by Whit Gibbons

May 10, 2009

"They don't kill snakes here anymore."

That was part of the evidence I presented to make a point during a recent discussion with an environmentalist colleague. We were talking about the most effective ways to encourage the general public to be more respectful toward wildlife and the environment. A difficult part of the process involves steering individuals away from mind-sets that are self-rewarding but detrimental to others. What is the best way to dissuade people from harboring attitudes and engaging in activities that are locally, regionally, or globally harmful to native wildlife and natural habitats?

My friend's position was that environmentalists must be aggressive. He felt we should be ever vigilant to point out when, where, and how anyone, especially a public official or corporation, is abusing our natural resources in a manner that endangers wildlife or their habitat. In essence, he felt that the way to get others to alter their environmentally harmful behavior is to confront and challenge them--to point out the error of their ways.

My premise was that teaching people about wildlife and natural habitats is the way to decrease prejudice, curb aversion to particular species, and change negative environmental attitudes to positive ones. When people come to know and understand an animal species, they are more likely to accept it as a valid stakeholder in the world's ecosystems. Anyone who learns to appreciate another species is more likely to take an interest in protecting the species' particular habitat and in understanding the environmental factors that affect that species' well-being.

My friend asserted that getting people to accept environmental responsibility and to have forbearance toward wildlife by getting them familiar with animals, plants, and natural habitats is a futile approach. "Familiarity breeds contempt," he said. But the well-known saying, which has its origins in the moral of Aesop's fable about a fox and a lion, has another interpretation. In the story the fox is dreadfully frightened by the lion the first time he sees it in the forest. On his second encounter with the king of the beasts the fox is less impressed. And by the third meeting he actually strikes up a conversation (as animals did back in Aesop's time) and dismisses the lion as no more noteworthy than any other animal.

I told my colleague that I prefer the translation of Aesop's fables from the Greek by George Fyler Townsend, who ends the tale of the fox and the lion with the moral "acquaintance softens prejudices," instead of the more familiar ending. Thus, familiarity breeds not contempt but tolerance and acceptance. In support of this, I described local outreach programs in my community that use native snakes and other reptiles to educate the public about the role these oft-maligned creatures play in the ecosystems they inhabit. People have a variety of attitudes toward the environment and the wildlife, especially snakes, in it. And those attitudes are often influenced by how familiar they are with a particular species or group of animals. Becoming more knowledgeable about wild creatures and unfamiliar habitats makes people more aware of and better connected to the natural world. By dispelling myths and correcting misunderstandings, the local outreach programs help people overcome their prejudices toward various elements of the natural world.

Teaching people that most snakes are harmless, that those that can be dangerous only bite as a last resort, and that we should be glad when snakes are around because as top carnivores they are sentinels of a healthy environment helps keep the environment healthy. Although it is true that a big rattlesnake or small coral snake has the potential to cause harm, such instances are rare.

I explained further that I think anyone interested in protecting snakes, birds, wetlands, or any other environmental commodity will have the greatest success by educating the public and familiarizing them with what such creatures and habitats have to offer. The strongest advocates for a cause, such as protecting wildlife and natural habitats, will be those who are most familiar with them. Such people accept ownership of their environment and its components, even snakes. I know, because we've been conducting such outreach programs in this area for years. And people don't kill snakes here anymore.

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