Joe’s Crow Country

IT didn’t take me long to make my first mistake.

“So what animal is it that you’re most afraid of?” asked Grace Dickinson, who runs classes to cure animal fears at Shepreth Wildlife Park.

“We can do snakes, birds, mice, insects, toads. Any of those animals are waiting for you back there.”

In hindsight I should have taken a moment to think about it and pick the one I was least scared of. I could have faked a fear of birds, to which I am indifferent, and walked out of there having not been frightened senseless, even if I did lie.

Instead, I opened my mouth as soon as Grace mentioned toads.

“I can’t stand them. They’re disgusting and there is no way you’re getting me near one of those,” I garbled.

Taking this as a challenge, Grace went off to prepare. She claimed I would be on my way to a cure within an hour.

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I have always been interested in animals, I just don’t want them near me. Nature and evolution fascinates me but I have never been natural at holding creatures, and find nearly all of them unpredictable and untrustworthy. Especially toads.

I went and sat down, worried about what was to come. I thought at this stage there was no way I would be getting close to a toad, let alone touch one.

But the technique used at Shepreth, known as flooding, breaks in the scared party gradually by immunising them to their feared creature. Step one – get used to a pretend toad.

Grace bought over a plastic toad and sat it opposite me on the table. It was bigger than a real toad and croaked when it sensed movement. I didn’t trust it.

I knew it wasn’t real but it still took me a while to get used to it. My chest was tight and my heart was beating, but I started to relax after a few minutes as Grace dispelled some myths.

“They aren’t slimy, they’re dry, they don’t hop, they walk and they don’t give us warts, they are in fact clean,” she said.

I was learning all the time, and it was helping. The next step was a cuddly toy. Bring it on, I thought, feeling brave. But knew the worst was to come.

Grace then went off to get Mo, a cane toad native to South America. She put it down in a plastic tank and I immediately shuffled my chair away, still clearly terrified.

It was mainly motionless, but every time it kicked its legs, making a thud on the plastic, I flinched. Grace got Mo out of the box and held her tight, and as time passed by I eventually worked up the courage to move my chair back to where it was.

She held Mo still on the table and shielded her eyes. “There is no way she can move from this position,” she said. “I now want you to try and stroke her back.”

I tentatively moved my hand in, but kept jarring it away when I thought I was getting too close, as if I was checking to see if something was hot.

A minute later I was confidently stroking Mo’s rubbery skin and flabby feet. I had come a long way from the shaking wreck I was an hour ago.

Grace, who counts snakes, tortoises, cockroaches and tarantulas amongst her pets, offered solace by suggesting fears should be treated with more respect. “People are worried that their phobia won’t be taken seriously, but they definitely should be.

“If I can help cure an animal fear then I will sleep easier at night. I gain a lot of satisfaction from it and I understand it’s no laughing matter.

“It usually takes me an hour to cure a fear, though with some people its two hours at the most.

“Fears of frogs and toads are common, and are inherent. They have been associated with disease since medieval times and we have that built into us. It’s genetic, not rational.”

I left more knowledgeable and less frightened of toads. I won’t be getting one as a pet, but won’t be flinching the next time one waddles towards me with a wild look in its eye.