Reptiles and Humans
Reptiles and humans
From our earliest days on Earth, humans have interacted with nearly all species of reptiles. Some aspects are considered positive, but the relationship has had a largely detrimental impact on reptiles, frequently affecting survival. Today there is a perception that reptiles are an inexhaustible natural resource. When populations are reduced, however, it becomes readily apparent that reptiles have a significant role in the stability of nature's convoluted web of life. It is difficult to comprehend this topic fully without reference to the broader subject of conservation.
Reptiles as food
There is no doubt that many reptiles have the necessary skills and physical characteristics to protect themselves, but generally they are more sedentary and lethargic and less intelligent and aggressive than large birds and mammals. From prehistoric times these qualities have made them vulnerable to human predation. Reptiles remain important food items for isolated tribes in developing countries throughout the world. Human foragers fulfill their need for scarce animal protein with reptiles when the opportunity presents itself, and in certain situations they actively hunt some taxa. In the developed world, turtle, crocodilian, and rattlesnake meats have found their way into a variety of unusual recipes.
Reptile eggs, particularly those of chelonians (turtles and tortoises), provide excellent nourishment and are sought as delicacies nearly worldwide. Although conservation laws protect turtle eggs from harvesting, thousands, perhaps millions, of eggs are dug up and eaten or sold as food annually. When female turtles come onto land to dig nests, they are particularly vulnerable to human predation. Whether they are seaturtles the size of automobile tires or terrapins the size of frying pans, these creatures' graceful and wiry movements, which make them difficult to catch in water, are valueless when they are on the beach. Turtle hunters gather the smaller species and place them in sacks or pens. Seaturtles that have come onto beaches to lay eggs are flipped onto their backs and left to flounder helplessly, unable to right themselves. These massive animals are too big and bulky to be moved, so they are butchered on the beach. Eggs are scooped into buckets, the flesh is cut into chunks, and organs that are thought to have medicinal value are stored in suitable containers. Large sections of skin are cut out carefully, but smaller pieces, appendages, and any remaining entrails are dumped on the ground for scavengers. Shells are transported carefully to a safe place, where they are air-dried. Then they are cleaned of all remaining skin, polished, and sold as is. Alternatively, pieces may be carved into an array of collectible curio items. Damaged shells are pulverized and used in folk medicines.
Of the Asian countries, China is the biggest consumer of turtle meat; in fact, the Chinese eat more than all other countries combined. Until the 1990s the average Chinese citizen had scant access to this expensive delicacy. Industrialization and an upgrade in the nation's economic structure changed that; turtle meat now has become available to the masses. The Chinese view turtle meat in the same way as Western countries view beefsteak—a delectable, fairly common source of protein. In 1996, 7,716,000 lb (3,499,900 kg) of turtles (roughly three million animals) were imported and consumed in Hong Kong alone.
In the heyday of sailing ships, it was difficult to keep adequate amounts of food and water onboard during long voyages. Sailors learned that live giant tortoises stayed alive for weeks without the need for food or water and yet retained their weight. Thus, tortoises were viewed as an excellent source of fresh meat and could be butchered whenever they were needed as food. The decimation of Galápagos tortoises (Geochelone nigra), Aldabra tortoises (Geochelone gigantea), and several other large species throughout the world, brought many taxa to the brink of extinction.
In the United States common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), soft-shelled turtles (Apalone species), and red-eared sliders are farmed and ranched along with the more sought after but protected alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii). "Snapping turtle soup" is widely available in restaurants in the eastern and southern states.
Lizards and snakes
Eggs of the common iguana, Iguana iguana, are a delicacy in Latin America, where they can be bought hard-boiled in markets. The eggs of other lizard species are also available periodically in markets throughout the developing world. The eating of common iguanas and spiny-tailed iguanas (Ctenosaurasimilis) has been traced to prehistoric times, and these animals were common fare for the Mayans in the mid-1500s. They still can be found skinned and dressed in indoor markets or sold by children at bus stops and along roadways in villages throughout Mexico and Central America.
Iguanas, skinned and cleaned, are a main ingredient in many dishes, including casseroles and stews. They also may be baked or grilled. Pregnant females are gutted, leaving the eggs intact, and roasted as a delicacy. The Catholic Church does not consider reptile flesh to be meat, so during the 40 days of Lent, when eating meat is forbidden, Latin Americans often substitute lizards. In Nicaragua enormous numbers of common iguanas are slaughtered during Easter's Holy Week to prepare a traditional soup, indio viejo.
Adult iguanas are in such demand that they fetch as much as $10 per animal. The country has attempted to protect the lizard by listing it as Threatened and placing a ban on collecting and eating from December 1 to March 31, the peak of their reproductive cycle. The fine of 50 cordabas ($5.50) per animal is mostly a symbolic threat, and it is rarely enforced. Generally, when collectors are caught holding iguanas, the animals are confiscated and released into the wild.
Lizards are eaten nearly everywhere in developing nations. Generally, smaller lizards and snakes require too much effort to catch for the amount of meat they provide; large water monitor lizards, Varanus salvator, are the only species that are considered a primary food source, mainly on a few Malaysian islands. Goannas, Australian varieties of monitor lizards, are skinned, gutted, and broiled on a skewer by some aborigines. Several species are eaten throughout their extensive range in Africa, India, Asia, and Australia. The liver and eggs are particular delicacies.
Islamic law considers turtle, crocodilian, and snake meats haram (unclean) and forbids eating them. Lizards are labeled mushbooh (doubtful or suspect). African and some Arabian Muslims eat monitor lizards (Varanus griseus and V. niloticus) and dhabb lizards (Uromastyx species), which they call "fish of the desert."
Large snakes have substantial flesh, which is palatable when properly prepared and cooked. For a multiplicity of reasons based on fear, religion, and folklore, snakes are rarely eaten by all but the most protein-starved people. They have found a small niche among predominantly North American and European epicureans searching for unusual food items. All rattlesnake meat is from animals taken at rattlesnake roundups or caught by commercial collectors.
Crocodilian steaks from animals butchered in their second or third year of life are said to be exceptionally tender and succulent, making them a delicacy in posh restaurants throughout the civilized world. Saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are eaten in Australia, with a favored dish being crocodile vol-au-vont. Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) in southern Africa, saltwater crocodiles in Australia and Malaysia, and American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) in the United States are extensively and successfully farmed.
There are several large facilities that produce tons of meat, skins, and other products. These farms meet most commercial needs and have gone a long way toward making the capture of animals in the wild unnecessary.
Reptile farming and ranching
Certain crocodilians (e.g., the American alligator and saltwater crocodile) and turtles (e.g., the common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina; red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta; and Chinese softshell turtle, Pelodiscus sinensis) are farm-raised in immense numbers for food and ancillary products. Using crocodilian and turtle farming as a foundation, attempts have been made to breed other reptiles on a large scale in other parts of the world. Specialty breeders supply the needs of the pet trade for some (mostly expensive) animals, and there are carefully monitored endangered species breeding projects undertaken to assure the continuance of a species and possibly providing stock for reintroduction into depleted areas.
Iguana ranches have been established in Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize to provide a renewable natural food supply as well as skins, but the demand for the pet industry has made them more valuable as live exports. It is hoped that eventually the pet requirements will decrease and the original intent of these farms will be realized.
Establishing similar ranches and farms in developing countries throughout the world has been slow. However, by providing jobs and demonstrating the quantity of animals that can be produced with minimal time and work, local people quickly realize the advantages that captive breeding and animal farming have over taking animals from the wild. The amount of space needed is minimal, and because many of the locations are Neotropical or tropical, climates and temperatures provide optimal conditions for inexpensive high yield harvests of many desirable species. Combined, these factors make reptile farming an ideal cottage industry. With such farms, ecologically minded organizations and governmental factions could readily and inexpensively subsidize the reproduction of rare and endangered animals for possible reestablishment in places where collecting has decimated populations.
American alligators: A successful conservation effort
The accomplishment of commercially ranching American alligators, combined with controlled harvesting of animals from the wild, is a classic case of turning a near ecological disaster into a financially rewarding industry that satisfies the demands of the food, fashion, and folk medicine markets while protecting the survival of wild populations and sustaining an excellent natural balance. It could act as a template for all governments facing the unbridled exploitation of their reptile populations.
Habitat destruction, overharvesting, poaching, and wanton killing forced the U.S. government to take measures to protect the American alligator. In 1963 it became illegal to kill alligators in the state of Louisiana, and in 1967 the alligator received federal protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Preservation Act. This protection was strengthened in 1969 with the Endangered Species Conservation Act, which
made interstate shipment of illegally taken alligators or hides a federal offense, and again in 1973 with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, which officially listed the alligator as Endangered. As alligator populations recovered in Louisiana, wildlife officials there began promoting heavily controlled ranching and culling of wild animals in three parishes in 1972, an effort that has become a $54 million annual industry in the state. Landowners quickly realized that supporting legal operations was much more productive, so poachers were actively pursued and the illegal taking of animals has been eliminated. All animals are tagged, allowing the skins to be identified easily as being legally produced. The majority of skins are sent overseas, while the meat is shared between domestic and international markets. Skulls, teeth, toes, and small pieces of skin are sold as curios. Tours of the ranches and related swamp tours are estimated to bring more than $5 million into the state's economy.
Controlled ranching and propagation combined with judiciously monitored nationwide protection and reestablishment of populations in areas where they had been eliminated has enabled American alligators to rebound. In 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act, moved the American alligator from the Endangered list to the Threatened list. This kind of commitment and involvement on the part of federal and state authorities appears to be necessary to aid in the survival of many other reptiles. Although farming and captive colonies are major components of conservation, restraining habitat destruction and actively enforcing wildlife laws are primary steps to preventing the extinction of innumerable taxa.
The "rattlesnake roundup" stands in contrast to these efforts at conservation. Rattlesnake roundups are unique in the United States in that they are permitted to continue regardless of the serious impact they inflict on habitat and snake populations. Although they are widely publicized, rattlesnake roundups are held in very few states. They are run each spring by private organizations in small, otherwise insignificant towns as a way of making money. The most harmful ones are staged by private organizations in Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Kansas.
Huge numbers of snakes (as many as 5,000 by some estimates) are taken each year at roundups. Visitors leave these events with the impression that killing snakes is good and that doing so should be promoted, because it is a major means of protecting the public from harm from rattlesnakes. Under the guise of education, patently dangerous demonstrations of free handling and other perilous acts are presented. Reckless participants who are bitten in the "quick bagging" competition,
where snakes are grabbed freehand and stuffed into sacks, receive the coveted "White Fang" award and necessary medical attention. This so-called honor has been bestowed on as many as 30 contestants in a single year.
The snakes, nearly all eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) in Georgia and Alabama, western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox) in Texas, and prairie rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis) in Kansas, are mistreated from the moment of their capture. The unspoken rationale is that they will be killed anyway.
At the event, the snakes are weighed, pinned with a hook, stretched to be measured, milked of venom, and placed in a trash can. When the can is filled with snakes, it is taken to a pen, where the snakes are dumped out, piled on one another. They bite each other, and many catch or break their fangs in the wire mesh or strike the transparent plastic sides of the enclosure. A number of them die in the snake pit from this mistreatment. At a few Texas events the snake's future is ended onsite. For $5.00 an attendee can chop the head off a restrained live snake. Hundreds of others are beheaded, strung up, skinned while still writhing, gutted, filleted, and deep-fried. A few more dollars buys a meal of freshly fried rattlesnake, coleslaw, and cornbread. All the other snakes are sold to one of several specialty butchers (for as much as $12.00 a foot) who slaughter them, producing meat, skins, heads, and rattles. After tanning, the skins are turned into wallets, belts and buckles, boots, vests, skirts, bikinis, and an array of curios. Some snakes are freeze-dried in a defensive position with the mouth agape and fangs erect and sold for $100 or more in gift shops.
Frequently, rattlesnakes destined for these events are taken from dens and hibernacula during the winter. Once a den entrance is located, gasoline is poured through a long flexible tube and forced into the depths of the hibernaculum, creating lethal fumes that drive the snakes to the surface, where they are captured. The 80 or so forms of animal life that have been recorded to cohabit in these retreats likely also become disoriented and suffocate. No one knows how or even if the noxious fumes dissipate, but the niche remains uninhabitable during this time. Rattlesnake roundups are flagrant examples of reptile exploitation at its worst. If any other animals were the brunt of these unconscionable acts (e.g., rabbits, feral dogs or cats), the roundups would be banned without delay.
Shamans (medicine men or women) in developing countries claim uncountable natural sources for curing myriad maladies and diseases, from common colds to cancers. The efficacy of these "curatives" is suspect, but ethnobotanists and ethnobiologists—often at the behest of pharmaceutical companies—travel to the most remote parts of the world in an attempt to assess such sources as well as identify previously unknown natural chemical compounds. For the most part folk remedies are derived from plants. Nevertheless, animal organs, often from endangered taxa, also find their way into folk prescriptions.
Snakes as major ingredients
Practitioners of Asian medicine use reptiles, mainly snakes, extensively, because they supposedly have wide-ranging medicinal powers. Rare venomous snakes are constantly in demand, making folk medicine a lucrative market, worth many millions of dollars annually. The trend toward holistic remedies has brought worldwide acceptance of traditional oriental medicine. A three-volume pharmacopoeia, Chinese Materia Medica, has been the major source of such remedies for centuries. It is updated periodically, and the newest edition shows a trend toward conservation; ingredients from less endangered species are suggested as substitutes for those from seriously endangered animals and plants.
Rubbing snake skin on an affected area is said to treat superficial but chronic problems, such as acne, psoriasis, boils, carbuncles, hemorrhoids, eye infections, and sore throats. A snake's agility and speed are thought to indicate that potions containing snake skin will act rapidly. Snake oil has been sold as a cure-all in Mexico and rural parts of the United States for more than a century. Romans used it as hair restorer, but the Chinese avoid it because it supposedly promotes impotence.
Some Asian cultures believe that eating snake meat improves eyesight. In some places the flesh of venomous species is eaten to treat paralysis, epilepsy, and hypertension. For nearly a thousand years Mexicans have used dried and pulverized rattlesnake for almost every ailment, including terminal diseases like AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) and cancer. According to Chinese practitioners, gallbladders have been known to have phenomenal medicinal properties as far back as 500 a.d. Crushed gallbladders and bile are taken as a tonic for rheumatism, high fever, whooping cough, infantile convulsions, hemorrhoids, bleeding gums, and skin disorders. Bile is eaten with rice or rice wine as a nourishing, energizing appetite stimulant. It tastes sweet, very much like anise or licorice. Five major Chinese suppliers claim to sell a combined 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) of snake gallbladders each year.
In some Asian cultures, particularly China, mixing two or more ingredients, especially those of venomous snakes, is said to make more powerful remedies. A mixture of skin and gallbladders is considered excellent for skin diseases, internal hemorrhaging, and acute pain. Citrus and gallbladder is combined to treat acute bronchitis. Gallbladders of three different snake taxa (Naja naja, Bungarus fasciatus, and Ptyas korros) combined with the herb Fritillaria thumbergii in a powder or liquid is an all-round remedy in Europe and North America. It is said to be particularly effective for burns. Dried snake and snake gallbladders are used to hasten surgical recovery and to alleviate hypertension. Because snakes move so freely and effortlessly, a salve containing snake extracts and organs is thought to work well to treat arthritis.
Worldwide, people go to extremes to attain virility and longevity. Of all the accepted potions used in Asian communities, drinking the blood drained from live venomous snakes ranks high, as does eating their gallbladders, either raw or cooked. Snake gallbladders serve a similar function in Latin America. Soaking rare venomous snakes in alcohol produces a concoction that is the specialty of hundreds of bars in Vietnam and China. The snake may be drowned in the alcohol or killed first, and it remains submerged for hours to weeks before the beverage is consumed as a sexual stimulant. Dropping a still beating snake heart into a glass of rice wine and drinking it makes yet another virility brew.
Lizards are a distant second
Throughout Latin America common iguanas are believed to have medicinal qualities. Eating iguanas is said to transfer their strength to the diner. A paste made by mashing them (pinol) is a remedy for many common illnesses. Spiny-tailed iguana flesh is regarded as a cure for a long list of maladies, including impotence. Practitioners of oriental medicine claim that eating live geckos cures tuberculosis and that dried gecko powder in warm rice wine treats ailments ranging from coughs to asthma. Dried monitor lizard gallbladders are believed to heal heart problems, liver failure, and impotence. In Africa the pulverized dried heads of North African monitors are used for numerous diseases, as are tonics derived from various other parts of lizards. Many tribes also claim that eating monitor lizard fat helps deteriorating eyesight, arthritis, rheumatism, hemorrhoids, and muscular pains.
Turtles are not left out
Although their meat is relished throughout Asia, pulverized turtle and tortoise shells are in great demand as folk
remedies, mostly in the form of drinkable concoctions. Tortoise shell is a general curative; it has been administered for back pain, coughing, dysentery, malaria, rickets, hemorrhaging, and problems associated with birthing and to increase virility and enrich the blood. Freshwater turtle shells treat lethargy, problems with menstruation and menopause, and prostate inflammation.
The properties of snake venom have given it a place in folk remedies as far back as the seventeenth century, but it has been used in serious medical research only since the latter part of the twentieth century. Of the wide array of components (more than 100), a few enzymes have been singled out by molecular biologists as potentially having a great effect on many serious diseases. Research is being carried out throughout the world.
This chapter is not the place to elaborate on the intricate nature of venoms, but a fundamental understanding can impart their importance. Venoms are divided into two basic categories.
Hemotoxins affect the blood, damaging muscle cells and preventing or, in some cases, causing blood clotting. If the venom is lethal, the victim dies from a painful heart attack by thrombosis. Neurotoxins affect the nervous system by stopping neurons from communicating with one another normally. In this case, death is by relatively painless respiratory paralysis. Snake venoms, which vary widely from species to species, usually attack several organs simultaneously, causing a cascade of complicated physiological responses. To complicate matters, there are snake venoms that are both hemotoxins and neurotoxins.
Ancrod, an enzyme derived from the Malaysian pitviper (Calloselasma rhodostoma), is being used successfully in some countries to dissolve fibrinogen, which forms blood clots, a major cause of strokes. Its applications are limited, since the remedy has some serious side effects. Cancer researchers are using a protein from a relative of the Malaysian pitviper, the southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), to prevent the metastasis and growth of cancerous tumors in lab animals. The substance does not kill cancer cells but prevents them from adhering to other healthy cells, essentially producing remission. In the coming years we can look forward to many significant medical applications of snake venoms and their derivatives: as anticoagulants, antiplatelets, and antitumor agents; in the treatment of hypertension and thermal stress; and as anesthetics and analgesics.
Since the Gilded Age (1890–1915), American alligator skin has been popular in the fashion industry for the strength and lustrous texture and finish of the tanned hide. The numbers of alligators taken from the wild skyrocketed over the years, requiring enactment of a law to protect this denizen of southern swamps in the United States. Farming and ranching brought their numbers back to a sustainable and viable level in the wild.
Other countries have similar projects, but crocodilians continue to be poached and harvested to the point of extirpation in many regions. France and Japan are the biggest importers of crocodilian skins. The plight of crocodilians and chelonians will continue until governments of developing countries accept that there is a serious problem and make a concerted effort to protect and maintain populations. Nonetheless, in many places animal numbers have fallen well below those needed to reestablish sustainable crocodilian populations.
Each year millions of snake and lizard skins are used for a plethora of fashion items. The beautiful skin patterns and textures of monitor lizards such as the water monitor (Varanus salvator), Bengal monitor (V. bengalensis), and two African species (V. albigularis and V. exanthematicus), make them very popular. Tanned snake skins are handsome, but they are not as strong or serviceable as those from monitor lizards, seaturtles, and crocodilians. The difficulty in identifying the taxon of the hide animal allows large numbers of endangered species to be shipped posing as legal animals. Even though hundreds of thousands of lizard and snake hides are exported from a host of countries each year, no farming or ranching is undertaken, which could ease the stress placed on wild populations.
Reptiles in the pet trade
Exotic reptiles have long had a special appeal for animal lovers, but only since the 1980s has an amazing diversity of species and a huge number of animals been imported to and exported from the United States by what is known as the "pet trade." At the turn of the twenty-first century, there appeared to be a downward trend in the numbers of reptiles imported to the United States and an increase in those being exported. Two factors are responsible for the increased number of exports: more reptiles are being collected from the wild, and more are being produced through farming, ranching, and captive breeding. This pet trade total is misleading, however, because a substantial number of adult chelonians sent abroad from the United States are used for food or folk medicines, not as pets. The following figures, reported by the Humane Society, are taken from data collected by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service:
There are literally millions of people keeping reptiles and amphibians as pets in the United States. Some may have one or two animals, but the majority of collectors have a dozen or more. Many commercial breeders retain colonies of hundreds of reptiles, and a few have thousands. An inordinate number of the nine million reptiles kept in the United States as pets do not survive more than two years, mainly because their needs are not properly met and they perish from untreated ailments and diseases.
The situation appears less dire in Europe and Japan. European and Japanese collectors pay higher prices for their animals and tend to have smaller collections than do Americans. To compensate for the limited variety of indigenous animals and the stringent laws protecting those they do have, nearly all pet reptiles and amphibians are imported. Also, pet keepers in these countries are vigilant in their husbandry techniques, taking great pride in the condition and longevity of their captives. Likely because of the expense of housing in Japan, captive breeding is minimal and few animals are shipped out of the country. That appears not to be the situation in parts of Europe, where captive breeding is popular, and certain particularly delicate species are actively bred and exported. However, the number of imports outnumbers those exported.
The exportation of reptiles is fraught with problems. Reptiles frequently spend weeks to months without food and water
in transit from the original captor (frequently a farmer in an isolated region) to the point of shipping. Many are smuggled from countries in which they are protected to those with more liberal laws. Commonly they are stored in crowded, unclean containers and pens that are breeding grounds for disease, while the shipper awaits additional animals to fill an order. There are innumerable reports of suffocated and crushed animals found on the bottom of overstuffed shipping crates and boxes. Malnutrition and dehydration exacerbate the plight of these animals.
Unusual uses for reptiles
In some parts of the world snakes and lizards are tolerated near homes because they control the populations of rats, mice, and other pests. Reptiles may proliferate in these conditions, sometimes reaching impressive densities. Larger lizards, mostly monitors, not only devour rodents but also feed on snakes and small animals that are destructive to crops. They also consume animal and vegetable refuse left in dumps, which helps cut down on vermin and flies and other insects attracted to such sites.
Walter Auffenberg discusses one of the more extraordinary intentional uses of monitor lizards: devouring human corpses. In Bali dead bodies are covered with wicker baskets to deter marauding monkeys and dogs, so that the lizards can feed uninterrupted. He also relates that on the Mergui Archipelago, corpses are placed on platforms in the forest as a feast for lizards. The Hindu ritual of rafting burning corpses down the Ganges River in India provides meals for gavials and Indian crocodiles.
Fear and prejudice
The acceptance of turtles, tortoises, and lizards is widespread, and crocodilians are tolerated from afar. Snakes are an entirely different matter. The mere sight of a snake can elicit repulsion and anxiety from many people, and even genuine terror and aggression. These violent reactions often arise from an aversion to scaly, cold creatures that are capable of biting and, in some cases, injecting their victims with a lethal dose
of venom. Thousands of snakes are killed annually for no reason other than their being in the proximity of humans; ironically, the encounter is typically in the snake's natural habitat. The evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson has suggested that a fear of snakes is in our genes and that cultural evolution can be linked genetically to biological evolution over time. There is some justification for this fear, as thousands of people are killed by venomous snakes annually. Many snakes are killed on sight. The weapon of choice may be as unsophisticated as a stick or as refined as a rifle.
Folklore, mythology, religion, and superstition
People's perception of reptiles has always bordered on fantasy, and most countries in the Old World and New World have stories about these creatures ensconced in their histories. One example is the enchanting myth of Saint Patrick leading all of Ireland's snakes to their demise, to protect the Irish people. (There are no snakes in Ireland.) Druids carried amulets, gloine nathair (serpent glass), representing adder eggs, to show respect for the wisdom and cunning of snakes as well as for their powers of regeneration through molting. Turtles taught the Druids to be methodical, unhurried, and in tune with changes in their environment. From lizards, which represented constant change, they also learned to be aware of what went on around them. A giant sea serpent is referenced in many countries, but it is best known as Scotland's Loch Ness monster. Norway, too, has its serpent monster, Nidhogger, representing volcanic upheavals and decay in the earth.
Reptile associations with dieties
Through equal parts fear, misunderstanding, awe, and respect, reptiles inevitably became an integral part of folklore and religion. They are found throughout Greek and Roman mythology, often in association with deities. Early Greeks and Romans thought that lizards retained divine wisdom and brought prosperity. Their ability to hibernate was seen as the embodiment of resurrection from the dead in early Rome. The Roman goddess Venus (Aphrodite to the Greeks) was said to have descended from the ocean, so the turtle was attributed to her and to fertility. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, carried a shield with the image of a snake, and the Temple of Apollo at Delphi originally was known as Pytho, from which comes our English word "python." The god of medicine was known as Aesculapius in Latin and Asclepius in Greek; his emblem, the caduceus, was two serpents entwined on a winged staff. The entwined snakes originated in Babylonia as representative of healing, wisdom, and fertility. Adding the staff and wings, the Greeks made it the symbol of peace, carried by Hermes, the winged messenger of the gods. The Romans bestowed a similar function on the caduceus for their counterpart to Hermes, the wing-footed god Mercury. In the sixteenth century it became associated with medicine and eventually took its place as the icon of the American Medical Association.
In Egypt, Renenutet (Re), the goddess of fertility and the protector of children, is depicted as a cobra-headed woman capable of destroying enemies by simply looking at them. Like many early peoples living within the range of crocodiles, Egyptians saw them as the epitome of evil, hypocrisy, and treachery. Sobek was a vicious, deceitful, treacherous, crocodile-headed Egyptian idol that was enshrined in the Great Temple of Sobek. Conversely, other Nile peoples viewed them as symbolizing the rising waters of the Nile and the representation of sunrise.
Reptiles also have been viewed as dieties in their own right. Both early peoples and indigenous peoples of today hold certain reptiles in reverence. The Aztecs and Toltecs saw snakes as the teachers of humankind. Pre-Columbian Mayans named the half-man, half-god incarnation of the serpent sun "Quetzalcoatl," meaning "plumed (feathered) serpent." This god is depicted in stylized art throughout Mexican and Central American ruins of the era. The pattern, shape, and rattle leave no doubt that this is the Neotropical rattlesnake Crotalus durissus. Elaborate rituals, including human sacrifice, were carried out to appease the god. Many peoples correlate turtles and tortoises with earth gods, holding the earth atop their shells. In Polynesia lizards are seen as the "god of heaven," and geckos are considered sacred, a manifestation of the mystical, powerful, and terrifying dragon-like monster mo'o. Their longevity and apparent intelligence have placed tortoises in an exalted place, as oracles, in Chinese folklore.
Snakes seem to have found the widest place in religion, mythology, and folklore through the ages. In Serpent Worship in Africa, Wilfred Hambly lists 16 biologically based reasons why snakes are so important in religions throughout the world. With minor modifications, most of his concepts can be applied to many larger reptiles. Their cryptic coloration, quiet and slow movements followed by rapid and vigorous movements, and appearance after a period of hibernation or estivation (sometimes in great numbers and frequently associated with rains) perpetuate the illusion that snakes can become visible and invisible at will. The large size and strength of some species are viewed with awe. Their ability to inject or spray venom is a unique method of killing or overpowering prey or enemies. Hissing and producing other sounds, along with body inflating or other changes or enlargements in the shape of body parts (e.g., cobra hooding) add to the fear factor. Bright coloration and strange patterns; ridges, spines, and other protuberances of the skin; and a bifurcated penis covered with spines add to their uniqueness. The shedding of their outer layer of skin represents rejuvenation, and the large numbers of young they bear are seen as a bountiful perpetuation of the species. The darting, forked tongue of snakes and their unchanging stare (derived from their lack of eyelids) are perceived as the ability to hypnotize.
The ancient Semites and Mesopotamians believed that snakes were immortal. The figures of cobras were affixed to the crowns of the pharaohs in Egypt. Sects and tribes in India and Africa have worshiped snakes as gods or their messengers since earliest times. In China, snakes, assuming the form of dragons, are seen as fierce protectors of the people. Snake temples can be found throughout Buddhist countries. Tibet, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have many shrines devoted to pit vipers. The snakes roam freely on the altars, where they are carefully fed and tended by priests. Hundreds of myths relating to the powers of snakes have been passed from the earliest generations. Snakes are revered to placate them, so that they will become guardians of the people and not harm them; they are worshiped to encourage a blessing of distinction, prosperity, and contentment. If disrespected, it is thought that they will become angered and place a curse on the offender, which may cause illness, death, or loss of possessions. Additionally, snakes are said to be spirits of the dead and are respected as such. They are given supernatural powers (animism) and, in many cases, humanistic traits.
Mexican anthropologists have suggested that the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, is the personification of Cihuacoatl, the Mayan snake goddess. Snake priestesses held a very important place in African snake worship in nearly every one of the nearly thousand known temples. They were considered to be wives of the python god and had sexual relations with the priests. Children born from these unions were considered offspring of the python god.
Snake worship is declining rapidly as remote parts of the world become "westernized," but Africa is apt to retain vestiges for quite some time. Reverence for African rock pythons (Python sebae) remains high throughout Africa. In Benin the python god, Danh-gbi, is seen as the great supporter of humankind, god of happiness and wisdom, and overseer of bountiful crops. Elaborate festivals are held, in which large pythons are carried throughout the village. Snake priestesses walk at the front, beating stray dogs, fowl, and pigs to death with clubs, lest they upset the python god. In earlier times, little girls, with the blessing of their parents, frequently were taken to be trained as wives of the python god. In many parts of Africa it is a crime for anyone to mistreat a python. A person that mistakenly or accidentally kills one may be burned to death. It is not uncommon for foreigners to be punished, by flogging or some other harsh physical punishment, for abusing a python. Animal dealers and collectors always have been very careful to avoid taking pythons from snake-worshiping areas.
Indian traditions and offshoots
Nowhere do snakes receive more elaborate adoration than in India. Indian mythology claims eight major snake gods: Shesha, Ananta, Visuki, Manasadevi, Astika, Kaliya, Padmaka, and Kulika. In different regions they may be called by different names, but their physical characteristics and virtues remain constant. Most are depicted with several heads, and each has a specific day dedicated to its worship. The great snake god Vishnu's couch is believed to be the thousand-headed cobra Shesh Nag, who protects him and symbolizes eternity.
Indian cobras (Naja naja) and king cobras (Ophiophagus hannah) are embedded deeply in India's traditions and venerated by Hindus, especially in the south. Cobra veneration is second only to that of the cow. Cobra symbols, idols, effigies, and temples representing Krishna, Shiva, Rama, and Janardhana, are widespread in the country. Most private homes have a snake idol, usually a cobra, carved into stone and carefully placed in the shade of a tree, where vegetation is permitted to grow freely. In India the cobra is known as Naga, a name derived from the Sanskrit for "serpent."
Naga Panchami is a special all-India festival devoted to worshiping snakes, particularly cobras. It dates back at least a thousand years, and the most elaborate celebrations are held in Baltis Shirale, where the snake goddess Amba Mata is said to have killed the devil. Because of her, snake festivals are seen as praising feminine power. Snakes are caught beginning three weeks earlier, at the Bendur festival that celebrates Amba Mata, and kept in earthen jars at the temple, where they are fed rodents and frogs until Naga Panchami. They are not defanged or mistreated in any way, as such mistreatment is considered sacrilegious.
On Naga Panchami, dancing villagers, accompanied by musicians, lead a procession carrying flowers, milk, and eggs, which are presented to the snakes at the temple. Milk offerings can be traced to the legend of the snake god Visuki, who used his massive tail to churn the oceans of milk in an attempt to raise the elixir of immortality from the submerged city of Atlantis. Unmarried women see the cobra as good luck in marriage, and some will chance kissing the aroused hooded snake on top of its head to solicit additional blessings. Reverence is so pervasive on Naga Panchami that vegetables are not cut, because it is believed that a cobra may have assumed a tiny form and lies hidden in them.
Many Hindu myths involve a semidivine race of snake people also known as Naga. The women, Nagin, are strikingly beautiful serpent princesses capable of changing into cobras or half-snakes, half-humans at will. In the states of Bengal, Orrisa, and Assam, the snake queen Mansadevi (Visuki's sister) is adored as protector of the people. Some snake charmers play lilting and melodious tunes to give her pleasure.
Naga worship started in India and followed trade routes into China and southeastern Asia, where it was accepted and absorbed into Hinduism and Buddhism. This brought the importance of the beautiful Nagin women into predominantly male-dominated beliefs of such countries as China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Java, and Japan. Frequently, they are seen as having human heads on snake bodies. In parts of China the sister of Emperor Fu Xi, Nu Wa, is said to have created humanity from mud found at the shore. Humans made by hand became aristocracy, whereas those formed from droplets flicked from her tail became peasants.
The best-known Nagin tale is the Legend of White Snake, which has been traced to the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D.). All versions are love stories, focusing on a beautiful seductress, a spirit with the form of a white snake. Her friend and handmaiden is a spirit that takes the form of a green snake. The tale, which has as many as 16 parts, has changed in plot through the centuries and as it passed from country to country.
The followers of a guru named Gorakhnath, said to have been entrusted by the snake god Shiva as the keeper of snakes, began the practice of handling cobras, or "snake charming." It is believed that after being fed cobra flesh and venom at a dinner, he and henceforth all of his disciples became immune to the venom. Because of this supposed immunity, his believers handle snakes that have not been altered in any way; they are fully capable of inflicting deadly bites. Disciples, who are considered holy men, settled in a village near Delhi called Morbandth.
For more than two centuries the majority of India's famed snake charmers learned their craft in Morbandth. Although there are thousands of these snake handlers on the streets of India who employ snakes in the context of their religious beliefs, many others perform in marketplaces as a method of making money by entertaining tourists. Most cobras, vipers (e.g., Russel's vipers, or Daboia (Vipera) russelii), and pythons (e.g., Indian and reticulated pythons, or Python molurus and P. reticulatus) used by bogus snake charmers have had their venom glands removed or their mouths sewn shut to prevent injury to the handler. Although they are in distress in this condition, they still respond to the snake handlers by spreading their hoods and following the swaying movements of the charmer's flute. Thousands of cobras die from mistreatment, starvation, or malnutrition at the hands of these bogus snake charmers each year. Those used by followers of Gorakhnath are set free after a few months or kept and cared for carefully, sometimes for many years.
Under pressure from India's Wildlife Protection Fund, the government is enforcing the 1972 law that makes it illegal to capture snakes. Sadly, most of the snake charmers, both real and fake, are uneducated and have no other method of making a living, so the ban exacerbates the extreme poverty in which the country's population lives.
Hopi snake dance
The most noted Native American snake/human interrelationship is the annual Hopi snake dance, which takes place in the fall. Snakes are used in the elaborate nine-day ceremonies as effigies, to promote spring rain that will ensure strong crops. The snakes are caught and placed in underground rooms known as kivas, where they are maintained in earthenware pots, prayed over, and then washed carefully. The event became such a popular attraction that photography was banned in 1915 as a way to maintain decorum and dignity; only Native Americans have been permitted to attend since the latter years of the twentieth century.
The most dramatic part of the ceremony comes at its culmination at sundown on the last day. It is a drama depicting an ancient Hopi myth in which the Corn Maiden confronts the Snake Youth. Masked, bare-chested, bedecked in blue, and elaborately painted in black and white, priests perform a circle dance with snakes, mostly rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis nuntius), dangling from their mouths, while younger members of the tribe accompany them. Whipsnakes (Masticophis species) and bullsnakes (Pituophis catenifer) also are used. After several minutes of dancing, ending in a prayer by the chief, the priests gather up the snakes, race into the desert, and release them as messengers to the gods.
The Bible contains many references to snakes, the most well known being the serpent tempting Adam and Eve to eat the apple (forbidden fruit) in Genesis 3:1–24. Out of this temptation, Jews and Christians have been taught that snakes represent evil. Nearly everywhere they are related to Satan, as is evidenced in God's curse of the snake: "Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust thou shalt eat all the days of thy life" (Genesis 3:14). In other Old Testament biblical passages, Moses changes rods to serpents (Exodus 7:8–12) and makes fiery serpents (Numbers 21:5–9), signifying God's power to transform an inanimate object into a terrifying one. Also, corrupt judges are likened to snake's venom (Psalms 58:4–5). In the stories of the New Testament, the apostles are called wise as serpents (Matthew 5–7 and 14–16), and Paul is bitten by a viper (Acts, 27:41–44, 28:1–6) but fails to show any signs of sickness.
One unusual Christian religious sect employs venomous snakes in their services. This group is located in very small, poor rural towns scattered in and around the southern Appalachian Mountains of the United States. Following fundamentalist beliefs, the worshipers maintain simple, puritanical lifestyles by strictly adhering to the words of the Bible. Their credo is based on Mark 16:17–18: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink of any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them."
Participants believe that their personal faith and Christian obedience anoint them with the power to overcome evil, symbolized by the ability to handle venomous snakes with near impunity. "Snake worship" is a misnomer for this practice; the potentially lethal rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths they handle are seen not as messengers of God but as the embodiment of Satan. The intensity of this sect's services, which includes praying, chanting, singing, and dancing along with handling snakes and talking in tongues, accompanied by music from electric guitars and keyboards, is quite literally overwhelming.
With its roots in West African beliefs that can be traced back six thousand years, Voudou (anglicized as "Voodoo") and related religions (e.g., Yoruba, Ubanda, Candomble, Quimbada, Lucumi, and Macumba) have strong followings in several parts of the New World, among them, Haiti and Cuba, with isolated groups throughout the West Indies and in some parts of South America and United States. As might be expected for worship so closely entwined with nature and associated with strange rituals, including sacrifice, snakes assume a prominent place. Snakes are seen as symbols of three main deities, called Loas, who parallel Christian saints and manifest themselves by taking over and possessing a human participant involved in a religious ceremony.
Aida-Wedo is the Loa of fertility and new life. She assumes the form of a rainbow snake and is extolled with the sacrifice of white chickens and white eggs. Damballah-Wed (Bon Dieu Loa in Haiti) is known as the Loa Father and represents the ancestral knowledge upon which Voodoo is based. He, too, symbolizes fertility and new life and is said to be a snake living in trees near springs. White chickens and eggs are sacrificed to him as well. Simbi is the Loa of freshwater and rain. He watches over the creation of charms. Symbolized by the water snake, he is one of Haitian Voodoo's three cosmic serpents. He is celebrated by sacrificing spotted roosters.
Some myths are better called superstitions. Some tribes along the Nile River believe that crocodile teeth worn on a cord around the neck protect a person from attack. In many African countries, if a crocodile is killed, its liver must be burned to protect the village from evil. If a python is killed in southern Africa, it must be burned, or, it is believed, it will seek revenge or cause an extended drought. In other African countries, where crocodiles are thought to be reincarnations of the dead, they are fed regularly, to ensure that they will protect the community.
Snakes took such an important place in Asian history that they were chosen as one of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac's 12-year cycle. In India a copper coin is placed in the mouth of a dead snake before it is buried carefully, to forestall evil events. Devout Australian Aborigines believe that killing a goanna will cause the sky to fall. True chameleons are viewed with trepidation in West Africa and believed to have exceptional mystical powers. It is thought that their unusual appearance, independently moveable eyes, and ability to change rapidly into vibrant or dull colors give them the power of deceiving humans. They are said not to eat but rather to take nourishment directly from the air, and they are considered to be directly associated with the sun, from which they can steal fire. Even in the modern world American cowboys think that sleeping encircled with a horsehair rope will keep snakes at bay.
Anonymous. Serpent Worship. Toronto: Tudor Press, 1980.
Auffenberg, Walter. The Behavioral Ecology of the Komodo Monitor. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1983.
Aymar, Brandt, ed. Treasury of Snake Lore. New York: Greenberg Publishers, 1956.
Bennett, Daniel. A Little Book of Monitor Lizards. Aberdeen, United Kingdom: Viper Press, 1995.
Bjorndal, Karen, ed. Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.
Burghardt, Gordon M., and A. Stanley Rand, eds. Iguanas of the World: Their Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Publications, 1982.
Burton, Thomas. Serpent-Handling Believers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Diaz-Bolio, Jose. The Geometry of the Maya and Their Rattlesnake Art. Merida, Mexico: Area Maya-Mayan Area, 1987.
Ernst, Carl H., and Roger W. Barbour. Turtles of the World. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
Fizgerald, Sarah. International Wildlife Trade: Whose Business Is It? Washington, DC: World Wildlife Fund, 1989.
Fosdick, Peggy, and Sam Fosdick. Last Chance Lost?: Can and Should Farming Save the Green Sea Turtle? The Story of Mariculture, Ltd., Cayman Turtle Farm. York, PA: Irvin S. Naylor, 1994.
Guggisberg, C. A. W. Crocodiles: Their Natural History, Folklore and Conservation. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1972.
Hambly, Wilfrid D. Serpent Worship in Africa. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1931.
Hoser, Raymond. Smuggled: The Underground Trade in Australia's Wildlife. Sydney, Australia: Apollo Books, 1993.
——. Smuggled-2: Wildlife Trafficking, Crime and Corruption in Australia. Victoria, Australia: Kotabi, 1996.
Levell, John. P. A Field Guide to Reptiles and the Law. 2nd revised edition. Lanesboro, MN: Serpent's Tale Books, 1997.
National Research Council, Committee on Sea Turtle Conservation. Decline of the Sea Turtles: Causes and Prevention. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1990.
Nissenson, Marilyn, and Susan Jonas. Snake Charm. New York: Harry Abrams Publishers, 1995.
Rubio, Manny. Rattlesnake: Portrait of a Predator. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.
Zhu, Y. P. Chinese Materia Medica: Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Applications. Australia: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998.
Anonymous. "Unto the Church of God." Foxfire (spring 1973): 1–96.
Auffenberg, Walter. "Notes on the Feeding Behaviour of Varanus bengalensis." Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 80 (2): 286–302.
Fewkes, J. W. "Tusayan Snake Ceremonies." Sixteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution (1894–1895): 273–312.
——. "Tusayan Flute and Snake Ceremonies: Part 2." Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution (1897–1898): 273–312.
Grove, Noel. "Wild Cargo: The Business of Smuggling Animals." National Geographic (March 1981): 287–314.
Speake, D. W., and R. H. Mount. "Some Possible Ecological Effects of 'Rattlesnake Roundups' in the Southeastern Coastal Plain." Proceedings of the Annual Conference of Southeastern Game and Fish Commissioners 27 (1973): 267–277.