Original date of writing: May 13th, 2020
My heart broke a little this afternoon. While aimlessly scrolling through Facebook – which I know I shouldn’t do, but I’m so busy cleaning out my house that I needed a break – I came across a post with a photo of a beautiful, light pink corn snake (same species as the picture above), with its head cut off by a wooden plank. Killed by the man who found it in his bed in Amsterdam one morning last week. It was a news item, detailing the strange occurrence of two corn snakes found in people’s beds on two consecutive days.
My issue isn’t even that a docile, harmless, innocent animal was killed, I’m not the type of person to automatically mourn anything that dies. The reason my heart broke, is because can’t even begin to understand what kind of man the guy is. I’ve never met him, spoken to him, or even seen a photo of him, but I know one thing: his first instinct when finding an animal that he thinks might potentially be dangerous, is killing it without provocation. All I know is that he said he killed the snake because he didn’t know if it was venomous, and there were kids in his house. “Just to be sure.” He ended another living being’s life “just to be sure”.
Now, call me a weakling, but that statement made me angry, sad, desperate and even indignant all at once. For the record, I’m afraid of spiders. I have classic arachnophobia: an irrational, inexplicable and excessive fear for something that logically shouldn’t be that scary. I live in the Netherlands, where we have exactly zero species of spiders that are venomous or even dangerous to humans, and zero species that are able to significantly harm you.
But if I find a spider in my house, even if it’s a huge ass orb-weaver spider which freak me out the most, there’s not a hair on my head that would ever think of killing it. I’d rather pack some stuff and leave my house until I could get a hold of someone who can remove it for me. And if someone comes to my aid, I’d expressly instruct him or her to not kill the spider.
You know why? Just because I am afraid of it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the right to live anymore.
Even if it’s a potentially venomous spider – which we don’t have here in the Netherlands, but let’s assume – I would wait outside my house and make sure it would get out alive and either go back to nature if that’s where it belongs, or to a shelter if it’s someone’s lost pet or something.
I get that you want to keep yourself and your children and your pets if you have them safe. I get that, and there’s no problem in that, but there are ways to keep everyone safe without just killing the snake for good measure. You are not fucking entitled to decide over whether it lives or dies purely because it might be a dangerous animal (which, news flash, it’s not).
Now, I own a corn snake myself (an amelanistic (= without black) version of the one in the picture above), so I know full well how docile and completely non-harmless they are. A cat is by far a far more dangerous animal than a corn snake could ever be. A cat scratch is far more painful than a corn snake bite. Constrictor snakes of that size only have teeny-tiny teeth that aren’t meant to harm, just to hold on to their prey. Those teeny-tiny teeth are more comparable to tiny little barbs than to actual teeth. They can’t even eat anything larger than a very, very young baby rat, maybe. Their heads are about the width of a human thumb. Just for all of y’all out there who are afraid of snakes, nothing to fear here.
I know that I’m part of a minority group that has enough knowledge about snakes to know there’s nothing to fear. For ‘average’ people, and I use the word ‘average’ very loosely here, chances are they don’t know anything other than that snakes are aggressive murder machines with huge fangs that’ll strike at you just for the heck of it.
Snakes are generally portrayed as dangerous animals, and therefore also generally known as such. I can’t blame the guy for not knowing that venomous snakes usually don’t even want to spill their valuable venom – which costs a lot of energy to make – on something they can’t eat. I can’t blame the guy for not knowing that a constrictor snake of that size, that has basically no other weapon than a row of teeny-tiny teeth, generally knows that it’s gigantically outmatched by something as large as a human. They might be primitive, but they’re not stupid. Well, my snake is, but he’s special.
But snakes generally won’t attack unless you’re prey – which you can’t possibly be for anything that can’t even fit its jaws around your hand – or if you threaten it with no way out. But then still, I can’t blame the guy for not knowing that. That requires some knowledge of basic animal psychology and biology and ecology that – unfortunately – isn’t part of the standard school curriculum.
But what I do blame the guy for, is having the guts to just end a life for no real reason (because he could’ve just gotten himself and his kids out of the house until help came), and thereby sending the message that he is someone that views animal life as inferior to him, as something he has the right to decide over. He’s letting everyone – or at least me – know that he has no high regard for animal life. But would he have killed a rabid dog if it broke into his house? Or would he have just closed the door and waited for help outside?
That’s a question I want everyone to ask themselves. Would you kill a spider, but not a cat? Would you swat a mosquito, but not kill a horse if it ran at you? Would you mindlessly smash a newspaper against a crane fly (which can’t bite, by the way), just because it bothered you in your house? But would you also then kill a baby bird if it got lost and flew into your house and accidentally knocked over your favorite vase? Would you kill a harmless insect just because it’s yucky? Is being yucky to a few people really a reason to lose your life over?
The answers to those questions tell you a lot about the subconscious value you give to different life forms.
Before you go off on a rant against me, I’m not saying that killing insects, spiders and reptiles (or any other animals) is always inherently wrong. My message here is definitely not that all life is holy and should forever be preserved. Those who’ve known me a bit longer will know that. I have absolutely no qualms killing silverfish if I see them, but that is because I know they are harmful to my stuff. But before I kill an insect that I know is harmful, I’ve gone through a couple of considerations.
Firstly, the knowledge that I have to get them out as soon as I can before they breed too much and become a plague and ruin my beloved books or whatever.
Secondly, they are fast, and they are flat, meaning that if I try the old cup-and-paper trick to get them off the wall and throw them outside, chances are they’re either gone before I’ve collected the cup and paper, or I slice off the legs in the process of getting the paper under them.
Thirdly, I’m no expert on silverfish ecology, but since they mostly live inside houses, I have reason to believe they won’t do so well outside considering the temperatures. So even if I do manage to catch it, chances are I’m condemning it to a slow and possibly painful death in the cold outside.
And that’s where the impasse lies: it’s an immutable fact that I need to get the silverfish out of my house, as soon as possible before they breed, become a plague, and ruin my stuff. Chances of catching it without harming it are small, and even if I manage to catch it in one piece, there’s no place to put it. I can’t throw them through my neighbor’s window or out in the hall to bother other people and possibly become a plague there, and leaving it outside might cause suffering and a not-so-nice death.
Considering all those options, a swift, painless death is probably the best solution. So I make sure to strike it quick and hard to eliminate the chances of it dying slowly.
I don’t know if silverfish are even able to feel pain. Current studies, I believe, say that they can’t, but I’m not so keen on risking inflicting pain on another living being just because our human-centric methods haven’t found an indication of a pain sensation as we humans know it, in animals that are so decidedly not human-like. I know that animals dying in the jaws of their predators don’t die a peaceful, pain-free death, but that doesn’t mean I should act the same. I can be better than that. We can be better than that. We, unlike so many other animals, have the cognitive capacity to actively choose not to inflict pain on another living being. So if I’m not sure if something I do might hurt an animal, I’m not gonna risk it. I’m gonna give it the benefit of the doubt.
So why is the case of me killing the silverfish different than that of the man killing the snake? The difference lies in the fact that with the silverfish, it’s inevitable self-defense. I’ve been through all the options that would keep it alive and intact, and there are none. I can’t leave the silverfish there without choosing to give it the opportunity to cause harm to me.
In the snake’s case, it absolutely wasn’t self-defense. The animal control services were already on their way, they could catch and remove the snake, and the man could’ve kept himself and his children somewhere else for that short while. Leaving the snake there wouldn’t have caused him any further harm at all, even if it had been a venomous snake. And as a result, it didn’t deserve to die.
I hope for that snake that its death was quick and painless, but most of all I hope that people reading this will question why they have so little regard for another life just because it’s an insect or spider or reptile, or even any other animal on this planet. I really don’t mind killing another animal if there’s no other choice, but only if there’s no other choice. Well, I feel sad for it, I really do (even if it’s a silverfish), but I know it has to be done.
There’s still a reason I feed my snake pre-killed and frozen mice instead of live ones: just so I know they’ve probably died a lot better than they would if they were fed to my snake alive, and also because in that case the blood is not on my hands. You might call that hypocritical, but that snake needs to eat, and this way I can minimize the harm done to his food.
As a final thought: you could wonder why I’m so adamant about changing the way we look at living creatures, and the reason is simple. Once we treat all living beings with respect, animal abuse and exploitation wouldn’t have been as big as they are now. Animal abuse and exploitation, like the horrors of the bio-industry, or the fur industry, or even professional breeders and the many, many genetic defects among purebred pets, are all based on one thing: a lack of respect for another living being. So it’s our responsibility to set a better example and stop feeling entitled to decide over another living being’s life when it’s not a matter of self-defense.
And that starts with the little creatures. That starts with the insects and the spiders and the reptiles. Because if you can’t cough up any respect for those, it’s a slippery slope. Where do you draw the line? Where on the spectrum of animals do the limits of your respect lie? What are your criteria for that line? How human-centric are those criteria? If you don’t have defensible answers to those questions, you shouldn’t be drawing any lines at all and just treat every living creature with respect. Just because we don’t expect insects etc. to feel pain doesn’t mean we can just go nuts on them and tear out a fly’s wings or burn ants with a magnifying glass. That also means we can’t kill a snake ‘just because’ while there are plenty of options to resolve the situation without killing it.
I get that if you already don’t respect animals as other living beings, it won’t matter to you if animals are abused and exploited. But humanity has so long striven to be better than nature, and if we try to achieve that by subjugating and exploiting animals, and claiming superiority and claiming our right to exert our power over nature, on the scale that we are doing today, we’re even worse.
Nature doesn’t kill unnecessarily, nature only kills to survive. If any animal kills another animal not for food but out of self-defense, it’s because they saw no other way out. Of there’s any collateral damage or overkill, there was no other way. That man definitely had another way out, and the cognitive capacity to realize that. If we want to be better than nature, I suggest that ending the amounts of needless death and changing the way we perceive other living beings is a good place to start.