I once had a snake, or rather, a snake had me. And that snake taught me my first and most important lesson about wild animals and their right to live their own lives.
It happened that during the Summer that I was a rising Second Grader and having a wonderful time at Camp O’Cumberlands, Harlan County, Kentucky, I found a snake. A juvenile green snake or garter snake – I’m really not sure what species it was – happened across my path behind Cobble Inn, the cabin occupied by the babies of the camp, the First and Second Graders. Having no fear of snakes, I picked her up, and in animal-loving 6-year-old mindset, I proceeded to convert a quart jar into a terrarium.
In just a matter of minutes, I had collected enough moss and sticks and pine needles to create a soft, green, moist, inviting space, where even the fairies would happily rest their wings. I placed the snake in the jar, into the lovely green softness of the moss, and rested the jar on its side on the ground, under a shrub behind the cobblestone cabin.
But since this was Girl Scout camp, there were other activities to do and schedules to follow, and I had to leave the snake in her new home under the bush. When I returned that afternoon, and went to check on her, she was gone.
You see, I had not put a lid on the jar. While I was not certain, I was hopeful in a way that only a six-year-old animal lover could be, that she would so love her new moss-lined home, she would not leave. But she had. And I cried and cried. She was gone. The beautiful, small, green sleekness had gone on her way, and I was sad at the loss of no longer being close to her beauty and her wildness and the pure expression that she was of life.
And even though, having left, I didn’t really expect her to return, I left the jar in the same spot, in case she decided that the little glass moss house was pretty cool after all. For days, I left the jar. For days, I checked the jar. I watched as my tears, which of course seemed to last forever, turned to understanding.
The thing that she taught me was to be moved by wildness, to be moved in watching it and not trying to control it. To find a kind of full joy in knowing that the snake was never mine. And should never be mine. And while I know that some children might feel the sadness that I felt, and go out to find another snake, and to, this time, put the lid on, somehow that didn’t happen to me. I was spared what is likely a more common path of being insensitive to animals’ rights as a child, and having to unlearn some of that selfishness into adulthood. I feel very fortunate for having been shown that lesson so young.
Make no mistake. There is a longing and a pang of loss at not being close to the wildness that that six-year-old still feels and of which she frequently reminds me in a visceral way. A reminder of the bitter sweetness that doing the right thing for wildness is most often to leave it alone, to let it be, even as that means to let it be away from us.
She reminds me to let the wild ones be wild. And to not put a lid or a tank or a bar or chain on them. If you love them, she reminds me, let them be themselves. Let them be free.
Take the pledge that you will not support an industry that thinks that keeping wild marine mammals in concrete tanks is acceptable. Just say no to the dolphin show.
And this weekend in Atlanta, come out to stand for the rights of circus animals to be wild and free.