A snake in the grass is not to be feared
A couple of overflowing photo files, years spent herping in the wild and three slithering tattoos later, artist and activist Henry Rollins is still obsessed with snakes.
“I find them fascinating,” he says, a sliver of one of those tattoos peeking out from under his shirt.
Rollins, a former member of hardcore punk band Black Flag, says his interest began with a few small nudges into the world of serpents.
“I saw them on National Geographic, played with a boa constrictor a guy brought to school… I was hooked. I still am.
“It turned into obsession. Soon I was head of the reptile department at a pet store just to handle these creatures and get bitten by a reticulated python… by ninth grade I’d memorised all the scientific names of every snake in North America.”
Rollins – a keen human rights activist – is also keen on snake conservation. He says they are misunderstood and deserve a break.
He says snakes have been hard done by in the media and fairytales.
“People have a very strong reaction to snakes. I don’t know what it is, but people will run. It’s a misunderstanding between species. People don’t know what they’re about.”
He reckons it comes from irrational fear, which drives a negative reaction.
“People won’t even know what snake it is and kill it. I hear people saying ‘there was a snake in my yard so I killed it.’
“I say; ‘it wasn’t venomous you idiot’. People cannot explain their fear – and sometimes hate… and the animal comes off the worse for it.”
For Rollins, it’s fascination. Though, he still has nightmares about handling a black mamba. “I didn’t even have the business end… I had it by the tail, but it’s still scary.
“It’s not fear, but respect. They can kill you very easily, and you have to respect that power. But you don’t have to kill them.
“Nine times out of ten, the snake just wants to escape.”
Even though there is widespread fear of snakes, there is a sub-culture which craves the thrill of venom.
“I kept snakes, but I gave them all away… They require time and care. There’s only so much I could ask of my snake sitter, whose wife finally said; ‘No more snake sitting for Henry!’”
Rollins’ obsession has led him to handling some of the most beautiful and dangerous species in the world, like the Russells Viper and Taipan.
“The Cobra is still my favourite. There is nothing like handling a King the width of your arm.”
In his documentary, The Snake Underworld, Rollins went into a secret world hidden in people’s houses, searching for an answer as to why people are so fascinated by snakes.
“They desire the buzz of ‘hot stuff’ and it’s incredible what people would do. I’ve been to places which are garages-full of death. It’s crazy and beautiful.”
Rollins says snakes need to be understood in order to be preserved.
“It’s human ignorance that may lead to extinction of these beautiful creatures, and we need to change that. People need to be educated so we can protect this species.”