Friday, June 29, 2012

Thank you, Steve Irwin

Driving home from Mount Diablo in the early evening, I saw a pickup truck stopped in the road, with a large rattlesnake crossing in front of it. The driver and his young son had gotten out to take a look, and I pulled over to join them. Forgive me for stereotyping, but based on his appearance – early thirties, muscular, driving a big shiny pickup – he seemed like a guy who, just a few years ago, I would have expected to run over any snake that happened to get in his way, stopping only to cut off its rattle as a souvenir. His actions, though, were just the opposite. His only weapon was a point-and-shoot digital camera, and he kept a safe, but not fearful, distance from the snake. Instead of giving his son the usual warning, "watch out, that thing can kill you," he said things like, "when she raises her head up and buzzes her tail, that means she's scared, so we have to move back." He consistently referred to the snake as "she," though he freely admitted, when his son asked, that he didn't know whether it was male or female.

After we had both gotten the photos we wanted, and the snake had moved on to take shelter under a tree, we said goodbye and went on our way. I thought about how respectful he had been, and how he was teaching his son to respect the snake as well, to admire it for what it is. I realized this wasn't the first time I had been surprised by someone's reaction to a snake, and wondered if our culture's attitude toward reptiles was really changing.

And then I remembered: Steve Irwin called every snake "she." He also took a lot of criticism from scientists for his unorthodox approach and showmanship, but the flamboyant Australian TV star found a way to teach millions of ordinary Americans that the appropriate response to a snake is not "Let's kill it," but "She's a beauty!"

I only saw Irwin's show a couple times, but I think I'm starting to miss him. Crikey!

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