Too often, we see photos of snakes that have been decapitated on our Facebook, Twitter, or other social media accounts. Even at outreach events, we have people come up to proudly show us a photo of a snake they have killed and ask for an identification, which likely is to reinforce their resolve that the snake was "the bad kind". While many may not understand how showing us a photo of a snake they killed may impact reptile enthusiasts, it is our responsibility to calmly educate them. Because killing snakes is a passionate issue for many of us, social media posts too often elicit overly passionate responses from snake advocates.
The general opinion on killing snakes is often a complex issue that is deep rooted in self preservation, protection of peoples' families, their pets, their community, or any combination thereof. We as conservationists and advocates for snakes often feel the need to correct people for their actions, but we often go overboard on how we respond. Building trust with the public, especially when dealing with people who have built their opinions based on being surrounded by like minded people or grown up with generations of hatred for snakes, can be difficult. However, when we begin a social media campaign to "make them famous", it often has the reverse consequence of what we want.
Our organization continually sees posts shared in reptile groups with a "Call to Action". Quickly, many reptile advocates immediately jump to conclusions without understanding all of the facts and begin to persecute the perpetrator in the court of public opinion. This often involves a mass exodus of people calling the state fish and wildlife agency of the accused party and attempting to get them fined, arrested, or otherwise punished for their actions. To the extreme, some will make statements such as "How would you like it if I took a shovel to your head?" or "I hope you get bit by a rattlesnake".
So, at the end of the day, what has been accomplished? Someone was harassed and publicly humiliated by the reptile community, they may or may not have received a ticket from their state fish and wildlife agency (more than likely they did not), and the snake is still dead. Has this person learned a "lesson" after running the gauntlet through the reptile community? Highly unlikely; rather, they will continue to kill snakes and just refrain from posting them on social media or set their privacy settings so that you and your friends can't see it anymore.
So how do we change people's minds? Should we try to punish them?
Our staff is frequently asked how we deal with situations involving the killing of snakes. We are often on the front lines of where we are assaulted with countless images of dead rattlesnakes and deal with the public in areas where the popular opinion is "the only good snake is a dead snake". So how do we deal with this onslaught of imagery and negativity? With calm, collected, and carefully thought out arguments that appeal to people's humanity.
Recently, at the Claxton Rattlesnake Festival, we had an individual come up to one of our staff and he told him they kill every snake they see. After a few minutes of speaking to this individual, he gave a $20 donation to our organization and vowed never to kill a snake again - wait, what? The best way to communicate with someone with a culture ingrained in killing snakes is to try to be in their shoes and understand their predicament! Why does he/she kill all of these snakes? It is often a feeling of responsibility for the greater community - what if the snake he just let go bites a little girl next year?
We spent a few minutes talking to the gentleman who kills every snake he sees about how snake venom has been used in medical research and specifically how it is being used in breast cancer research. Come to find out, the man's wife had died a few weeks earlier from breast cancer and he had no idea that snakes could be the key to changing the way we treat modern diseases. Those few minutes of education, versus public persecution, may have saved dozens of snakes over the lifetime of this man. Yet, had he been thrown through the gauntlet of social media, he likely would have just strengthened his resolve.
The most frequent argument that people who kill snakes tell us is "I have kids, pets, etc, and I can't have dangerous animals in my back yard". Yet, the dog they have in their backyard with their children is much more likely to injure or kill their young child. We know that, but do they? Don't immediately jump to quoting statistics about how much more likely their dog is to injure the kids, because likely it will fall on deaf ears. Comparing "Shaggy" to the rattlesnake in their backyard is not likely to be a valid comparison in their mind and you will lose your credibility. Instead, educate people about the importance of these species in our ecosystems, their medical applications, and their contribution to the history of our country. Provide alternatives for relocation, whether that be providing your own services or directing them to someone who can.
Rattlesnakes are important and we want to transform the way people think them, but we need to change the way we think about people. You may not change every person's mind that you talk to, but you greatly increase the likelihood of success by following the above mentioned tips. Look out for a new article in the coming weeks about other tips and tricks for educating people and helping them understand why rattlesnakes are relevant!