I don’t believe I was truly fearful until I became a mother, which was seven years ago now. There is experiencing fear for yourself, which is really an acute category of loneliness, when you become suddenly aware of your vulnerability and of your entrapment in your single, unique body. Then there is fear for your children, which, loosed from the confines of one body to worry about, magnifies and outstretches both time and specifics. I suspect that many parents are towed by an invisible thread of fear for their children pretty much their whole lives.
Beyond the usual worries about illnesses and accidents, I came to notice my own parental fear when I began to hallucinate snakes. Living as we were then in a small village in the Highlands of Scotland, it was my daily habit to take my first young son for a walk along a thin, muddy path that overlooked a rocky beach and the sheltered waters of the firth. This pathway shared something of the kind of chaos that child-play leaves behind, each tide bringing fresh clutter, an empty whelk, a stinking knot of seaweed, the picked limb of a crab. The air along the path had a peppery exuberance, consisting of the many different and connected beings that made their lives on the shoreline and in the nearby fields and woods. There was the tension of the sea, the colorless wind, the continual revisions of light, stretched beyond the sheltering cliffs and out into an unchecked distance.
Having, in my twenties, finally made the effort to learn more about the wildlife around me, I was familiar with the forms I might encounter. On the waters there were male eiders wheedling around females, crooning to one another. Curlews roosted in the fields. Gray heron hunted here, disturbed into their strange, high flight like a piece of muslin wafting above an air vent. With a bit of luck, there would be bottlenose dolphins. Occasionally, roe deer emerged from the woods with a look of astonishment as if they had suddenly climbed out of a lm into three dimensions. My husband and I were obsessed with seeing the elusive pine martins and had smeared some of the trees with peanut butter in the hope of luring them. (It never worked.) Great spotted woodpeckers, gold finches, linnets, swifts and swallows, and all manner of insects were common sights. Highland cattle, of course. And the endless forms of dogs with the endless forms of their owners. All these and many more, we expected.
But one day, when my son was a toddler and we were away from the road, I let go of his hand and allowed him to find his own pace. It was then that I saw my first snake. It lay on the path, inert, browned as a fiddle. I could make out the blunt, thumblike head, the dwindling silhouette of its tail. I was absolutely sure it was a snake, in my brain’s second of categorizing, and the fear passed into me like a shot of tequila. “Gabriel,” I yelled sharply, “come back here.” He stopped and turned to me with a look I have come to know all too well, a look that said, “Do I really need to listen to this mad woman?” I reached him and took his hand again, so that I was now only a meter or so from the snake, but the snake, naturally, was gone by this time and in its place a stick, freshly broken by the look of it, from a nearby tree.
There is only one venomous snake in Britain, the remarkably hardy adder. It was highly unlikely that an adder would be basking on this particular exposed, muddy path beside a square of grazing land in the north of Scotland. I didn’t know a lot about snakes at the time, but I knew that much. The adder is a fan of moorlands, of clear-fell, of dunes. This just wasn’t an addery place. Yet I continued to see snakes, and not always while I was with my son. The visions followed the same pattern. My mind contented and idling, my body bristling with the pleasure of activity, I would pursue a sightline until a small, sudden outburst of misinterpretation sent my heart spinning out of order. A snake? Shit. No, not a snake. A stick, goddamnit, a stick.
Globally, it would seem that there are fewer snakes than there used to be. Censuses from over a twenty-year period on several continents have shown consistent declines in numbers. Why? Habitat loss, changing land use, introduced species, climate change, many of the usual hypotheses for the falling abundance of other animals. This can hardly be a surprise. Brian Todd of the University of California Davis noted wryly in his wide-ranging study of decreases in reptile populations around the world that Linnaeus considered reptiles “foul and loath- some animals.” Since then, attitudes have scarcely improved. The least-studied vertebrate group, reptiles have been viewed historically, quite wrongly as it turns out, as of limited importance to ecosystems. Even the good guys aren’t on their side. By 2004, while 100 percent of birds had been evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, only around 3 percent of snakes had received the same attention.
There’s an added dimension to the disappearance of snakes: fear. In most places, snakes are persecuted. It’s difficult to put a figure on it, but many thousands of snakes are killed each year by humans, through disturbance or trapping. In some regions of America the hunting of snakes as part of an earlier practice of pest control has become a beloved and lucrative hoedown. The annual Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, which takes place in Texas, draws hundreds of visitors and participants who rack up capture totals of twenty thousand or more, often using gasoline to fumigate the animals in their communal dens. There are prizes for the largest and longest snakes (as well as snake-eating contests), and the events, rightly or wrongly, have become embedded in the identities and economies of some of these rural areas.
Conservation groups and animal protection organizations argue against such activities, but the participants advance counterclaims that the hunts inject much-needed money into struggling communities. They also argue against any perceived threat to snake numbers, pointing out that the hunt is a relatively minor aggravating factor in the decline of snakes. This is a fair point and serves to expose the confounding ingredient of emotion in our calculation of the rights and wrongs of humans killing animals. Compared to the nearly thirty million cattle slaughtered each year in the American agricultural industry, or to the vast quantities of animals that die as roadkill, the rattlesnake harvest is a pretty paltry affair. Of course, the relative size of any culling doesn’t logically follow as a justification. But what is meaningful is the place of fear in both the grounds for snake persecution and in the weak compulsion to resist it. It’s hard to feel sorry for something that terrifies you.
When my son turned three, we moved to America for a year, where we lived in a wooden cabin close to the Taconic State Park on the borders of New York and Massachusetts. In the woods nearby, we saw the skinny, silvery outlines of coyotes, their spare frames like tattered wedding dresses on hangers, so that it was as if nostalgia flitted between the trees. We had all kinds of encounters with wildlife. We came home one afternoon in the fall to find our entire home overspread by ladybugs, a scarcely undulating redness as if the pine timbers had come alive and the house might y away with them. The ladybugs went on to congregate in our cellar, where they mistook a dehumidifier for a source of water and died one by one in their hundreds. My son and I felt so sorry for them that we hibernated the twenty or thirty survivors in a box in our house and released them in March the following year. In the evenings, we tiptoed down to a small pond in the woods to try to spot an owl nesting there. Once, when the snows came, we measured a set of prints outside our front door and guessed they’d been left by a bobcat. We delighted in all this.
But some of our encounters were frightening. In the late summer, my son and I were walking alone together along one of the old railroad lines. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a thick coil, ticked like stalks of hay and the shadows in between. The effect was as if the at path had suddenly become swollen into a small hump, so deceptive was the continuity. Before I could consciously process what I was seeing, my body experienced a swoop of anxiety. It was a timber rattlesnake—shiftless, indifferent, but very much there. For an Englishwoman, a rattlesnake is a legendary animal, a symbol less a living thing. It was both intoxicating and alarming to see one so close by.
On the warm dirt road we drove down each day to reach our cabin, we frequently came across garter snakes. I knew they were harmless and so tried hard not to fear them but did not always succeed. Not long before it started to get cold, I stopped the car to watch a snake cross to the pond from the gardens of a nearby house. It was a northern water snake, dark as a vestige of night, and it made my heart pound and my skin prickle. Once, we collected the small, flattened body of a snake from the road, one of the many we saw who didn’t make it across safely. We took it home and tried to salvage the skeleton. We felt sad for the little thing, a baby no more than ten centimeters long.
But for all this interest, I was still so unaccustomed to interacting with snakes that I became controlling with my son, warning him to watch his path and to stick to it. Toward the end of our stay in America, we visited Florida. While out walking in the Everglades, I found myself fussing over my son, begging him to keep out of the grasses. Anyone who has raised a toddler will know how defiant they can be. He just would not do what I was asking, and I was getting more and more exasperated. My husband wandered on ahead, hoping for enough quiet to catch sight of some of the birds he was keen to see. My husband is a skilled naturalist and a seabird ecologist. He’s spent a lifetime outside and has remarkable instincts for identifying animals. Although he doesn’t wear it heavily, his knowledge and experience show in the ease with which he observes wildlife and moves through wild landscapes. Unlike me, he wasn’t worried. I tried to relax and enjoy the beauty around me but instinct tethered me to my son. I swivelled back to him, only to find him deep in the grasses and a fraction of a second away from stepping on a snake. “Snake!” I yelled. He froze and then slowly backed away and joined me on the path. Together, we crouched and looked at the small torque of flesh and bone. “It’s just a baby,” I said. Then I heard my husband’s voice. “I don’t think so,” he said. He was looking at the beast through his binoculars. “It’s a rattlesnake.”
The beast my son nearly trod on in our final day in America was an eastern pygmy rattlesnake, the smallest venomous snake in the country. These colorful, very pretty rattlesnakes rarely kill humans because they don’t produce enough venom, but, in children, the bites can be nasty. Was I thankful my son hadn’t been bitten? You can bet your life. I burst into tears and refused to continue on the walk, even though I felt angry with myself. The anxiety and drive to protect were too overpowering.
As it happens, snakes feel fear too, although it is safe to assume that in the absence of language nothing in their brain ranks or classifies such a feeling. We humans make much of our capacity to suffer fear but it’s surprisingly difficult to light on a confident argument for why being able to think about fear is necessarily worse than simply experiencing it. Most animals tend to fear what they’re justified in fearing. But if you can think about fear, you can distort or invent it. In one of the many strange reversals in our seminatural world, humans have somehow managed to make being afraid more important than whether or not there’s any reason to be so.
The dominant feelings among snakes would appear to be fear and hostility, essential internal states to safeguard survival. But why, given many of us never encounter snakes, do we fear them? Scientists studying the brain patterns of macaque monkeys have found a clue. On recognition of snakes, the neurons in their brains re strongly—trace evidence of past selection for rapid detection of snakes. This kind of study in primates gives us some insight into why the keen ability to detect snakes is present among most humans regardless of whether or not they have ever seen one. And it is significant that these studies suggest detection as opposed to fear. Very young children, like my son, exhibit the ability to detect a snake or a snakelike shape, but not necessarily to fear it. I had never hallucinated snakes until I became a mother; nonetheless, I had decades of experience of a culture in which snakes are portrayed as a danger, albeit a distant one. Once I became a mother, this inherent visual skill in detecting snakes pronounced itself in a new maternal body flooded with protective urges. What did I do? Encode my son’s ability to distinguish a snakelike shape with the idea that this shape should be associated with fear. Detection followed by recognition isn’t the same as detection followed by terror. Herein lies some of the problem.
In Britain, records for snakebites began in 1876, and since then only fourteen people have died. Once in a decade, someone will die from an adder bite in one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. In America, around five people per year die from snakebites, most often by a species of rattlesnake. Nobody is saying those deaths are negligible, but the real killer among animals is the bee, responsible for the deaths of over a hundred Americans annually through allergic reactions to their stings. As for bears and mountain lions, they hardly get away with one fatal attack a year. In other words, for your average European or American, the risk from nearly all wildlife from spiders to horses is orders of magnitude less than that posed by an unhealthy lifestyle or a car.
It’s easy to dismiss our fears as irrational, but looked at another way, things begin to alter. On a global scale, snakes are the second most deadly animal on the planet, a cause of death for around 50,000 people a year, although well below the 430,000 individuals (very often children) who die from the malaria-carrying mosquito species. It ought to be noted too that number three on the list is none other than man’s best friend, the dog, implicated in the deaths of around 25,000 people annually. Why aren’t we terrified of dogs? For one thing, dogs may have been domesticated as many as 15,000 years ago. For another, the numbers need context. Dogs live in incredibly close contact with humans. In America alone there are nearly 50 million households sharing their space with dogs. To own a well-cared-for dog, safeguarded from rabies, is not a particularly risky proposition.
Many snakebites are preventable if individuals, men in particular, do not attempt to handle snakes; many others are accidental and form part of the vast diversity of potential dangers in the world. At greatest risk are agricultural workers in countries like India, where snakebites are an everyday occupational hazard. So, while our risk of being killed by a snake is minimal (unless we’re a farmer in a hot country), looked at from the perspective of evolutionary history, the fear we feel for snakes is certainly comprehensible.
Comprehensible, yes. But of moral significance in weighing actions? This is much less clear, especially since there’s one animal I’ve left out of the statistics here: us. Roughly a quarter million people die each year in violent conflicts with other humans. If we add to this the number of deaths more indirectly tied to the behavior of other people, we surpass the dreaded mosquito as being the greatest threat to human life.
None of this will surprise most readers. I quote these statistics because it is a favorite retort when considering our fear of animals like snakes to point out the hypocrisy with regard to our own species. Yet our tendency to single out humans as special or important should not be confused with an overabundance of trust in one another. A survey of the hundreds of horror movies made every year will make something immediately obvious: we are more afraid of ourselves than anything else.
Just as with natural dangers, it turns out that we are hard-wired to detect differences among humans and then conditioned to fear one another, and this fear shares a crucial relationship with our fears of animals, particularly those perceived as pests or threats. In a paper in Nature Neuroscience in 2012, authors Elizabeth Phelps and Jennifer Kubota of New York University and Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University, studied the brain’s response to the race of others, along with our emotional reactions and subsequent decision-making. Kubota argued that our brains identify ethnicity rapidly and largely unconsciously, setting off reactions and behavioral counters of which we may or may not be aware. In 2005, Jeffrey Ebert of Harvard University warned that “both white and black Americans exhibited a bias toward fearing strangers of another race.” While the detection of race is associated with what would appear to be an instinctive fear, Ebert emphasized that this feeling is compounded by the information we accumulate through culture and our influences: “Individuals acquire negative beliefs about outgroups according to their local cultures, and few reach adulthood without considerable knowledge of these prejudices and stereotypes.” In experimental psychology, this kind of implicit bias has been demonstrated across repeated studies, a split-second categorizing that associates other races with negative feelings. Some of us are better than others at rapidly attempting to suppress this temporary are of racism, but few of us are free from it, and the impact can range from how a doctor interacts with a patient to what policies we vote for on a ballot paper.
In the UK, research by the Institute of Race Relations undertook an investigation into more than five hundred black and ethnic-minority individuals who have died from inconclusive causes since 1990, and they concluded that institutional racism accounted for at least some of these. In 2015, nearly one thousand black Americans were shot and killed by police without a single conviction of unnecessary force. In 2017, the death of Philando Castile made news shortly after Castile was pulled over by Officer Jeronimo Yanez on the basis that he might have resembled someone wanted for robbery. His girlfriend, who was in the car’s passenger seat, captured some of the interaction, along with a dash camera video and an audio recording of the officer before and after the event. Castile says to Officer Yanez, “Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a rearm on me.” “Don’t pull it out!” Yanez shouts. “I’m not,” Castile replies. Seven shots were fired. In the backseat of the car was Castile’s four-year-old daughter. In the later court case, Yanez spoke of his fear of the man he killed. In the dim light of the car, the officer couldn’t see whether Castile had his hand on a gun but it frightened him that he might have. “It was . . . to me . . . it just looked big and apparent that he’s gonna shoot you, he’s gonna kill you,” he said during an interview with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Yanez was Latino and Castile was black.
Newspapers in Britain, typically those with the highest circulations like Express, Daily Mail, and The Sun, leap on any story about the dangers of snakes, placing in capitals those words most suited to inspiring fear, like KILL, DEATH, and BATTLE. Despite the fact that adders are secretive, habitual, and relatively rare creatures in Britain, in the summer of 2016 the Daily Mirror newspaper published an article about a three- year-old boy bitten by an adder with a bold headline warning about a worrying “surge” in adder numbers without providing any evidence to support this claim.
A similar rhetoric of fear can be found in newspaper and online discussions about perceived social threats, and it’s a rhetoric that is in part borrowed from the ways we talk about animals we don’t like. The migrant crisis in Europe has been described as an invasion of sinister elements analogous to a burgeoning pest: Britain’s former prime minister, David Cameron, talked of the migrants as a “swarm,” and in May 2016, the Express newspaper carried an article entitled “Invasion of Europe.” In October of the same year, an article on the Hungarian town of Mórahalom described it as nearly “wiped out” by refugees.
Since his election, the new American president has made headlines for the language he uses (or doesn’t us) about certain minority sectors of American society, particularly black, Mexican, and Muslim individuals. He has argued adamantly that he is not racist; nonetheless, he is a master of fearmongering. He claimed the murder rate was “the highest it’s been in 47 years,” despite the fact that this is untrue. In his inaugural address, he rang the bell for solidarity: “Whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed with the same red blood of patriots.” It was a subtle offering of unity and cleverly conditional: the statement was less about defeating racism and more about promoting patriotism. Read instead: we don’t mind what color you are as long as you are loyal by our definition. The language of the rest of the speech relied heavily on a militarizing tone. Of course, after whipping his supporters into a state of anxiety about crime, foreigners, and enemies lurking within their ranks, he then delivered the ultimate panacea: his party will look after you. “There should be no fear,” he told us. “We are protected and we will always be protected.”
Unsurprisingly, recent polls from the Gallup survey suggest that Americans are more concerned about violence than in any year since 9/11, despite the fact that violent crime as a whole has dropped. This is nothing new. In 2004, in the final ten days of that year’s presidential race, the George W. Bush campaign released a film showing wolves gathering in a dark forest. Bush’s team based their campaign on the idea that a John Kerry presidency would leave America vulnerable to its enemies. “The outcome of this election will set the direction of the war against terror,” Bush told his supporters.
It is worth briefly placing some of this in a wider context. In recent years, the political mobilization of fear has become crucial to the study of immigration. By 2005, the number of foreign-born people living in America was higher than at any time since the 1920s. In a study by political scientist Daniel Hopkins, opinions about immigration, perceived or actual, were more closely tied to political shifts than to socioeconomic causes. Theories of so-called “power threat” from real or imagined outsiders are still under debate, but recent statistical models show that respondents in quickly changing counties are more likely than those in static countries to want to restrict immigration when the issue is discussed nationally.
It must be recognized that although white-against-ethnic-minority racism has historically had the most significant and destructive effect on people, a tendency toward racial bias and its manipulation is endemic to our species. Terrorists of all colors are almost always recruited through the same route: a grievance and a threat are publicized and then followed by the subtle and blatant dehumanization of those who will become the targets of anything from discriminatory policies to violence. Our fear of certain animals—including ourselves—and the kind of hostility this fear seems to legitimize is adapted by those who use it to their advantage. We drape our enemies in the image of animals that we believe we have the right to persecute. Whole peoples become snakelike, ratlike, cockroachlike—creatures to be curbed or removed. The animalistic dehumanization of other people is an old and established part of fearmongering and power grabbing.
As an animal whose brain both detects racial difference and is conditioned to fear it, the effect of such rhetoric on our own psychology and behavior is not at all negligible. Not for nothing is propaganda the first weapon in conflict. But can ordinary people be blamed for being afraid? It’s easy to shrug off the rhetoric of leaders if you don’t share the politics that hover in the background, but this would be a gross underestimate of the very real fear many people feel about the changing nature of their societies and communities.
When there is a well of anxiety under the surface of human life, the stories we tell matter deeply because, when it comes to our fears, we have always been poor storytellers of fact. Stories occupy the working core of our outlook and rationality. We can tell stories that trigger our biases or we can tell stories that steady our arm. They are among the only defenses we have against natural instincts and some of their destructive outcomes. And yet it is essential to maintain sympathy for anyone experiencing fear. It is normal to fear. To recognize this is absolutely and stringently not to normalize racism or to justify the suppression or persecution of any living being, human or otherwise. But it would be wrong and condescending to laugh at fearful people or to underestimate the false narratives upon which their anxieties feed.
Upon our return to Britain, my husband and I bought a semiderelict farm inside the North Yorkshire National Park, a stone building down three miles of unmade road in a clearing in the woods. For a country that has successfully curbed both the diversity and abundance of most of its inconvenient wildlife, we live alongside relatively exciting neighbors: goshawks, red deer, stoats, and, as I was to discover early on, adders. We have twelve acres of land quartered by collapsing drystone walls. One of these walls is a favorite spot for basking adders. A short distance down the road, there is a hibernaculum, which we have marked inconspicuously with a cairn. So far, on the first warm day of March every year, a female adder has emerged and basked without fail. There is a small stream that borders the front of our farm, and we often come across large females hunting in or near it.
While we renovated the farm and lived in a small, secondhand caravan, I nursed my newborn son, whom I had carried while we were still in America (we called him Sam, naturally). The hallucinations returned. I had taught my elder son to study his path on warm days and to stay out of dry bracken. I had encouraged him to believe he was an excellent snake-spotter (he is). Still, as we walked, I often mistook the bronze bow of a twig or a little branch for an adder and then felt that heart-punch of fear. But, gradually, the intensity of my fear has given way to the observation of snake behavior. In the three years since we’ve lived here, I have become used to their habits. The snakes that surround our land emerge from hibernation in March and sun themselves for a week or two in the same spots before moving off to their breeding grounds. We tend to see them most in the months when they are shifting elsewhere, in April and May, and again in September. Occasionally, we meet them on the hot, sandy tracks and wait as they taste us on the breeze. We are yet to catch them in the act of seduction, when the male and female become a glistening convolution of fleeting desire. But we have found babies, softly hissing in the brittle, razored grasses at the edge of the woods.
Over time, my instinctive fear has subtilized into a feeling of cautious admiration. I would go so far as to say I have become fond and protective of our adders. I say “ours” when they are no such thing. They possess themselves alone. But the pronoun is a sign of a respect that has arisen through proximity and experience and a willingness to counter my own sense of threat. This is not to say that they no longer inspire anxiety in me, irrational or otherwise. They do. Absolutely they do. Yet the steady lookout for them has translated into an act of engrossment, a gaze pervaded by a desire to know and to learn and, given enough time, to cherish. The best antidote to fear, of course, is knowledge.