Fear and loving: The two-edged charm of the snake

The accidental death of a cobra-lover has highlighted the strange passion some feel for serpents. Michael Bywater tries to explain

They're lithe. They're sinuous, graceful and elegant. Beautifully-ornamented, they shimmer in the sunlight. They have elegant cheekbones and a steady, challenging gaze.

They are silent and indolent, until roused, when they flow like volitional quicksilver. They can swallow things bigger than their head.

If they were courtesans or burlesque artistes, they would be rich and notorious; the Church would condemn them and the rest of us would secretly yearn to possess them.

But they're not.

They're snakes.

The Church, it's true, condemns them, too, putting them at the heart of all our earthly troubles, but the rest of us loathe them, and recoil at the sight of them.

The fear of snakes is said to be on a par with those other leading phobias, the terror of speaking in public, or flying. The ultimate Room 101 would surely have to be giving a presentation, without notes, to an audience of snakes – on a plane.

Their bad press goes back at least 4,000 years, to the Epic of Gilgamesh – long before Genesis – in which a snake steals the herb of immortality as King Gilgamesh swims. It's been downhill ever since.

Snakes remain a shorthand for horror and malignity. Think of Indiana Jones in the snake pit, or the factory-chimney-sized anaconda in the imaginatively named Anaconda. Think of Snakes on a Plane (what is it about snake movies that cripples the imagination of the people who think up the titles?).

Sometimes the phobia goes to the very limits of creative horror. I was once summoned across London at four in the morning to assist a friend who couldn't go to bed. A visitor had left, on her bed, a copy of the National Geographic magazine which she knew contained, somewhere, a picture of a snake; she was unable to enter the bedroom until I had come and removed it from her flat. That's how bad snake-horror can be.

Count me out.

I love snakes. I admire their ancient silence, the flicker of their tongues as they taste the air, the sheen on a rainbow boa, dull dun indoors but, in the sunlight, iridescent, like petrol on water. I love the shape of their heads and the precision of their movements.

On the web you can find a photograph of the king cobra breeder and conservationist Luke Yeomans of Nottinghamshire, holding an adult male. It's arched forward, stretching out from his hand like the arm of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It is an amazing animal.

Yeomans wanted to create a "living ark" for them, and spoke of his "lifetime love" and his concern that this "end-of-the-line, apex predator" could eventually disappear from the wild.

Yeomans had intended to open his snake sanctuary to the public today. But, on Wednesday, the apex predator lived up to his name, struck at him, and he died.

For a man who had devoted 30 years to these magnificent animals, it was a strangely glorious way to leave the planet, and indeed, in some Hindu snake cults, such a death would lead to his instant apotheosis under the protection of Sesha, the 1,000-headed snake-god.

My own favourite snake (we had to part company in the end; she became unwieldy) was a reticulated python called Betty. Betty was a constrictor, a relatively merciful snake which suffocates its prey (some species slowly swallow their luncheon alive), not just by the standards of snakes but by the standards of most predators. Dogs rip the guts out of their prey; cats play terrible, agony-prolonging games with theirs. Yet we welcome them into our homes and called them "Good boy!" and "Pretty puss!" and snuggle up to them in the evening as we watch Simon Cowell.

But if you've never snuggled up to 18 feet of python (not that big; they can grow to almost 30 feet long) you've never snuggled. And the knowledge that your snugglee could, without effort, eat Simon Cowell's head adds a strange feeling of peace to the proceedings.

But an affection for, and admiration of, snakes is a tricky thing to admit. It's a pit-bull sort of species in the popular imagination; a slavering, well-dodgy bastard biding its time.

People who keep snakes have tattoos, hang out on BDSM websites, live in Arizona trailer homes, ride motorcycles and hold up liquor stores. Or otherwise they live alone in an apartment in New York with 75 venomous snakes and eventually, when life gets too much for them (or, perhaps, not enough), they end it all, as Aleta Stacey is thought to have done last week by allowing a black mamba to bite her, and doing nothing to save themselves from death.

We mistake snakes for primitives, as though they are so steeped in ancient evil they haven't even evolved legs. But we're wrong; evolution has created the snake by taking away the legs of a proto-lizard, and their literally serpentine form is not crudity, but sophisticated adaptation.

Nor are they in any sense evil. They are simply snakes.

Giving out the speech day prizes at a well-known prep school last year, I was taken to see the snake club, which was (surprisingly, given the English tendency to give things misleading names) a club devoted to snakes.

The biology master handed me a strong, healthy serpent which immediately swarmed up my arm, around my neck, down my other arm, laid its head on my wrist, and began to lick the back of my hand. This, for a herpetophile, is as flattering as it gets.

He then – the biology master, not the snake – told me that the journalist James Delingpole had been to visit the school for his young son. Delingpole, he said, was another snake bloke, but he and my snake didn't hit it off. In fact, the snake bit Delingpole in the face and wouldn't let go until it felt the point had been made.

"What was interesting," said the snake master, "was that he sent his son here anyway. As if he thought, yup, they've got snakes who bite your face, that's the place for my boy."

We're not loonies, people like us. We're not polygamous beardies, exurban misfits, far-right Christian rattlesnakers, weirdos, psychos or the flagrantly mad. We simply look at a blood python or a green mamba, a rainbow boa or an Australian green tree snake, and we see something inherently beautiful, something so utterly different from us that it might be from a different world. But it's not. It's here, thanks to the insanely prolific diversity of nature, and we should be glad to share our world with them.

One has, of course, one's limits. In the Australian outback once, I had a king brown – known locally, with laconic pastoral accuracy as the "fierce snake" – in my hat. My hat.

I wish I could tell you how fast a startled fierce snake can shift, but I was too busy shifting myself in the opposite direction to notice.

Rock's Snake Charmer

Alice Cooper

I started to love snakes when I realised how much they would worry parents. My fans were used to Alice in make-up, then Alice with a guillotine and a gallows then – all of a sudden – oh no, he doesn't have a snake, does he...

It was about 1971 and, like most people, I would jump if I saw a snake. But before long boas and pythons became a big part of the show and I began to understand that they each have their own personalities.

I've been using them ever since and in 40 years I've never had a snake defecate on stage until one night in about 1995 at the House of Blues in LA. I brought the snake out and the audience were laughing and I didn't get why. Then I started to smell a horrible odour. This thing put down three or four piles that a great dane would be proud of. To top it all, the roadies were dressed as clowns. I had clowns on stage and defecating snakes. Johnny Rotten said it was the best show he'd ever seen – he thought we did it every night.

I used to keep the snake in the hotel bath in the night. One morning he was gone and popped up two weeks later in the bathroom of a country and western singer. I don't know if he was sitting on the toilet at the time but, however you look at it, that's gonna be a shock.

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