If you know me, or watch Sunrise on a regular basis, you might have picked up a time or two about my fear of snakes.
I'd like to tell you that it's something I picked up as a child on a wild African safari after being chased by a venomous snake, but I hate to disappoint: I have no idea why I am afraid of snakes.
I do recall growing up, always hearing stories about my dad being afraid of them. One mental health expert I talked to for this story said, sometimes that is enough. Being a child, and finding out a grown man, whom you look to as strong, supportive and courageous, afraid of a little animal?
I decided it was time to try and get over it. Well, my producers thought it was time for me to get over it, and thought it would make an interesting story for our viewers along the way.
Sunrise Team: What's Your Biggest Fear?
The Indianapolis Zoo even knew about my fear of snakes and reached out to my producers to see if I wanted to try and overcome it. The new president of the Indianapolis Zoo, Dr. Rob Schumaker, who loves all animals but seems to have a soft spot for the often miss-understood reptile, is on a mission to change the public's perception of the snake.
Dr. Rob, as everyone calls him, still has a Ball python that he got as a teenager that is now 40 years old. He tells me his family has a few pet snakes at their home, and his son and daughter both love the animals.
He's a biologist, not a counselor, but he has helped several people overcome their fear of snakes. He starts by talking to the person about snakes -- no real snakes involved -- trying to clear up any misunderstandings they may have about the legless reptile, and then slowly introduces pictures of snakes, and eventually introducing a real snake if the person feels that is the right step.
After several attempts by my producer, I finally agree to the challenge, but explain I will simply try, but there are no promises it will work.
My first meeting with Dr. Rob was great. He is simply an awesome person who I was grateful to just be spending time with. He's calm, super smart, and not pushy at all about my ability to overcome my fear of snakes. He first made it very clear that there were no snakes in our setting and that he would never introduce one to our meetings unless I gave the go-ahead.
He first wanted to know what my perception of snakes is:
Me: slimy, cold, willing to chase me down to try and bite me. Laying in wait in my yard to bite me.
I know. Super irrational on my part. But that is seriously how I feel about them.
Well, here is the reality of the snake:
Dr. Rob: They are not slimy. They are not cold. Their sole existence is to eat and because of that, they are great for our ecosystem because they eat rats and mice.
So, Dr. Rob points out that unless I've rubbed one of those animals all over my bare feet and then walk in my grassy yard, no snake is going to bite me. He says they basically lay in wait for their prey. If I happened to walk near one in my yard, it would likely turn the other way to avoid ME.
He also points out there likely are not many snakes in my yard anyway even though we have a creek in our backyard and a drainage ditch leading to it on the side of the yard. I've always thought this made my yard a cesspool of snakes. Not kidding.
Learning all of this did make me feel a bit more comfortable; however, as the conversation continues about all the good snakes do for our ecosystem, I feel I am getting more and more nervous. My hands were sweating, and my heart was beating out of my chest.
Dr. Rob notices my nervousness. He tells me he has seen me anchoring Sunrise and has seen me speaking at public events but that currently, I was "unrecognizable" because of my current state. A reminder, no snakes were around me. This is just the talk of snakes.
Surely, I can't do this, right? There is no possible way I am going to be holding a snake at the end of this experiment, right?
My first session to try and get over my fear of snakes went OK. I mean...I didn't have to see a snake or a picture of a snake.
I learned a lot from Dr. Rob Shumaker, a biologist and the president of the Indianapolis Zoo. He wants to help myself and others learn the truth about snakes and ditch the misconceptions that snakes are scary, and we should be frightened of them.
We begin by talking about how I felt my first session went when we only talked about snakes and why I am fearful of them. I honestly feel better about snakes after our first session. I now realize snakes are not out to get me. I know how crazy that sounds, but I always assumed that if I came upon a snake in my yard for instance, it will chase after me and bite me. Again, I realize this was not a rational thought on my part.
I also learned from Dr. Rob how valuable snakes are to our ecosystem. They can keep pests, such as rats and mice, in check. Also, some species that are harmless to people prey on poisonous snakes, reducing the chance of a deadly encounter. The feeding habits of snakes act as a natural form of pest control; for example, small snakes feed on many harmful bugs and insects.
But, can I be friends with snakes? I am still not sure about that.
Dr. Rob and I meet in the same setting as our first meeting: a little seating area outside the Butterfly Pavilion at the zoo. I know when I come in, the snake I am suppose to meet, named Bob by the way, is there. He is inside a pillowcase that is placed inside a simple igloo cooler, which is a way to protect the snake and keep him comfortable.
Despite all I know, I am still a little on edge, nervous and sweaty. Dr. Rob and I decide that I will stay sitting at the table, and he will go over on the edge of the area and take Bob out of his enclosure.
Before this, I make sure I know what Bob looks like, about how big he is and — just in general — what I should expect. I thought that would help, but it doesn't. When Dr. Rob pulls Bob out of the pillowcase, I jump out of my chair and move back away, and I tell Rob there is no way I am touching Bob today — even though he is probably 10 feet away from me already.
Honestly, I am so disappointed. I really wanted this to go better, but it honestly is just my instinct to look away from snakes, in pictures and on TV. We decide Dr. Rob and Bob will move farther away from me and sit on a ledge.
Dr. Rob continues to talk to me and explain why Bob is moving certain ways, which eventually make me feel better.
I decide I can move onto the ledge. I'm still very nervous, and my hands are shaking and sweating. After about 10 minutes, I am sitting right next to Dr. Rob and ask if I can touch Bob. Dr. Rob holds the snake's head, while I basically "air touch" Bob, barely making contact.
I gradually touch him more, but I keep a distance from Bob's head, as that is what seems to make me the jumpiest.
I eventually think I am ready to hold the back end of Bob, but chicken out at the last second.
After a bit longer, I do eventually hold the very end of his tail. What a victory for me. I still can't believe it. I still can't get use to his darting head around me, especially when he is sticking his tongue out -- which he does by the way to smell.
Dr. Rob and I decide I need at least one more session. OK, I can do this.
Well...this is suppose to be my final session with Dr. Rob, a biologist and President of the Indianapolis Zoo.
He's been helping me overcome my fear of snakes. He loves all animals but has a passion for helping people understand — maybe even like snakes.
My first session, we just spent the hour talking about why I am scared of snakes, and what would I be comfortable in doing to overcome my fear. Even this session has me nervous and fidgeting in my chair.
The next session takes place about a week later in the same setting at the zoo. I know going in there is a Ball python in an igloo cooler in the same area. He's tucked away safely inside the cooler, inside a pillowcase, and he will stay there until I am comfortable enough to let Dr. Rob take him out.
After a few minutes of talking, I feel ready. Dr. Rob goes and sits on a ledge, and I stay at the table, so there is no way the snake can get to me. But I've always had trouble even looking at snakes, so I am not sure how this is going to go. Dr. Rob talks through every move he makes.
First, he tells me the snake's name is Bob and adds that he is very friendly and good looking. OK, Rob — I'll be the judge of all that.
Now, Bob is out of the cooler but still in the pillowcase. Rob keeps talking me through his moves and asks if it is still OK if he takes Bob out. I say yes. I honestly think this is going to be OK...that I am going to be OK with seeing this snake from across the room; however, once I see Bob's standard camouflage coloring and curling body, I turn away and have to get up from my chair — actions that I really have no control over.
I eventually end the session 45 minutes later sitting next to Rob and touching Bob — even holding the end of it's tail.
The final session begins like all the others. This time, we are in the conservatory where it is like a jungle with hanging vines and the sounds of running water. Rob and I are both sitting on a standard bench with Bob at his feet. I told Rob I would just have to wait and see how I handle it when Bob comes out of the sack the first time and if it goes OK, we can stay sitting by each other.
Rob gradually takes Bob out. I do wince but don't turn away; however, I do move a little farther away from him — actually bumping into some of those hanging vines I mentioned, which scared me even more. Dr. Rob just sits with Bob on his lap. The one thing I notice right away: Bob is far more active than he was in our last visit. Dr. Rob assures me he is just curious about this new environment. His head darts around and tongue goes in and out, so he can smell his surroundings.
He starts to move towards me. Dr. Rob asks if I wanted him to let Bob come near me, but I just don't feel like I am ready, so he pulls him back to his lap. For some reason, I am most frightened of his head — especially with that darting tongue. I desperately want to overcome this.
So, we just sit. I occasionally touch Bob and get closer and closer to the snake's head.
I don't remember exactly how it happened, but I finally feel like I am ready.
Dr. Rob places Bob on my lap. I am still very nervous and scared, but I decide that does not matter. Bob slowly moves around a lot and never just lays there. I eventually have to hold his body to keep him from crawling away from me. I am getting closer and closer to his head and eventually, my leg stops shaking, and I become more relaxed. I actually let Bob roam with his head over my hand, and I don't jump or scream. I am doing so good. I can't believe it. Dr. Rob can't believe it. I am doing so well that Rob needs to run over to his phone. He asks if I am OK with Bob on my own, which I said 'yes.'
Who is this woman? I don't even recognize her. I can't believe I am the same person who grew up fearful and lived all my adult life petrified of snakes. I can't say I still wouldn't jump at the sight of a snake, but I do know I will no longer live in fear with no cause. I feel like I can now enjoy being outdoors more — knowing that no snake is out to get me.
Many of you have reached out to me since seeing these reports. It turns out, a whole lot of you are afraid of snakes. I am not saying you need to pick one up or become it's friend, but keep an open mind. Learn more about them like I did. That was the first step in my long road to overcoming this phobia. And because of it, I am much happier!