Anthrozoology and Road Pizza
Lying on the highway ahead was a beautiful fox snake, maybe 4 feet long. It appeared to be warming in the morning sun. Because the middle of the road is just as dangerous for snakes as it is for politicians (these days), I often stop to move them out of harm’s way. But as I approached this one I noticed, due to severe head trauma, it was (to paraphrase the Munchkin Coroner)… not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Since the snake was on the painted line in the middle of the road, it appeared someone had deliberately veered over the center line just to kill it.
This is a needless tragedy. Fox snakes are valuable members of a group of modest sized constrictors called “rat snakes,” and are found in the northern half of Illinois. Their diet consists of small mammals and birds. Like other rat snakes, they are capable of climbing trees, but fox snakes are more at home on the ground. I’ve seen several at Banner Marsh where they may venture onto roadways to sun, and sometimes swim across water to avoid us humans. They are more strikingly colored than the common northern water snakes, also found at Banner. Their background color is yellowish tan, with large black blotches along the back. The head is copper colored. If you approach a fox snake its tail will often vibrate. It can almost sound like a rattler, if the tail comes in contact with something such as dry leaves. The fox snake may appear aggressive, but actually it’s quite harmless and shy.
Besides sunning snakes, there are certain species that frequently end up as victims of car tires… converted to road-pizza. One answer to the age old question, “why did the chicken cross the road,” is very telling: “to prove to the opossum that it could be done.” Playing ‘possum is a bad idea on a roadway, particularly when there’s a speeding vehicle approaching. This small slow marsupial is a good example of the types of animals that frequently become ‘highway hash.’ Road kills are often victimized due in part to their own behavior.
A couple other examples often featured on the main street menu: Skunks announce who they are with striking black and white markings, and expect everyone will heed this warning and get out of their way, but as the song says, “there’s a dead skunk in the middle of the road…” Raccoons are slow and deliberate and like to lumber about under cover of darkness… crunch. Deer mistakenly think they can run past those horseless carriages… ka-boom… there goes your fender, bumper, and headlight. Turkeys follow the leader and ignore approaching autos. Timid turtles like to cool it in their shell (often in traffic), trying to wait out danger in the roadway. That shell may prevent a peckish predator from partaking, but it is no match for a moving Mazda. Some animals, such as red fox, woodchucks, or bobcats are seldom seen flattened by cars. They are apparently more wary when approaching a roadway.
Although turtles and various mammals may be targeted, snakes seem to be the most common victims of intentional spur of the moment “car-nage.” This can likely be attributed to a fear factor. Psychologists don’t agree on why a fear of snakes seems to be our most pervasive animal phobia. Is it instinct or learned fear, or cultural aversion? Maybe there’s even a “weird factor.” Snakes, after all, are pretty unlike us mammals.
Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Hal Herzog examines the new science of “Anthrozoology,” the study of human/ animal interaction. This interaction reveals much about human attitudes and behaviors. Unfortunately, according to Herzog, “Our relationships with animals also fall into the category of things that everyday people care about but most psychologists don’t.” This will change as we begin to understand the profound ways we humans have impacted pets (some of which are working partners), and livestock. Everything from great Danes to dachshunds is descended from wolves. But exactly how have animals influenced our biological and cultural evolution? The Inuit have said that survival in harsh Arctic en virons depends on their dogs. This is arguably one example of a culture that’s evolved thanks to K-9s.
According to Wikipedia… “Anthrozoology is the study of human-animal interaction. It is a modern interdisciplinary and burgeoning field that overlaps with a number of other disciplines, including anthropology, ethology, medicine, psychology, veterinary medicine and zoology. A major focus of anthrozoologic research is the quantifying of the positive effects of human-animal relationships on either party and the study of the reality of their interactions.”
Our interactions with wildlife are revealing. Delving into this phenomenon of car/ critter interaction, Dr. Herzog quoted a Canadian study in which realistic fake turtles and snakes were placed on a rural highway. Researchers recorded the responses of motorists to the perceived wildlife. As you might expect, the snake was most commonly victimized.
They discovered that kindness to animals could fit a normal ‘bell curve’ distribution. 94 percent of drivers (middle of the curve) ignored the fake turtle and snake and drove on. The extremes on either end of the curve were of particular interest. Three percent pulled over attempting to help the animals off the road. The other three percent veered toward the fake animals attempting to kill them. Men were over three times as likely as women to intentionally hit the fake animals.
According to the Anthrozoology Institute: “The relationship between mankind and the natural world is a key issue for this century. As human activities come into more and more conflict with those of other species, anthrozoology will have an increasing role to play in determining and shaping human attitudes towards animals in general and domesticated species in particular.”
When Nixon made the national speed limit 55, it saved both fuel and lives. “As you travel the roadways of life, have fun, be kind, and share the road with others.” – Mary Goodner-