Facing My Fear of Snakes
Article by Andrea Gordon of The Toronto Star
Family Issues Reporter
It helped that the four-foot-long python had the same colors as my cat. And that he was almost as lazy. But the real reason I wriggled free of a lifelong snake fear and actually touched one is Reptilia’s Phobia Course and a herpetologist named Lee Parker.
Parker, 29, was raised in South Africa and got his first pair of snakes at 13. A few years later, he had 108 stacked in cages in his bedroom. He’s wrangled black mambas and vipers in the wild for films.
I, meanwhile, have spent decades recoiling in fear from garters in the grass. Parker, the facility manager at Reptilia, a reptile zoo and educational facility in Vaughan, has helped plenty of folks conquer snake phobias. Some can’t even cross the threshold on their first visit. No worries, he assures me over the phone. “We’ll take as long as you need to feel comfortable.”
Turns out I needed nine hours spread over three visits.
Parker’s desensitization process was gentle, methodical and consuming. By the end, the unthinkable happened. I had a handsome brown-and-tan ball python in my hands. And I didn’t even pass out.
We spend 45 minutes talking, no snakes in sight. Parker’s first line of ammunition is information, and he delivers a steady stream, dispelling myths from Indiana Jones and urban legends of snakes on the loose crawling into people’s beds.
Our only objective today is to get me comfortable.
The zoo tour begins with the incubators. One glimpse of baby snakes wiggling in their glass boxes sends me bolting down the hall. In front of the deadly red spitting cobra, I breathe more easily. It’s curled in its nest, still as a statue. Two minutes in, and Parker has already found the trigger: movement. As soon as he senses panic, he talks faster, spouting fascinating – and distracting – facts. Did I know snakes are deaf? That the larger ones can live to age 35? One bite from a venomous king cobra can take down an elephant. The Egyptian viper has a cold. He shows me how each one has a distinct temperament, reacts differently to the vibration of the key in the cage door.
We hit an impasse at the African rock python. He’s scaling the inside of his glass cage front, while across the narrow hall, a pair of dueling tropical rattlesnakes is in a creepy ritual of entwining and disengaging. Oh God. How did I get myself into this? It’s not as if snake issues are hampering my lifestyle. I feel like throwing up but take a deep breath and race through.
Darwin is next in line. He’s a Burmese python who weighs as much as my 19-year-old son and barely stirs, even as Parker climbs into his cage and hoists sections of his 4.5-metre body to get him moving. By now Parker has isolated my fear of certain types of movement. The quick, serpentine motion of smaller snakes are a much bigger trigger than slower heavy-bodied ones.
We start at the other end of the zoo, my least-threatening spot. At the Water Moccasin, Parker opens the cage from behind and touches the coiled reptile with a hooked snake stick. (All venomous snakes are accessed away from the corridor and handled with sticks.) The creature raises its front half and backs up. I concede he’s graceful. It’s easier to stomach when they move for a reason. The slender corn snakes are another story. They are popular pets but when Parker pulls one out I don’t stick around. It’s way too vivacious, twirling like a coral-colored ribbon over his shoulder, down his arm, and around his waist.
The nearby reticulated python is 5 1/2 meters long, weighs 200 pounds and is notoriously cranky. One bite can leave you with 100 stitches. Next week she’ll be fed a goat. But she doesn’t move a muscle, so I feel better already. Is this why they call it “irrational fear?” Parker emerges from the adjacent cage with 90 pounds of pearly black-and-grey Burmese python wrapped around his upper body. Three preschoolers race over, mothers in tow, and line up to touch. They stare at me expectantly. Peer pressure from 3-year-olds.
Parker hasn’t let anything bad happen to me yet. So when he puts the critter’s head out of sight and beckons, I sidle over, reach out one finger, then two. Wow. She feels cool and smooth, nothing like what I had imagined. Just like a purse. We head to Darwin’s cage, and I give him a pat too.
After a morning of snake immersion, I feel like a stiff drink and a nap. Parker has a different plan. He leaves me at the demo theatre and reappears with a chubby little ball python (a non-venomous constrictor) curled up on his hands. He passes me the tail. I shove it right back when it starts to wrap around my wrist. We go back and forth. He demonstrates how to position the snake, bending it gently. Slowly, he lets go. My fight-or-flight response is kicking in, and it’s not in favor of staying put. Then, for a few seconds, I’m holding a snake.
The queasiness subsides by bedtime. The jangled thoughts fill my conversations, my dreams.
Today the snake whisperer means business. After our tour, we start with Darwin’s glossy hind end. “Put your hands flat underneath and between mine,” Parker instructs. He drops the heft onto my palms until my shoulders ache. The snake lurches. “See! It feels like a wonderful massage,” Parker exclaims. Too late, I’m down the hall.
Back in the theatre, Parker emerges with a ball python bigger than last time. We sit and he starts passing him to me inch by inch. It’s a little too lively, but Parker notes that if I unclench my hands from the poor thing, it will settle down. Sure, but he also might slip to the ground. My palms, like the rest of me, are soaked.
I’m okay as long as the snake stays still and looks away. “Deep breaths,” warns Parker when it starts to move. I gulp like a marathon runner approaching the finish line. After 20 minutes, I’m holding him mostly by myself, with only brief interludes of panic. Slowly my shoulders descend from around my ears. Then a moment of calm. Something clicks and I realize this reptile is all instinct. He’s raising his head to investigate new smells, feeling for things to hold on to. He’s not scheming. He couldn’t care less about me. I might as well be a tree. It’s strangely comforting.
Two Star colleagues, on hand this day to record my adventure, step forward and put him around their necks. Peer pressure again. Like a prisoner whose resistance has finally broken, I compromise. I’ll do it if Parker promises not to let go.
“How do you feel?” he asks when it’s all over. “Pretty proud,” I say. I resist adding, “and very happy I can go home now.”