Fear of Reptiles -- Why?
Having been a child of the fifties, I must confess to a weakness that my generation faces that predates interest in drugs, cigarettes, sex, or the other pastimes that a more senior generation considers vices. I watch television. Not that I'm addicted any more--withdrawal was a painful process that followed the cancellation of the original Star Trek in 1969. But I have learned that the television can be more than the electronic opium of the masses, especially with PBS and Animal Planet productions. Nevertheless, I do still stray onto more mainline commercial programming and, far more rarely, forget to hit the "mute" button during said commercials.
One February I saw an advertisement for a movie about a giant crocodile terrorizing a country lake in what looked like northern California (pretty bad already, right?). The hype included a reviewer's comment that the movie, Lake Placid was to be "this year's Anaconda!" I could hardly imagine a more deprecating review, for Anaconda ranks right down there with Silent Killers and other exploitative movies that add to the bad reputation many people already have for reptiles. The presence of animal-right activist Betty White in Lake Placid may be a good move--she tells a sheriff that she hopes the crocodile "swallows your deputy whole"--or a terrible slam at people who care passionately about the other creatures on this planet. Either way, it will be a dicey call, and Lake Placid, as an almost assured low B-film, will dry up and go away.
Oblivion, after all, seems to have overtaken 1998’s Godzilla, an imbecilic story based on one of the most biology-ignorant scripts in movie history. Granted, lots of science fiction movies evade biology, but usually by sidestepping a basic idea or two—like the lead in King Kong—a giant gorilla in the eastern Indian Ocean, for example, but they then adhere to at least some accepted biology. King Kong, after all, was a testosterone-driven male ape displaying the symptoms of excessive cabin fever and lack of suitable company. But Godzilla! A Fijian iguana irradiated into giantism by French nuclear testing (wrong locality; “instant” evolution) turns out to be a pregnant male (not a parthenogenetic female) who lays a clutch of eggs that greatly exceeds his own mass (?!). Those are merely the most egregious features I recall about the movie, but trust me, there are many more (like why can’t the helicopters climb to escape Godzilla when their attacks fail?).
For some reason, the recent spate of atrocious reptile movies got me thinking about stories in which reptiles serve as heroes. My favorite has to do with Shakyamuni shortly after finding the path to enlightenment that made him "the" Buddha in the sixth century B.C. His path was based on meditation: one day he was meditating near a tree in an otherwise open grassland, and while he was in concentration, the shadow of the tree shifted. A cobra saw the sun burning the holy man and moved closer. The cobra rose up and expanded its hood, shading the human. When the Buddha finished his meditation, he saw the snake and thanked it for its kindness. Buddha then touched the snake's neck and blessed it--leaving his two fingerprints as a reminder to all that this snake had served a noble and selfless purpose. That is how Indian Buddhism accounts for the markings on the neck of the spectacled cobra.
As I searched my memory for other positive stories of reptiles, it occurred to me that they are more frequently connected with what are called shamanistic, native, or nature-based religions, while the three major monotheistic religions seem phobic about reptiles. Australia's aborigine culture believes all life springs from a benevolent rainbow serpent, whose minions still watch over and protect their fellow creatures. The ancient Indian Vedic traditions see snakes as guides to fertility, spiritual cleansing and renewal. Native Americans from several tribes venerate snakes as messengers of their gods. The Greeks and Roman revered snakes as symbols of health and rejuvenation, reflected even today in the caduceus as the symbol of medicine; the Python was the sacred snake that guarded the Oracle of Delphi. The even older Minoan culture recognized snakes as the companions of the goddess. But search though I might, I could find few "general purpose" nice reptiles in stories. No Huckleberry Gila, Winnie-The-Skink, or Homer Stimsons-Python.
Another very old Asian teaching tells us that "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Perhaps as our culture becomes more herpetologically savvy, the stories I seek will come forward. As the Director of the Virtual Museum of Natural History (curator.org), I’m in daily contact with people who spend their lives designing and debugging software, build hardware, or calculate how many circuits can fit on the head of a pin. They are frantically constructing the Internet society, not counting how many scales fit across the back of a boa constrictor. Yet the response to reptiles and amphibians has been overwhelmingly positive. Positive, that is, towards interlinking and managing knowledge about the entire “web of life” on earth, and positive about reptiles. One PC/monitor manufacturer, Sceptre Technologies, Inc., produces a “Dragon Eye” monitor, and uses a water monitor (the lizard) on the logo for their monitors (the electronic kind) in a very positive manner.
Perhaps the observation that we have become a "high-tech, low-touch" society is reflected in the increased interest by these people in animals, particularly those such as reptiles, amphibians and tropical fishes, with which they can share space in the home or office. Such creatures require less care (generally) and emotional input that dogs, cats or birds, so perhaps it is just a matter of time before a new lore of positive reptile tales emerges. Familiarity does not have to lead to contempt--in fact, I believe that familiarity far more frequently leads to acceptance and tolerance.
I am ready…
Dr. Robert Sprackland is the Director of the Virtual Museum of Natural History (curator.org), a non-profit on-line source of information about animal life on earth, and author of "Giant Lizards" second edition, recently published by TFH, Inc.