and her colleagues showed that children are acutely sensitive to images of snakes, but it takes an external trigger to develop fear. You can yell with all your might, but it’s unlikely a child will learn to dread flowers or bunnies. But do the same thing with a snake and the child is scarred for life.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Croc Bank published a poster of a king cobra. Its head was raised, exposing its golden yellow throat, and its glossy black body draped across boulders in a river bed. It looked guileless and vulnerable that all my protective feelings rose to the fore. I gave a copy of this poster to my brother who returned it to me within a few days. He said he was too scared to have it hanging on his wall. I was puzzled. We grew up together and had the same parents, but from where did he learn to dread snakes.
I suspect the personality of the child determines his / her susceptibility to fear. Besides, parents don’t have a monopoly on shaping their children’s psyche; peers exert considerable influence.
Since I began living with Rom, many people I had known for a long time confessed to being snake-phobic. One friend in particular can’t glance at a picture of one, has not seen the documentaries we made, or visited us, suspecting we have snakes running loose in the house.
Just as we learn to fear snakes, we can unlearn it. I’ve seen Rom convince people who are terrified of snakes to touch one. The moment they feel the dry smoothness of a snake’s body, most of their fear evaporates. However, extreme phobias may take longer and considerable effort to dissipate.
I wonder if, conversely, snakes and other wild animals are born with an inherent fear of humans or whether they learn from experience. Perhaps some even suffer anthrophobia, fear of humans.