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Posted by Wes von Papinešu on February 11, 2000 at 13:02:34:
ASSOCIATED PRESS (USA) 09 February 00 Snake Handler Team Call It Quits (Anne Wallace Allen)
Orwell, Vt.: For years, Frances Stone introduced Snakey to thousands of Vermont schoolchildren in the hopes of easing the public's fear of snakes.
"When I first started the shows, almost everybody who came in the room was afraid," said Stone, a former fifth-grade and science teacher. "I would spend a half hour, 45 minutes working with them overcoming that fear so they would feel comfortable touching the snakes."
"If they're afraid of snakes, they want to kill them," Stone said. "Or they might do something and get bitten."
Stone, who will turn 60 on March 3, believes the fear is mainly a learned reaction, not something people are born with. "Very early in life, we start learning from others that the snake is something scary. Right in the Bible, they're scary creatures," Stone said. "If you see a movie that has a snake in it, the snake most often is put in a negative role."
That's where Snakey, whom Stone found driving down a dirt road in 1980 or so, comes in.
At about five feet long and weighing about five pounds, Snakey, a black rat snake, is relatively unthreatening. He has tiny teeth but no fangs. His body is very smooth and cool to the touch, and his breathing sounds like soft hissing. He casually wraps himself around and around in the arms of whomever is holding him.
Children generally accept the snakes more easily than adults. "More adults hold back than kids," she said. "Sometimes, if the kid was (touching the snake), then the parent would get up enough courage to do it."
Children also have an easier time than the adults expect in accepting that snakes eat cute little chicks or furry creatures, sometimes alive. That's another concept Stone likes to impart in the classrooms she visits.
"To the snake, it's not cruel," she said. "That's what snakes eat. I have to feed my snakes.
"That's part of what you learn as a farmer; farmers raise stuff for food."
Last year, after a dozen years of demonstrations at schools and libraries around Vermont, Stone and Snakey retired.
Stone, who with her husband Paul runs the state's largest turkey farm, decided that at 20-something years of age, Snakey was getting too old to travel. Nowadays, he mostly stretches out on a branch in a large cage he shares with another snake, Dracula. Other members of her reptilian menagerie include a 5-foot boa named Leopold and an iguana named Lizzy Lizard. And she has an assortment of other pets, too.
Stone doesn't recommend snakes as pets, saying they're much better off in the wild. It's illegal in Vermont to keep wild animals, but Stone has a permit because she uses hers for education.
Anyway, they're not really pets. After all their years together, Stone knows Snakey would leave without a backward glance. "The fact remains that if Snakey got loose in the house and went down a hole and went away, the only person who would be crying would be me," she said.