A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing


Early last Fall Mahmood, our termite “experimenter” [as my NYC reference group ironically referred to exterminators] came up to my husband, holding a medium-sized black snake which he had just killed in our yard, saying “I know I’m here to see to the insects; but in Morocco, where I come from, all snakes are bad.” [Ooh! Maybe he comes from Casablanca! How Poetic would that be?]

A few months later, over Thanksgiving, Chris encountered this spiffy-looking young specimen on our driveway, took its picture, and gently placed it back in the leafy undergrowth. Unlike Ireland [which is snake-free, t’anks to St. Padraig, so the legend goes], Maryland has its fair share of venomous serpents; and our visiting daughters were Not At All Happy with their father’s sudden display of ahimsa. After all, this is the guy who routinely [if inadvertently] trampled-while-pursuing the skittering chipmunks and similar fauna, with which our cats stocked our basement in Michigan, like a small wildlife preserve. So, why spare this snake?

He gave them two reasons. Because it was outside [not in our basement]; and because it “looked so little and harmless.” Thus, it did not provoke an aggressive response through intrusion or fear. This snake, it could be said, had Benign Semiotics…at least, to Chris.

Now, having grown up with Burrack, and Dusk and Owen, our girls knew that Benign Semiotics are in the eye [and species] of the beholder. All horses regard all snakes [even little ones] as alarming predators, and will often spook in a “highly inconvenient” way, if they are the first to spot one nearby, before the rider can redirect their attention. Indeed, many horses [including my uncle’s Arab gelding…hmm…a desert dweller, like Mahmood] tend to err on the side of caution, and spook histrionically at undulating garden hoses, lead-lines being gathered up, or even long cloth banners fluttering in the wind. If you are the rider, taken by surprise [and possibly thrown] by your horse’s sudden shying away from a snake-like “threat,” you are more likely to fear & loathe snakes [even little ones], through Classical Conditioning [or even One-Trial Learning]. This is how Malign Semiotics get started, nar’mean?

Chris e-mailed his snake picture to the University of Maryland Extension Program, and was informed that it was a juvenile Black Rat Snake, not venomous, and actually quite useful for natural rodent control around rural property. Mother Nature outfits the young ones in a camouflage motif, which gradually darkens to a solid black at maturity, like the one which Mahmood killed. [Yes, it might well have been “Bambi’s mother.”]

Next time you find yourself [or your horse] recoiling in alarm from a creature whose Semiotics are Malign, why not do a bit of psychological detective work? “Is the threat real, or is that outlandishly coiffed, dressed, bedizened, or named individual only the signifier of a potential threat?” To make this exercise a bit more real-world, imagine that you are standing in the security line @ BWI, behind Mahmood the Exterminator, who is trying to fly back to Morocco to see the folks from his “home place,” over Thanksgiving.

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Filed under ethology, limbic system, semiotics

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