There's nothing new under the sun. Some animals suffer human hate and resentment unfairly. They are condemned by mere prejudices, biases of all kinds and unreasonable traditions. These species that have the bad luck of coinciding with human beings, are ignorant of these meetings being fatal for them, and used to finish with the cold-blooded killing of the animal, without a reason: toads, frogs, lizards, spiders, snakes, insects, wild beast (the list is unfortunately quite long). Some evolution psychologists claim that this peculiar hatred is embedded in our most deep genetic structure, inherited by a long history of bad encounters, where human beings have had to fight against an extremely hostile environment for their own survival. But our genes don’t explain a hundred percent our behavior, no matter what psychologies may say about the question. In other words, our behavior is dictated not only by genes, but by our education and our own cultural roots.
In our closest environment, this happen with water snakes. A diabolical symbol from the very beginning of our culture heritage, we don’t seem to care too much about the fact that these poor animals are completely harmless for us. Even my grandmother used to tell me, in my childhood, that water snakes smell pregnant women’s milk, and slither up the beds during the night, and suck the liquid from the women’s breast while they are soundly asleep. These tales were not unusual in the North. Maybe the great disgrace for the Natrix maura or viperian water snakes, is their slight similarity to vipers, used as a defense mechanism to scare predators. And what is a cunning strategy for the survival in a pond or a river, became a terrible handicap when the little snake face human beings.
Unfortunately, old tales are still alive, at least in a way. Three days ago we had the great pleasure of beholding a couple of little water snakes swimming across the channel in the Parque del Príncipe, haunting frogs and little fish. Like many other occasions, it was fascinating to observe how the fast swimming of the snakes alerted all the closest frogs and start to flee at the sight of the predator. Frogs jumped out the water: they instinctively know that a persecution in the water means certain death for the amphibian and easy food for the snake.
Two days later we found one of the snakes in the same place. But this time, the reptile was floating in the water surface, showing its yellowish belly, swollen and undoubtedly dead. We decided to take it out of the water, and examine the possible reason of its death. There was no doubt. The unlucky snake was crushed in the inferior part of its head, possibly by a wood stick or something similar. Therefore, it wasn’t death by natural reasons. Someone killed it, out for fear, disgust, or simply fun. The snake died because of human ignorance or cruelty. I tend to think that this kind of fatal accidents is almost unavoidable, but why instead of nasty feelings, don’t we start educating our tastes and preferences, and show some kind of awe and mercy or even fascination for these particular animals? Instead of reacting in a violent way, let’s express other more pacific sentiments forwards these animals that, no need to be said, play an important role in the environment, eating lot of bugs and insects that we consider a plague.
I can’t help but provide an explanation that would avoid us to mistake a viper from a water snake. On the right, we have a water snake’s head, rounded, with a round pupil (like most of frogs), and flattened nasal orifices. Furthermore, water snakes tend to show big skin layers in the very end of the mouth and sometimes on its neck. Instead of this, vipers heads are triangular, their pupils are sticky (like toads), and their nasal orifices tend to be pointed. Seen as a whole, water snakes´ bodies are quite thin, with a long whipped tail. vipers, on the contrary, tend to be fattish, sluggish, and with a short tail. Some people might reply with the old argument: “I have no time to check if it’s a viper or a harmless snake, therefore I kill them, just in case”. This eternal lullaby has been heard for a long time, and it’s worthy to recognize that viperian snakes look like a viper as a way of defence from predators. But if you find a supposed viper inside the water, or still better, swimming in the very deep of the pond (as viperian do), take for granted that it won’t be a viper. Moreover, if we still listen the “just in case”, you must bear in mind that a Spanish snake will never attack if it doesn´t feel threatened first. So let’s forget this preventive war that we are always ready to declare when we meet a beautiful ophidian like the water snake.