A camp snake program can help teach campers life skills, such as overcoming fear and prejudice, learning empathy and understanding, and acting kindly toward others. Following are some techniques for keeping snakes at camp that will help reduce the trauma to the snake and encourage friendship with campers.
Why a Snake Program?
A snake program can help campers and staff understand and overcome their aversion to snakes. This can also help them begin to overcome other prejudices.
Use truth to replace folk fiction
While many campers learn accurate facts about snakes at school and from educational television, some fallacies persist. Snakes cannot outrun a person, much less a horse, nor can they jump. North American snakes are very rarely aggressive toward humans. They are, however, defensive. Snakes do not dig holes. Snakes may use holes dug by other animals in their search for food. Help campers identify similar folk fiction about other animals and people; then search out the truth.
Develop positive attitudes
Replace attitudes of fear and prejudice with curiosity, intrigue, understanding, and compassion. Fear is one motivation behind much prejudice. Fear of snakes makes it difficult for people to identify the different kinds. Fear may be behind the teasing of a caged snake. Some people will warn you that snakes are “slimy” and “dirty” so you will not want to touch them. Others will project their own fear reactions into the intentions of the snake.
Help people identify with others
Help people identify with a snake. Try looking at the world from a snake’s-eye view. Put a patch over one eye, lie on the ground, turn your head to the side with your open eye closest to the ground, and watch as another person does a “monster walk” toward you. Discuss what it looked like when campers saw a large person coming toward them. Ask what they would do if they were snakes.
Snakes have only four lines of defense: to hide, to escape, to spray a musk, and, as a last resort, to bite. Snakes are dressed in camouflage and are good at hiding. This is their best defense against being eaten by birds, otters, coyotes, and other animals. It is also their best defense against being killed by humans. A snake will lie still and let you walk by unless it feels afraid; then it will try to run away. When both of these defenses fail, like when being stepped on or caught, it will spray a foul smelling musk or try to bite.
Only the bite of poisonous snakes is life threatening to humans. Most small North American snakes bite humans only out of fear. The bite of a very large nonpoisonous snake, like a twenty-foot anaconda or python, may be considered dangerous.
Teach inherent value
Snakes (and people) have value just because they exist. Snakes, depending on the species, help control the populations of rabbits, rats, and other rodents; clean up sick and dead fish; and are food themselves for many birds and animals.
It is good to simply enjoy observing a snake from a comfortable distance. Not frightening the snake helps increase empathy and will allow campers to observe the snake doing what it does naturally. However, if you wish to catch a nonpoisonous snake, follow these steps:
Catch a snake gently. Approach a nonpoisonous snake slowly enough to prevent it from fleeing. Watch for fear reactions of the snake and respond to reduce the snake’s fear. Let the first touch be very gentle. At the first touch the snake will almost always tense up with a jerk. If the snake jerks or turns to strike, stay very still and wait for the snake to calm down. Slowly and gently pick up the snake, giving it plenty of support. If the snake does bite, do not attempt to jerk away. Often snakes go through the striking motions but will not make contact — an indication they were not terribly afraid and were practicing restraint.
Hold snakes so as to increase their sense of security. Give a snake plenty of support so it does not fear falling. Let the snake crawl through your hands by moving one hand in front of the other as the snake crawls. Or, let the snake crawl up your arm and across your shoulders. A climbing snake, such as a rat snake, will hold itself on a stick. Campers can “hold” such a snake without touching it.
Introduce the snake to people so as not to frighten either the snake or any person. Caution people to touch the snake very gently because it has very sensitive skin. Reassure timid campers that it is okay to wait until they feel ready before touching or holding the snake. Caution the eager campers to move slowly so they won’t upset the snake.
What about poisonous snakes?
Safe capture of poisonous snakes is difficult and should be attempted only by someone who has been taught how to do it without endangering himself, others, or the snake. Therefore, observe poisonous snakes from a safe distance. By yourself, if you stay the length of the snake away, you will be safe. With a group, keep everyone at least twelve feet away and do not encircle the snake; leave the snake an open escape route.
Natural control of a poisonous snake population at camp is done simply by increasing the number of nonpoisonous snakes. The competition for food and space will help reduce the number of poisonous snakes. Every time you remove a poisonous snake, release a nonpoisonous one in its place.
Identifying different types of snakes
Encourage campers to learn to identify different kinds of snakes, both nonpoisonous and poisonous. Colors, patterns, and eyes are the best clues to use when distinguishing between kinds of snakes. Avoid the misleading clues like, “Poisonous snakes have a triangular-shaped head.” Because there are regional variations, make a photo album of snakes found in your area.
Keeping Snakes at Camp
Housing wild pets at camp can help campers learn about them. Keep in mind that animals are also often traumatized by captivity and display bizarre behavior untypical of their kind unless treated with respect and dignity. Healthy human contact and a spacious, more natural living environment improves their temperaments tremendously.
With this in mind, often during the camp session and at the end of the camp season have campers help release these friends back to their homes. Keep notes of where you found each snake so you can take it back to familiar ground. Rather than keeping many snakes of the same kind, when you find a second, release the first so its stay in captivity is brief. Any snake that does not adjust to living in captivity within a few days should be released.
Provide a cage as much like the snake’s natural habitat as possible. Build cages with ample space and hiding places. Dark corners with boxes can be open enough to allow children to see the snake yet help the snake feel safe. Provide an elevated hiding place for climbing snakes. Using a cardboard box for the hiding place makes it easy to clean (simply replace it). Snakes eat best when the air temperature is around 75-85°F. The cage floor should be kept dry, even for water snakes, but water should be available in a shallow pan.
Have the snake’s favorite food immediately available. A snake may be taught to eat easily available food like a hot dog by rubbing it against their favorite food to transfer the odor.
Key Elements of the Program
A camp snake program can help campers overcome their fear of snakes, and people cannot truly enjoy the natural world when they carry a phobia about any one part of it. It can also help campers overcome prejudice by teaching truth and respect, instilling compassion, and helping them develop empathy. Campers will discover that snakes, even poisonous ones, are not evil.
Rev. Robert Allen, CCD, has worked with and taught about snakes all of his life. He is co-director of Hopewell Camp and Conference Center near Oxford, Mississippi
Originally published in the 2001 May/June of Camping Magazine.