Should a 4-Year-Old Handle Snakes?

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The 4-year-old son of late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin was recently bit by a boa constrictor — and he couldn't be prouder.

"He picked one of them up and it bit him on the finger, and he was so proud to have copped his first hit," Irwin's widow, Terri Irwin, told The Associated Press Monday during a promotional appearance at a New York toy store.

Robert Irwin first made headlines in 2004 when his father provoked worldwide criticism for holding the baby, then one month old, while feeding a snapping crocodile.

Robert again has found himself at the center of a controversy. This time the debate is about when, if ever, it's appropriate to let young children handle wild and potentially dangerous animals.

"He said, 'I hope it wasn't venomous,' so I assured Robert I wouldn't actually let him play with venomous snakes," Terri Irwin told the AP.

Concerned parents say it is irresponsible to allow a young child to play with a snake and a disservice to other children to publicly promote such behavior.

"Responsible parents should make sure the experiences their children have are age-appropriate," said Alison Rhodes, a national child safety expert known as the Safety Mom.

Children who are Robert's age, she said, sometimes have difficulty understanding how to best approach and handle even household pets safely.

"A child might be familiar with an otherwise perfectly friendly family pet. But the child still must be taught that if you put your face near the [food] bowl, that dog will bite. You can't test the waters with animals because you can never know exactly how they'll react."

While it is always important to supervise children when near animals, the Irwins are a special case, said Jeff Corwin, a wildlife expert and host of Corwin's Quest on Animal Planet.

"There is always a risk whenever you work with wildlife. When there are children involved you have to be incredibly safe," he said. "The Irwin boy is not your run-of-the-mill kid seeing a snake for the first time, and when judging this situation you have to take into account the world in which he lives."

"Let's not overreact to this. Let's put this in the context of who these people are. This one incident shouldn't stand as testament as to what other people should do," Corwin said.

Any adult thinking of introducing a child to a snake should know how that individual child reacts to animals, and how that specific snake responds to people, said Jim Murphy, the former curator of reptiles at the Dallas Zoo.

"Determining what age is appropriate for a child to handle a snake is complicated," Murphy said. "Each snake has its own temperament and adults need to know those snakes before they let children near them. Anytime you handle snakes there is always the potential to be bit."

In countless talks about snakes given to young children, Murphy said he would generally hold a snake's head and let them pet the animal's body.

"I wouldn't make a blanket statement that no four-year-old should ever handle a snake, but I wouldn't have let my child at four handle a snake without me holding the head. Terri must have felt the snake was a calm, dependable animal and this just all of a sudden happened," he said.

Murphy said that in 30 years of working with snakes he had never taken pride in being bitten and found it strange that the boy would be encouraged to be proud of that.

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