It’s Halloween! This is the time of the year so-called “scary” animals seem to creep their way into our consciousness. Everywhere—from the grocery store to the car wash, even the dentist’s office—seems inundated with gauzy cotton spider webs, vampire bats with over-sized fangs, and neon rubber snakes. Although these decorations can be fun, they also seem to play into human fears of these often misunderstood and beneficial animals.
Why do so many people have overwhelming phobias of these types of animals? Vanessa LoBue, a post-doctoral fellow of psychology at the University of Virginia has done research on the human fear of snakes. In the journal, Psychological Science, she states, “The idea is that throughout evolutionary history, humans that learned quickly to fear snakes would have been at an advantage to survive and reproduce.” That being said, her research also indicates that “while babies and very young children do not usually fear snakes, they are unusually skilled at detecting them and show a predisposition to learn to fear snakes if they have bad experiences or even if they are exposed to negative portrayals of them in the media.”
How does the Lake County Forest Preserves attempt to alleviate some of these fears? We offer programs and promote research projects, highlighting the benefits of snakes and other commonly feared wildlife. For example, there is a fascinating snake story unfolding right now in the Lake County Forest Preserves, as we work with the Lincoln Park Zoo to restore the smooth green snake into northern Illinois. Our story begins with a non-venomous (thus harmless to humans) reptile that fills an important niche in the food chain. Smooth green snakes feast primarily on insects and are preyed upon by hawks, minks and even other snakes. These emerald-colored snakes have historically made the grasslands and marshes of Lake County, Illinois their home. More recently, due to habitat loss and pesticide use, populations of this beneficial species are declining or have been eradicated.
After habitat restoration in forest preserves that these snakes historically called “home” did not create a boost in the populations, the Lake County Forest Preserves began a conservation partnership with the Lincoln Park Zoo. This partnership includes a zoo-based breeding program and is chronicled by the Lincoln Park Zoo’s “Restoring the Smooth Green Snake” Web page. One of the most intriguing parts of this effort is the release of handfuls of pencil-sized smooth green snakes, adorned with tiny radio transmitters, into the forest preserves. View the Snake Signals Slideshow and see some of the action in the field.
So, don’t think of animals, such as the smooth green snake, as frightening creatures. Instead, use this time of year as a reminder of how these animals can surprise us. Last week while running along the Des Plaines River Trail, I was stopped in my tracks by a garter snake that darted out onto the trail right below my feet. While I wasn’t scared of this snake, I did have to stop and catch my breath because it surprised me. As I continued running, I began to wonder if he was heading to some old chipmunk burrow to join a mass of other snakes in a hibernaculum, or if he would get eaten by the red-tailed hawk flying overhead.
I challenge readers to allow these so-called “spooky” creatures of Halloween to create wonder rather than fear, acknowledging their importance and learning their story.