The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

May 6, 2013

Ryan Richardson: Collins' legacy helps cure fear of snakes

JOPLIN, Mo. — This will not be my average pet column.

I'm still Ryan Richardson, and I'm still looking out for our fellow four-legged friends. I still have the world's yappiest yet lovable dog, Cami. I also still secretly wish that, by chronicling my adventures in this column, someone at CBS would take notice and decide to turn our life into a sitcom about a crime-solving duo, because that seems to be the hot thing for the past decade.

Whatever. It's their call. I'll accept their decision and the inevitable test-audience feedback. But I digress.

I haven't been completely honest. In my first column, back on Jan. 14, I made the promise that I would be an advocate for animals of all kinds.

As I typed out those words, it didn't hit me that one day I would have to deal with an animal I didn't particularly care for.

That day came last Saturday when I was sent into the field to cover the Kansas Herpetological Society's survey of an area near Galena, Kan. Herpetology is the study of turtles, amphibians and reptiles.

Reptiles means snakes.

Great. To quote my childhood hero, Indiana Jones, "Why did it have to be snakes?"

According to Gallup Polls from the past decade, ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes, is the top-ranked phobia in America -- a whopping 56 percent of the population has it, putting it ahead of fears of public speaking and heights. Regardless of what kind of snake I see, I can only imagine it as a venomous cobra waiting to attack for the pleasure of ruining my day.

I had a biology class at Missouri Western State University that took place in a room with several snakes caged along the walls. It took two class periods to request a change of schedule to a different room.

I've chased a snake out of my yard with a lawn mower because in my mind, it was me or him. Irrational? Yes. Cruel? Absolutely. It wasn't my proudest moment.

I was not comfortable working Saturday morning as members of the society brought back their finds to the main road. They consulted their field guides as they looked over what they had found. There were kids passing snakes back and forth, swapping them like baseball cards, and they were excited.

The group's historian, Suzanne Collins, pointed out to me that they try to involve kids early to educate them on the importance of snakes. Her late husband, Joseph Collins, was a legend in the field and was the founder of the society.

He was an advocate for the proper care and recognition of Kansas wildlife, including snakes. He originally published a field guide for electrical workers after he discovered that they were killing off snakes that they found on the outside chance that they were poisonous.

There are 39 species of snakes found in Kansas, with only five of them being venomous. Ten are designated as threatened or endangered because of damage to their habitat.

Joseph spent most of his life helping Kansans embrace his passion, and seeing more than 100 members tromp through the woods on a cold, rainy day made me evaluate my stance and possibly irrational fear.

I went up to one of the kids holding a milk snake, and I asked him about it. He spouted off facts quicker than I could write them down. He pointed out that it was likely a male and that he had found it near a downed tree.

I asked him if the snake was poisonous, and he shot me a look that made me feel ignorant. He paused for a moment and looked up at me before asking if I wanted to hold it.

It was a dare, and I knew it. The kid could smell fear.

But I decided to let the snake slide around on my arm and into my hand. The tongue came out, and I jumped, but then I realized he was just feeling me out.

As I was holding the snake, Suzanne told me that Southeastern Kansas and the Ozarks are prime areas for those interested in herpetology because of the huge diversity. The snake was still crawling over my fingers and still tickling the tips.

I gave the snake back to the kid, and I started looking at the findings of others while listening to their stories. None of these people were afraid -- they were educated and knew what to do if they came across a snake that might have the potential to be venomous. They respected and encouraged snakes' roles in nature.

That's when it hit me, how silly I have been. How can I be an advocate of one set of animals while actively hating another?

My opinion changed this weekend for the better. While I won't be purchasing an aquarium to house a snake anytime soon, I think what the society does is a great thing. I get a small inkling of why Joseph Collins dedicated his life to reptiles and his advocacy toward education, not phobia. While I never had the chance to meet him, I found him through his legacy and the passion he passed on to another generation of enthusiasts.

Thank you, Joseph. I'll do my best to spread the word from here on out about our scaly friends.

Contact Ryan Richardson about this column or other topic suggestions at rrichardson@joplinglobe.com or 417-627-7363.

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