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Lessons on Self Defense from Desert Wildlife

cobraI’m almost done reading “Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature” by William Jordan (I previously wrote about this fascinating book in “Finding Our Niche and Defending It“).

The book is as much about people as it is about animals….and as much about animals as it is about people…..which means it is holding my attention quite well overall (except for the part about cockroaches – my gag reflex required me to skip over that one).

But when I got to the chapter called “Distracting the Snake,” I took a long pause to contemplate. Reason being, this chapter introduces a very plausible biologically-based theory for why human beings hurt the ones we love the most with the greatest frequency and the most lethal intent.

This was a question I have very much wanted to know the answer to for a great many years. So I read each word very, very slowwwwwlllllyyyyy.

Apparently, in college author Jordan had a literal “snake charmer” for a roommate. This odd and interesting fellow could turn snakes into cool scaly puppies, lying across his arms and even allowing total strangers to pass them around in a circle like party favors.

After Jordan witnessed Farley (the roommate’s name) handling an eight-foot gopher snake in the middle of the steaming hot Mojave Desert, he just had to ask. “How do you do it? What’s the secret to handling snakes?” 

Farley replied, “Oh, it’s simple….It’s just like a relationship. The secret to handling snakes, or any wild animal for that matter, is to always keep it pointed at someone else. That way it takes you for granted and takes out its anger on the other guy. You’re like the ground, the dirt it stands on. The outside world is the threat.”

(Just for the record, I am totally prepared to take his word for it here.)

Jordan then queried, “What if there’s no one else around?”

Farley’s reply: “Then it’ll probably turn around and bite you.”

(You can probably see where Jordan is going with this.)

As the chapter concludes, Jordan makes the point that the daily life of Homo sapiens (aka us) was never meant to be this biologically easy. Like all other beings on this planet, we evolved because we got better at eating than being eaten. Which is to say, once upon a time we had many natural predators (as opposed to mostly just each other).

So today, our lives are artificially easy in all the fundamental evolution-based ways that might cause us to “strike” – just like the gopher snake initially struck at everyone except Farley, who knew how to communicate “I don’t want to eat you and these other folks don’t either” to a large and angry, instinct-driven, survival-minded reptile.

Interestingly, Jordan’s conclusions mirror certain points made by another writer/researcher I greatly admire and respect, Theodore George, MD, who wrote “Untangling the Mind: Why We Behave the Way We Do.” In a post about George’s work,”Yes, Your Survival Instinct is Stronger Than You Are,” I shared how none other than Charles Darwin himself went to the London Zoo and attempted to re-program his own biological survival instinct using his higher rational mental processes.

Darwin, too, used a snake – a puff adder (which, unlike the gopher snake, is both very fanged and also very poisonous). He provoked the snake into striking at him, mentally noting as he did so that the snake was behind thick, unbreakable exhibit glass and could not harm him. The results of his experiment were, well, striking. He found that he could no sooner control his urge to leap back when the adder struck as he could control his instinct to breathe in when he ran out of oxygen.

Moral of the story being, it appears that while we may not use our biological “strike response” to repel fanged predators anymore, that response clearly still exists and can easily be triggered in less, well, traditional ways.

To complicate matters, those who can trigger it most easily and most frequently tend to be those closest to us.

Our higher minds still process threats biologically as well as rationally. We have many weapons today – words as well as the more traditional sort – and we will use them instinctually under conditions that mimic survival threats.

This is why, when we love someone and they anger or hurt us, we must watch ourselves ohhhh s carefully and attempt – in little, mincing, conscious steps – to circumvent our “strike reflex” before it accomplishes the unthinkable – driving them away from us forever.

Today’s Takeaway: Can you see any parallels between the stories of the snake encounters and your own experiences with loved ones – especially those that now maybe you wish you had a “take back” for? I definitely can in my own life! How might developing a better understanding of the human “strike response” and survival instinct help to moderate future interpersonal tensions with treasured loved ones?

Cobra image available from Shutterstock.

Lessons on Self Defense from Desert Wildlife

Shannon Cutts

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2014). Lessons on Self Defense from Desert Wildlife. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 6 Feb 2014
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