For many of you, the snake photo below will elicit a strong visceral response. The spider photo below might do the same. While it varies in intensity, humans seem to have an innate fear of both spiders and snakes. New research now provides further support for the idea that fear of spiders and snakes is something we’re born with, not something we learn. The European study showed that 6-month-old infants responded more strongly to images of spiders and snakes than of other creatures, even when those images were nearly identical in terms of color and brightness. It’s a fascinating study to read, and is available for free by following this link.
I handle both snakes and spiders fairly regularly, but I’ll still admit that my first reaction upon seeing one – especially when it’s a surprise – is to step backward. Then, my logical brain kicks in and I step forward and pick up the cute little critter to look at it more closely. I may be instinctively afraid of snakes and spiders, but it’s nice to know my brain has the ability to override that instinct – and I think most people have that same ability. Dating back to my time working at a nature center in college, I’ve probably helped thousands of people overcome that initial fright response and touch, or even pick up, their first spider or snake.
I think it’s important to help people understand that most snakes and spiders are harmless, and that even those few that could potentially pose a danger are not actively trying to attack them. First, it might help save the lives of snakes and spiders living in and around those people’s houses. That’s great, but probably won’t affect the fate of the world. More importantly, however, I hope making people more comfortable with snakes and spiders might also help them feel more comfortable wandering out into prairies and other natural areas.
I’m not sure how many people avoid exploring tall grassy places out of fear, but I’ve definitely met people who fall into that category. It’s hard enough to convince people that prairies are worth visiting without also having to convince them they won’t be ambushed by a vicious snake or spider. I take every opportunity to reassure people that our prairies are safe, and try to prove it by going out of my way to catch and admire the snakes and spiders we see while hiking around. Among my prairie conservation outreach strategies, demonstrating the harmlessness of snakes and spiders is surely not the most impactful, but I figure it doesn’t hurt. If nothing else, people tend to care more about places they’ve visited, so anything we can to do encourage more visits to prairies seems worthwhile.