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I'm reading a story called Cuenta ratones by Ellen Stoll Walsh. However, I don't understand the following phrase.

Se cuidaban de las serpientes.

Context

Un esplendoroso día varios ratones se divertían en el campo. Cautelosos, se cuidaban de las serpientes. Pero cuando les dio sueño se olvidaron de ellas y se echaron una siesta.

I get that they are saying that the rats were wary of the snakes, but it feels like they are saying that the rats took care of the snakes.

What does "Se cuidaban de los serpientes." mean?

and when would you use cuidarse as oppose to cuidar?

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    Are you talking about this book by Ellen Stoll Walsh? amazon.es/Cuenta-ratones-Ellen-Stoll-Walsh/dp/9681637666 Please edit your question with the author of the refererred story or book. – RubioRic Aug 21 '20 at 6:13
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    "Se cuidaban de las serpientes" -- translate as "they protected themselves from the snakes"? – nomen Aug 21 '20 at 19:10
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You have understood the text perfectly and I can see why you find it a bit difficult.

When in doubt, you should check the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española de la Lengua, the DRAE. There you'll find that the verb cuidar has the two meanings that you have pointed out: to take care of (2) and to be wary of (5).

cuidar
2. tr. Asistir, guardar, conservar
5. prnl. Vivir con advertencia respecto de algo.

Let's discuss the difference between them with examples.

2 - take care
EN - They take care of the snakes in the zoo
ES - Cuidan de las serpientes en el zoo

5 - be wary
EN - The mice were wary of the snakes
ES - Los ratones se cuidaban de las serpientes.

Notice that I have highlighted prnl in my quote of the dictionary and se in my second example. prnl means that the verb is pronominal.

If we check the dictionary again

verbo pronominal

  1. m. Gram. verbo que se construye en todas sus formas con pronombres reflexivos átonos que no desempeñan ninguna función sintáctica y que concuerdan con el sujeto; p. ej., me arrepentí, se levantó.

When we use such verbs, they are accompanied by a reflexive pronoun that has no syntax functionality, se in your example.

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    @JoL "Cuidan las serpientes en el zoologico" makes it sound like the snakes are the ones taking care of something – sbell Aug 21 '20 at 18:07
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    Perhaps "En el zoológico cuidan a las serpientes." – Patricio Aug 21 '20 at 18:50
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    @sbell No, that'd be "Las serpientes cuidan ...". You know, subject before verb. In "cuidan las serpientes", the serpents are the object in the sentence. – JoL Aug 22 '20 at 2:45
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    @sbell: definitely not. "¿Qué hacen Laura y José? Cuidan las serpientes en el zoológico." – Martin Argerami Aug 22 '20 at 16:45
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    For meaning (2), it might be better to say "take care of" (or care for) rather than "take care". In English, if you are caring for something other than yourself, you would typically use a preposition to introduce the thing you are caring for. Without the preposition, it would usually mean "take care (of yourself)", as when you say "Take care!" at the end of a conversation. Meaning (5), 'be wary', can also be expressed as "take care" if you include the thing to avoid. "Take care you don't step on glass!" or, in your example, "The mice took care to not be discovered by snakes." – Kirt Aug 23 '20 at 7:28
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I get that they are saying that the rats were wary of the snakes, but it feels like they are saying that the rats took care of the snakes.

Well, look to the reflexive pronoun se here. If the rats were taking care of the snakes, we might say that les cuidaban — "they guarded them." But instead we're saying that the rats se cuidaban — "they guarded themselves."

They guarded themselves (se cuidaban) against (de) what? Against the snakes (de las serpientes).

A similar use of the reflexive verb cuidarse would be if I told you ¡Cuidate de las serpientes! — "Guard yourself against the snakes!" or colloquially, "Watch out for snakes!"

If you wanted to say that the rats took care of the snakes, you'd say los ratones cuidaban a las serpientes; if you were talking about the snakes like they were real human people you'd say los ratones les cuidaban a las serpientes. Notice the change from cuidar de (guarding "away from") to cuidar a (guarding "toward"), which metaphorically matches the rats' posture in re the snakes.

By the way, if you wanted to say that the rats took care of the snakes while being faithful to the ambiguous English meaning of "take care of", you might say that los ratones se encargaron de las serpientes, which says something like "the rats (took charge of/took on/took responsibility for) the snakes," without being overly specific about what responsibility we're talking about here, exactly. (But I'm not super confident about this paragraph. I should have paid more attention to the subtitles in Breaking Bad. Anyone feel like leaving a comment to correct me? ;))


UPDATE after a well-intentioned but sense-changing edit by someone else: It appears that my use of les above may be a case of leísmo and may vary by region/dialect/training. (I am a non-native speaker who learned in high school in the eastern U.S.) Anyway, I claim that los ratones cuidaban a las serpientes would be clearly correct; los ratones les cuidaban a las serpientes sounds correct in "my" dialect if we're pretending that the snakes are funny animals in the Beatrix Potter tradition; ¿Qué hacían los ratones con las serpientes? Las cuidaban. would be correct; and repeating the direct object los ratones las cuidaban a las serpientes would be unnatural in anyone's dialect AFAIK.

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