Adders and our Problem with ‘Speciesm’

Detracting away from the next Kenya entry for a moment, I just wanted to say a few words on an ugly issue I’ve noticed over the past week. The animal concerned is mainly the Northern Adder, Vipera berus; though it could really apply to any animal that is venomous/has less or more than four limbs/is not a mammal or bird etc., delete as applicable. This whole thing was brought to my attention on Tuesday from Habitat Aid’s blog entry on the public response to a Daily Mail article. Unusually for such a hate-filled paper, the article itself was not the problem, which was about the conservation issues currently surrounding our only venomous snake.

Many of the comments however were something else, and only proved that many of us are still incredibly self-centered in our views towards nature. The comments and their context was explored in greater detail in Habitat Aid’s blog I’ve linked above, but I felt inclined to write this after seeing the reaction from previously reasonably-respected columnist Alexander Chancellor in today’s Guardian. Only a couple of paragraphs you can read here at the bottom of the article; it was still enough to show he was no better than those Daily Mail readers. Commenting on the same issue of the adder’s plight in the UK, Chancellor opens this remark with:

“I’m all for preserving wildlife, but adders? Adders are not nice. They are small and mean and poisonous.”

This is typical of an uninformed view of someone who ‘selects’ which wildlife deserves to live from his own sugar-coated perspective of the natural world. This widely persistent view proves incredibly challenging to conservationists trying to gain public support for saving species that aren’t tigers, whales and the like. Taking his argument apart piece by piece: “they are small”: So what? Let’s just let everything that stands higher than our knees be the only thing allowed to live for own enjoyment then. If it wasn’t for ‘small’ animals, there would be no big ones, simple as that: “and mean” . Nope. Sounds like his research, if any, has been taken from folklore and his own anthropomorphic characteristics he’s put on something that looks ‘mean’. Adders are incredibly timid in reality, and will slither away in a flash of scales if they hear our feet galumphing past their basking spot like an earthquake. Never do they purposely seek us out to spear their fangs into our ankles. And anyway, there’s no such thing as a ‘mean’ animal (except for us, and perhaps chimps, though that is debatable). Every animal works on basic instinct to survive, and will not risk injury or waste energy  to attack something it doesn’t need to.

…”and poisonous”. Yes, although they are venomous, not ‘poisonous’. But once again, they only use their venom on us if they absolutely have to, such as stepping on them, which is understandable from the adder’s point of view. But even then, it’s easily treatable, and often only causes wasp-sting like symptoms. Whilst you should definitely seek medical attention if you’re bitten, the chances of dying are incredibly low: the last time that happened in the UK was a young girl in 1975.

I doubt Chancellor’s ever had a serious problem with an adder otherwise he’d have mentioned it, but he seems want them extinct. If he thinks a tiny, timid viper with comparatively mild venom is a terrifying hazard in the countryside, he should try being a poor sheep herder in rural Sub-Saharan Africa with no access to professional, medical care. Among the venomous snakes there are the aggressive black mamba and puff adder, both extremely dangerous and responsible for many casualties each year. If we had those in the UK, many ramblers out on country walks would be so filled with paranoia they probably wouldn’t leave their front doors in the first place, even though we have advanced medical care amongst other Western luxuries. The herder has barely anything, except for their indomitable resilience to just carry on with life.

Considering how low the UK rates on reptile biodiversity, we should be treasuring the adder, one of only 3 snake species we have here, and respecting of its place in the ecosystem. When I saw my first wild adder this summer on a Cornish cliff, to say I was ecstatic would be an understatement, and while I understand adders aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, we should never wish to persecute them because of our own prejudices. This old-fashioned view is still prevalent despite the adder’s protected status, with many illegal killings each year.

We need to make people aware that nature works oblivious to our own romanticized view of it. Yes, not everything is cute and cuddly, but venom is just another way of surviving to produce young, and then more young, and so on in the great ‘circle of life’ that has no literal ‘meaning’, yet is so beautiful in its own intrinsic sense that it just ‘is’. Adders are adders, not a nightmare. If Mr Chancellor really liked wildlife and wanted its preservation, he’d accept everything has its place including the adder which has as much right to an existence as any other living thing, including, dare I say it, Mr Chancellor himself.

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