Every time someone comes out to the Sibley Nature Center somebody always wants to hold a snake. There is always someone deathly afraid of them -- and so many people say how ugly and evil and horrible snakes are. Several years ago a couple of visitors came to Sibley to request that we stop talking to children about snakes. "Boy, you should kill them, kill them all. Kill ever dang snake you see." The elderly man had been raised on a farm in Lynn County and had spent all of his working days in the oil field. "I have killed a thousand, at least." He had driven up in a brand new luxury car and had big shiny rings on his fingers.
His daughter had called Sibley after her son came to one of our programs for school children. "I really do not think you should expose children to snakes. Snakes are agents of Lucifer. Children should be protected from evil." I invited her out, to see how we kept the snakes, and to go review the material we cover when we present a program about snakes. She and her father came out the very next morning.
"The best way to protect your child is by giving them knowledge. I know you said you live in town, and that you never go camping. But what if you were driving to Odessa to shop and you had a flat on Highway 191? What if your child got out to watch the good Samaritan change your tire, and decided to stand on a piece of trash so the grass burs would not get in his socks? What if underneath that piece of litter a rattler was resting out of the direct sun? Whenever a person is outside in West Texas, there is a chance a rattler is there, too. Once in a while a rattler is even found in town. The world is not a perfect place. There are always dangers at hand."
"Snakes are so evil. My stomach gets upset even seeing one." The daughter stood with her hands on her hips, a tight and angry expression on her face. Her father stepped close to me. "You scare kids when you show them snakes. My little grandbaby came home all quiet yesterday. He said you made him touch a snake. How can you have somebody touch something so slimy and nasty, and to let the snake lick you on the nose --. Because of that and because you put the snake around your neck he woke up during the night dreaming about a snake around his neck. I had to sit with him for thirty minutes before he went back to sleep."
"I know you folks are upset, but let me tell you about a rancher over on Big Silver Creek south of Colorado City. That ol' boy was raised there, and when he was a kid, he said he could see a rattler almost every time he rode a horse all day. Nowadays, he only sees two or three during the whole year, but that is beside the point. I was touring the ranch with him and his family one time, and just as he and I were checking some CRP plantings, we nearly stepped on a big diamondback. The huge snake started rattling and raising his head, all ready to strike. I figured that rancher would go back to the truck for the shotgun hanging in the rear window and return to blow the snake’s head off. Instead, he called his three little granddaughters over to watch the snake, and the youngest girl was just a toddler, barely making sense when she talked.
“When the girls got near the rattler, he hunkered down and put his arms around them and said, 'The Good Lord has a reason for every animal and plant on the face of this planet. The Lord put this rattler right here today so I can teach you some things. First -- rattlesnakes help us remember that we should always be watchful and alert. Careless people get hurt. People who do not watch and observe and think are the ones who get hurt. The second lesson is that this snake is doing a job for me. I planted thousands of dollars of grass and forb seeds in this field, trying to revegetate it. I do not want mice and packrats and cotton rats eating the seed, so I am glad he is out here. Look at that big lump half-way down him. He must have just caught a baby rabbit. I know baby rabbits are just as cute as can be, but look -- see -- a rabbit gnawed this Illinois Bundleflower to the ground. That plant fixes nitrogen in the soil.’
“The little girls were looking from his face to the snake and back, listening intently. ‘The Good Lord wants us to be a steward of the land. To be a steward you must understand, or at least try to understand. Your daddy and I killed a rattler on your lawn last week with the shotgun, but we are not killing this one, not today. We did not want that one last week setting up housekeeping around your house. It might have hurt you, for you are still babies, not big enough for school yet.’
“He pointed at the snake in front of them. ‘See, he has quit rattling, and now he is crawling off. Rattlesnakes are not evil. God put them here, to teach us. They never ever attack people just to hurt us -- we are monsters to them, huge clumsy monsters.’ The girls giggled at that. ‘Rattlers rattle at us to tell us and cows (and buffalo back in the old days) that they want every thing to go around them and not step on them. They only bite us when we are being careless, or when people are trying to catch them for snake roundups, or when we are trying to kill them and we do a bad job of it. We did not put the rattlesnake on this Earth, girls, and we do not have the right to rid the Earth of them, either.’”
The grandfather and his daughter reacted to the story about the other family by walking out, as they repeated their beliefs and said they would never return. The daughter and her son did, however, return once as part of a home-schooling group. They were quiet, reserved, and remained in the background during the second visit, declining to interact with the other parents and children as they discovered the critters who share our homeland. They have not returned since.