My favorite assistant (Brian) and I did a reptile show for a daycare's summer camp today. The kids were mostly between 5 and 7 years of age, and there were very few who were afraid of any of the animals. I tell the audience before we begin that, if they don't feel comfortable touching an animal, they may tell us, "No, thank you," and hold up their hands, palms forward, to make sure we understand. I tell them that it isn't fair to them for anyone to make them touch an animal they are afraid of, and that we will not tease them, pester them, or otherwise give them a hard time over it.
Once they realize they have a choice in the matter, the majority of initially fearful children will ask to touch the animal once they have seen some of their peers doing so. It's absolutely rewarding to see a terrified kid become brave and curious, especially when dealing with a snake--an animal that they have been conditioned to fear by their culture. I make sure that all the snakes we use are very even-tempered so they don't make sudden moves to frighten people. I also tend to choose some of our more "cuddly" snakes that enjoy being held--Tez, my Honduran milk snake, will often slide himself into the pocket of his handler and contentedly rest in there for as long as we'll let him.
The most fearful people we encounter are adults. They have had a long time to build their phobia, and, unfortunately, when their phobia is revealed to certain types of people, those types will worsen the phobia by tormenting the fearful person with it. Whether it's attacking them with rubber snakes, making hissing sounds, or just describing unpleasant encounters with snakes, the tormentor delights in freaking out the phobic, so that by the time I get to them, they are desperately afraid that I am going to shove a snake in their faces, chase them around with it, or make them hold it against their will.
We will do none of those things--my preferred method for dealing with phobic people is to allow them to watch me handling the snake, talking to the snake, and demonstrating that it is harmless to me. I tell them the snake's name, since names tend to make them more personable and less scary. I talk about how long the snake has been in captivity, and where it came from. I also explain that almost every one of my ill-tempered snakes (which never go to shows) was abused by a human, and they learned that our species can't be trusted to do anything except cause them suffering. Most people don't even think about a snake being abused, but when they are faced with that notion, are better able to relate to them.
So today's show involved two snakes, two lizards (including Spinner, the legless lizard), Blinky the frog, and our redfoot tortoise. There were two fearful teachers, one of whom was so afraid that he couldn't even look at snakes on television. We had a handful of kids that were initially afraid, but once they saw their classmates touching the animals without fear, they mostly came around and wanted to have that experience too.
I feel it's important in what I do to give young people a familiarity with these animals so that they don't get saddled with an irrational phobia. It's absolutely delightful when they overcome their initial anxiety to reach out to one of these creatures. If what I do in these shows prevents at least one young person from killing snakes on sight out of fear later, I will have done good to the future snakes of the world.