A Rambling on the Culture of Snakes and Gators at the Intersection of an Educated, Urban Woman of a
Prompt 1: Butler says we are undone by others--which is to say we need them in order to be who we are. Haraway points to our companion relationship with animals. Choose one or more species of animal (pets, livestock, wild animals, etc.) and explain how we would not be humans or not be the culture we are without them.
I warn you: This is a long post with many footnotes.
Judith Butler says that in being undone by others (23) we need others in order to be who we are and that “The body has an invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint [culture], is formed within the crucible of social life…” (26). I live in central Florida, halfway between Tampa and Orlando. Our purpose here is to look at one aspect of the culture in this area and how we would not have the culture if not for certain animals as well as the effects these animals have on us and we have on them.
Many here have what is politely called country ways. But my town is a mix of educated and uneducated, housed and homeless1, urban and rural, hipster and retiree, native (my husband) and relocated (my parents), and many permutations beyond those dyads2. I have lived here since I was five (I’m forty-one now), and the culture I have come to call in part my own has an interesting, but I doubt unique, relationship with nature.
No one likes to have a rattlesnake asleep on the back of a child-sized antique rocking chair used as a footrest. Imagine my mother’s shock as she went to sit down and put her feet up! Thus, we live with a certain awareness, and sometimes fear, of the four venomous snakes here3. If there is a random tire lying around, don’t go near it unless prepared to deal with snakes using it for shelter. Small holes in a foundation for airflow or in the sliding glass door track? Be prepared for snakes to enter if they are cold and the house is warm. In the backyard? I once came across a snake hanging from the kumquat tree. It was dead, fortunately. My scream certainly may have killed it. Mom figured that a bird had killed it and left it partly eaten there. I never could again retrieve a ball from near that tree. Awareness of these bodies keeps me alive. If I can avoid the live snakes by walking loudly on hikes and by not going near piles of brush or trash, then I can avoid an encounter. The snakes will live, too.
It is now April, and an important time of year to note. It isn’t just that Florida summer is starting (the humidity is a real problem4). It’s alligator mating season. Males become aggressive, and once females lay eggs and have offspring, they too become aggressive. It is not a safe situation. In the last month, we have had a gator in a pool5, a gator on school grounds6, and a gator eating another gator7. This is in an urbanized and suburbanized town of almost 101,000 people, with even more in the greater urban area. (For comparison, a Google search indicates that Tampa has about 348,000 within the city limits, and Orlando has about 238,000 people. Disney is actually not in Orlando but closer to Kissimmee8 in a place called Lake Buena Vista.)
But there is a difference. The gators are relocated while the snakes are killed. Both pose safety issues for humans, but we recognize that we are in, as the WFLA video states, gator territory. We don’t acknowledge that we are also in venomous snake territory. As such, we inflict death on the snakes and call a trapper for the gators. Another difference is that, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, alligators were once on a predecessor to the endangered species list and still remain protected due to their “similarity of appearance” to crocodiles and caimans9. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission notes that most snakes, including the venomous ones, pose little danger to people unless they are actually molested and even in the wild will generally slither away if left alone10. The name of the game is awareness, space, and avoidance.
So what is the culture in central Florida? We certainly aren’t Swamp People11, but we do
kill snakes, partly as the FWC states, because we have an uncontrollable fear of them (The Fall in Genesis12), and we relocate and admire alligators. There’s even a theme park in Orlando for alligators13. Humans don’t touch snakes’ bodies here. If they are seen, they are generally destroyed. Alligators’ bodies, as a protected species, are admired for their strength, tenacity, and ability to get into unusual places14. One woman even claims that her pet alligator loves her15. There are those who have pet snakes, but this is the first I’ve seen someone having a pet alligator, probably because it is illegal. It’s also just plain weird even for Florida.
It isn’t easy to dissect any culture and to know its permutations even with a limited set of variables involving humans, snakes, and alligators. But one thing is for sure: Those who live here and play outside must be aware of the snakes and alligators in order to remain safe. A failure to be aware of where and when snakes and gators are likely to be near could be disastrous16.
1 We have been told that we are the friendliest town for those who are homeless. I sometimes doubt that.
2 The US Census Bureau provides an interesting comparison of race, education, and income: <http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/00,1238250>. I consider myself relocated but basically a native. If I were to be president, my library would be located here, not in Iowa.
3 Central Florida Zoo (<http://www.centralfloridazoo.org/floridasvenomoussnakes>) lists four venomous species while the Florida Wildlife Commission (<http://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/snakes/>) names six. 4 Buzzfeed has a great video on living in Florida. I hate the beach, though. We use winter vacations to see snow and summer vacations to see the mountains <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6h9y8_QUQqI>.
5 Lakeland is not in Hillsborough County (Tampa); it’s in Polk County:
6 Yes, that’s the same gator trapper, and he apparently does his work barefoot: <http://www.fox13news.com/news/local-news/109531210-story>.
7 Circle B Bar is a former cattle ranch turned nature reserve. It is ten minutes from my house and shares a property line with the college I work for. It is also on Lake Hancock, known for having a lot of gators: <http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-polk/lakeland/photographers-captures-the-aggressive-side-of-nature-huge-gator-snacking-on-another>.
8 I’ll know you’re not from here if you can’t pronounce Kissimmee: /kĭ SIM mē/. Please don’t say /KISS ĭ mē/.
11 Some people may be (<http://www.history.com/shows/swamp-people>). I do have friends who caught their one gator for the year a couple years ago. They’re also highly trained physical therapists and not originally from Florida either.
12 I have hesitated until last week to incorporate my theological beliefs into my discussions, but I can no longer leave theology alone. It informs who I am. Christianity also informs those who live here. Unfortunately for me, in an <http://isidewith.com> survey, my political beliefs (liberal, respect for all persons and creatures, man is not the center) do not match with any place in the South; they fit New Hampshire / Vermont and Seattle / Portland / San Francisco. I am, apparently, a progressive Christian socialist living in the midst of a far right leaning, bible-thumping, Man-is-the-center, it’s-our-patriotic-duty, but-it’s-our-heritage community.
13 Yes, I’ve eaten gator tail, but don’t eat the gator that is served at the restaurant. It is the worst gator I’ve ever had, greasy and bland. My husband, a friend, and I joked that they must have used the old gators for the food: <http://www.gatorland.com>. The best gator tail is at Gator’s Dockside <http://gatorsdockside.com>.
14 One climbs a fence in Miami: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Qp_bUYPrTg>. But Steve Irwin’s “Crocodile Hunter” certainly put a human face on these reptiles: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Irwin>.
15 All I can think about is salmonella poisoning: <http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/florida-woman-fighting-trained-pet-alligator-article-1.2565083>
16 Mom sent my brother and me to our rooms and then got Dad. Dad managed to use a broom handle to get the rocking chair outside. He was going to split the rocking chair in half with his machete, but Mom wouldn’t let him. She didn’t care about the rattlesnake’s life. She wanted the antique child’s chair intact. Dad had to get the snake off the chair and then kill it. There was enough blood on the patio to know that something had had a violent death. Dad buried the snake, Mom cleaned the chair, and then we got dressed for and went to church. If Mom hadn’t spotted the rattler, she could have bitten, but it was even more dangerous for Dad to lure the snake off the chair and then kill it. I was glad I was huddled with my brother in my room.
On another Sunday, Mom got out of the car after church to put the garage door up. Dad opened his car door and started yelling for her to stop. There was a rattlesnake curled in the corner of the garage door and the house. Dad got the door up, got his machete, and killed the snake. My brother and I stayed in the car for that one but tried really hard not to look. This one was a much larger snake.
A couple years into our marriage, my husband got his backpack from next to the door. He went to reach into it, but I told him to stop. I insisted he stop and drop the bag. Inside was a snake. I know I screamed and then ran into the dining area and stood on the table. He was left to kill the snake, less than ten inches long, with a broom. It had to have been a slow death. After an Internet search I discovered that it was a small, endangered, nonvenomous constrictor that lives near building foundations to get warm. It was completely harmless. It was also not a Sunday.