Don’t Tread on Me!

The Gadsden Flag, an early American banner of the Revolutionary War, has been co-opted by the Tea Party and far-right factions. Forget that static and focus on a central question. Why does it feature a Timber Rattlesnake?


The answer comes from a piece written in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin for his Pennsylvania Gazette. Great Britain was dumping convicted criminals into the colonies, so Franklin satirically suggested that we show our appreciation by sending rattlesnakes to England. You can read the full text of his 18th century prose here, but consider these highlights about the magnificent Crotalus horridus.

  • Franklin praised her bright eyes, calling her an “emblem of vigilance.”
  • Though her fangs are formidable weapons, she “never wounds till she has generously given ample notice, even to her enemy.”
  • If she is engaged, however, she never surrenders, showing “true courage.”
  • He concludes by calling her a “strong picture of the temper and conduct of America.”

Whatever you feel about his metaphor for our country, I love it for one reason alone. It gives dignity to this beautiful snake! The Gadsden Flag’s motto should come to our minds whenever we see a serpent of any type on our planet: Don’t Tread on Me!

I’m an amateur herpetologist. My collections of reptiles and amphibians have waxed and waned over the years—once filling a two-car garage!—and have always included snakes. Because of this, I try to erase the prejudice summed up as “the only good snake is a dead snake.”

Blame it on the Garden of Eden myth, where Satan incarnates as a serpent. Blame it on their slithering mobility. Blame it on how they hide in cracks and crevices. Blame it on the fact that even though a tiny percentage of species in America are venomous, that sinister shadow gets cast on all of them.

Primordial fear of snakes, ophidiophobia, afflicts about a third of adults, the most widely reported phobia. If a swashbuckling hero like Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes, we’re in good company, right?

Wrong. Did you know that Americans are 600 times more likely to be bitten by a dog than a snake?

Obviously, I (and you?) have a lot of work to do. That’s why I invite fearful people to try handling specimens in my collection. When I hear someone sounding the alarm about a snake on their property, I help them identify it and highlight its role in controlling rodents. If they show a deeper interest, I introduce them to the colors and shapes of some of earth’s 3600 species of snakes, truly among the most vibrant creatures on our planet!

I’ve had a few breakthroughs.

  • My wife, naturally suspicious of snakes, now sees their beauty and holds them.
  • A class of fourth grade students once visited my “Zoorage” for a field trip. We watched a female corn snake lay her eggs, and the amazement in their eyes was priceless!
  • I used a female Ball Python for a sermon one Sunday, telling parents that their children could come forward and meet her. Many of them had never touched a snake, and for months afterwards they pleaded, “Please bring her back!”

Bottom line? Next time you see a snake, imagine it saying to you, “DON’T TREAD ON ME!”


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