At the zoo the other day, my kids and I were trying to find the king cobra in his enclosure. A woman passing by us snorted. “The only good snake is a dead snake,” she told her kids. At the insect exhibit, where we marveled over the big stickbugs, women drew back in horror (no, I don’t love the hissing cockroaches either, I get it, but seriously?!).
No one looked at the spiders. I knew, with a sinking feeling, that these people taught their children to treat so-called creepy-crawlies this way. Snake in the yard? Chop its head off with a shovel. Spider in the bathroom? Scream and squish. Any sort of bug in the house? Attack and eliminate with extreme prejudice. Because, y’know, creepy-crawlies are icky.
In the poem “Mercy: After Nikki Giovanni,” a woman asks poet Rudy Francisco to kill a spider. Instead, he gets “the most peaceful weapons” he can find, and releases the spider outside. He says, “If I am ever caught in the wrong place/ at the wrong time, just being alive… I hope I am greeted/ With the same kind/ Mercy.” My husband teaches high school, and he loves to break out this poem. It tells us that the way we treat small creepy-crawlies says a lot about the way we treat big creatures (humans), and how our prejudices influence our reactions to small things may tell us something about how our prejudices influence our reactions to larger ones.
I didn’t call you an asshole because you hate spiders. Calm down.
But I did say something about your willingness to learn about things unfamiliar to you. Things that might scare you which really won’t harm you at all. Things outside your zone of comfort, outside your culture. Many, many cultures have traditions that revere, venerate, and celebrate spiders (there are too many to name, from the Hopi to the West Indian, and you can Google them). Other cultures associate snakes with many different things, and they don’t just include handing Eve an apple: snakes symbolize healing, immortality, and a ton of other stuff (Google that too). These aren’t creepy-crawlies. These are venerated religious symbols worth reading and learning about. Your kids could do a lot worse than a research project about snake symbolism across the globe.
I get the root of it. Creepy-crawlies can be dangerous. Yes, some spiders are poisonous. Some snakes are poisonous. And we don’t want to die.
But here’s the deal. The ones that are poisonous? Very recognizable. I’m not saying you should let your kids handle serpents. We don’t allow our kids to pick up wild snakes, and our kids know the difference. You can learn the difference. You, personally, are not incompetent. You, personally, can learn to tell the difference between a harmless wolf spider and a black widow, between a copperhead and a garter snake (my seven-year-old can and does, and once saved my husband from a nasty bite when he spotted said copperhead a foot from his leg near a stream. He said, and I quote, “Daddy, there’s a copperhead next to your leg.”).
Why kill all the creepy-crawlies when only some can hurt you? Don’t be willfully ignorant. Don’t teach your children to be willfully ignorant. Instead, learn the difference. That 7-foot solid black snake in your tree looks scary as hell, but it’s a black rat snake, if you live on the Eastern Seaboard of the US, and it kills mice and rats. We have several in our yard. Don’t kill the poor thing. It’s keeping the mice from your kitchen.
Buy an identification guide. Learn this stuff as a family. Make an effort. And if you still don’t know, text a picture of those creepy-crawlies to a person who does (my husband often serves as that person, and only once in years of serving as an amateur snake identifier has he had to say, “I hope you didn’t pick that up, it’s a baby cottonmouth”). You can create a family project out of this kind of thing. You might have a backyard, your own patch of wilderness. Learn what lives there. Einstein used to spend hours watching ants as a child.
Creepy-crawlies can teach us all kinds of things: about colonial organisms, about eyesight, about pheromones … the list goes on and on. Your kids can catch bugs, identify them, and learn about them. My kids love to catch bugs. Life stops when they spot a click beetle or, wonder of wonders, a rare velvet ant, which is actually a type of wasp and not an ant at all.
Why slaughter all the spiders, who kill mosquitoes, and eat up to 880 million tons of insects each year? I bet bats freak you out, too. They also help kill mosquitoes and other flying insects. Pretty useful creepy-crawlies you don’t want to kill, along with those scary-ass looking crane flies. Even if you do happen to find a black widow with that tell-tale red hourglass on her butt, and yes, we found one when we moved our dryer, so we have them, it’s not hard to herd her onto a paper towel, stick a cup over her, flip: TADA! Spider in cup! Go release her in the woodpile far away to live her life in peace.
Find a snake? Tell your kids to stay back — we don’t let even our forest-competent children mess with snakes they don’t know, even non-venomous snakes bite. Identify it if you can. If you can’t, send a pic to someone who knows snakes. Poisonous? Call a snake removal company (yes, they exist) rather than going all Evil Dead with a shovel. Also, please remember: according to the University of Florida, only 5-6 people in the US die from snakebites a year (and some of them are hobbyists who keep exotic pets for which no antivenin is available). So far this year, one man was bitten and killed by a copperhead: the venom caused an anaphylactic reaction. In 2014, a boy died of a brown recluse spider bite (also in Alabama). Before that, the last known US death by spider happened in 2004.
You don’t really have that much to fear from these creepy-crawlies. Learn about them. Understand them. Don’t pass your unfounded fears onto your kids. Don’t let them grow up ignorant of the world around them. Instead, teach them. Let them learn about nature. Let them appreciate the snake for its beautiful predation, the spider for her webs. The ants for their colonial life cycle. Show them mercy. Let the creepy-crawlies live.
And at a minimum, just walk away.