Snakes alive

I recently had the privilege of interviewing three snake catchers, ranging from a teenager to a retiree,  to write a feature article. The brief was to focus on a dangerous profession. I looked at the adrenalin-filled and perilous occupation of urban snake-catching through the lens of ‘what makes snake-catchers do what they do’, while also touching on the typically divisive issue of snake conservation. Fear of snakes is rated as one of the top fears in the world, so, are snake-catchers generally fearless people?

You can read my article below.

snake

SNAKES ALIVE

Snake-catchers on why they do what they do

by Michelle Preen

Lemons bobbed playfully on crowded branches above his head as Grant, an urban snake-catcher, reached in and extricated the Herald Snake from the cramped confines of the pool pump timer box. It coiled its cool, slender body around his fingers, deliberate and serene, mirroring Grant’s calm demeanour.

At the sight of the snake, Gladys, whose employer had called out Grant to come and remove the snake from this Garden of Eden tucked just under the foot of Table Mountain, let out a shriek and leapt across the corner of the pool, narrowly avoiding an unplanned swim. She slapped her thighs, jumping around on the neatly trimmed lawn, and then she laughed nervously.

“Shame, that’s a very common reaction,” said Grant.

Fear of snakes is rated as one of the top fears in the world. For many people, the mere sight of a snake can invoke paralysing terror. Some scientists believe that humans have a predisposition towards a fear of snakes – that it is an ancient and justified fear of a lethal predator.

What, then, makes people like Grant Smith, a part-time snake-catcher, researcher and conservationist from Cape Town, want to rescue snakes? What prompts snake-catchers to take up an occupation that is so dangerous and so horrifying to most people? Are they motivated by a need to rescue the person from the snake or vice versa?

Gladys Mayapi is certainly in the majority when it comes to being scared of snakes. In a snap survey conducted in the Company’s Gardens in Cape Town, 65% of the 60 people surveyed, from across the cultural spectrum, admitted to being afraid of snakes. In a similar online survey, when asked: ‘Would you allow your spouse/significant other to have a venomous snake in the house if he knew how to take care of it?’, 76% of the over 1 500 respondents voted ‘no’.

Grant believes that those of us that have had good experiences with snakes may learn to manage this fear, even enjoy it. It seems that childhood experience definitely plays a role in how we, as adults, react to snakes. We aren’t born afraid of snakes, but these fears can be triggered or learnt very quickly. The media also plays its part by sensationalising this issue, with movies such as Snakes on a Plane and Anaconda.

Grant’s dad was in the army and they spent a great deal of time in the bush. His mom bought them a book on snakes when Grant was young and he became fascinated by them. He moved to Thailand when he was 21, where he witnessed lots of snakes being killed. That is what “motivated me to do a snake handling course and get involved in snake conservation, to save as many snakes as I could,” he says. He looks the part in his green padded jacket and jeans.

Gabriel Dowling is also a snake-catcher. He is 16 years old and caught his first venomous snake at the age of 11. Dressed in baggies and a jacket, he’s very chilled and down-to-earth. A duck and a chicken peck around in the gravel as he sits in the tranquil garden of his parent’s home in Kommetjie chatting about why he loves catching snakes.

“When I was like really small, my brother, Tim, had snake tanks all along the stoep. He had all sorts of exotic things like Anacondas and Boa Constrictors. I grew up being comfortable with snakes,” he says.

Gabriel believes that a lot of children’s parents tell them snakes are bad so they become scared of snakes.

“Maybe it was just that I was the fourth child and my parents stopped caring (he laughs), but I was always allowed just to mission around Kommetjie and look for snakes. It just became a little hobby, just like you do Lego.”

For Gabriel, whose dad is a conservationist and educator, it has turned from just an exciting hobby into a crusade to save snakes. He is very concerned about hurting snakes, which is why he uses a snake hook rather than the specialised tongs that can “damage the snake’s tiny vertebrae”. He talks about the fact that you need a permit to catch snakes and that there’s strict control over keeping snakes in South Africa. You also need proper training to become a snake-catcher and get a permit.

At the other end of the age spectrum is Aidan Shannon, a taciturn veteran snake-catcher and ex-cop. “I was appointed as the snake-catcher for the Western Cape by the police,” he says. “We used to get a lot of calls at the police regarding snakes and nobody would do it as they were too afraid. I said I wasn’t afraid. All the police stations used to phone me up if they had calls about snakes.”

Aidan has been bitten on the knuckle by a Puff Adder and was in hospital for ten days, but it didn’t deter him. “I do it so that people don’t kill snakes. It’s for conservation and to encourage people to look after snakes. Snakes are an asset,” he says in his very matter-of-fact way. So, it seems that they are all motivated more by rescuing the snakes from the humans that they are by rescuing damsels (or dudes) in distress.

When it comes to payment, Aidan just works on donations, half of which he usually gives to the emergency call centre in Fish Hoek where he volunteers. Grant, for the most part, charges a fee if people can afford it, but a percentage goes towards snake conservation and rehabilitation, vets bills and the like. He believes that the more you can generate an income for it to become self-sustaining, the more you can build skills and develop people in the field. He says the charge is for his time, skills and transport.

“There’s a lot of value in what we do.” he says. “It’s a service. On the more humorous side, he has been called out for socks, pipes and rubber snakes posing as real snakes. Then at least the fee pays for his time and petrol.

Gabriel does a bit of both. “I don’t have a set rate because I don’t want to put people off calling me for a snake. So many people would rather just kill the snake. So many people just hate snakes,” he says. Grant agrees and says the snake always comes before the fee.

In the snap survey referred to earlier, even though 65% of respondents were afraid of snakes, only 42% said they’d choose for a snake to be killed rather than released in a natural area after being captured in their house. Releasing them is exactly what these qualified snake-catchers do. Aidan says he usually takes them to the snake park first to check that they are not injured.

“Ignorance and lack of education are the most common reasons why humans fear snakes,” says Grant, who also runs a Facebook page and website called Cape Snake Conservation.

“We don’t understand the creatures we fear so much. It’s often ingrained and irrational.”

Following the rescue of the Herald Snake, Grant switched effortlessly from catcher to teacher, his dark-rimmed specs adding to the effect. He gave an impromptu lesson in snake behaviour, answering questions and clearing up some widely held misconceptions. The snake’s tongue flicked in and out as he did so, smelling if Grant was a potential prey item, a frog perhaps.

“When you can get someone to go from being totally fearful to being open to having a look at a snake, it’s quite empowering for them and quite rewarding for me as well. Ultimately it’s about looking after the underdogs, the snakes, but it has a really nice offshoot in that you are helping people to change their lives a little bit too, which is quite lekker,” he admits.

Snakes are simply predators and there is nothing supernatural or evil about them. They are sensitive creatures and most will avoid humans at all costs. But this doesn’t appear to be enough for many people to want to keep them alive. Grant believes that we need to show people that snakes are far more similar to us than we think. They need to see that snakes are an integral part of the ecosystems that we need to survive.

Snakes are an essential part of the web of life. They play an especially important ecological role in controlling rodent populations. According to Shaun Bodington from Imhoff Snake Park in Cape Town, one mole snake can eat up to a million mice in its lifetime.

They are also the ultimate recyclers, returning incredible amounts of energy, some of it through their shed skin, back into the natural world. And their venom, which humans are both afraid of and amazed by, could hold the key to ground breaking medical discoveries. Ultimately, it could save your life.

Learning to identify snakes is useful, but snake identification can be tricky. According to the book, A Complete Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa by Johan Marais, there are around 170 snake species in southern Africa, 11 of which are venomous. Then, of course, there are the escapees, snakes from other countries that are kept as pets and occasionally find their way out.

Aidan recalls a recent call-out in Vredehoek. He couldn’t quite place the type of snake from the woman’s description over the phone, but it proved to be a rather large escaped Boa Constrictor, which had turned up in the lady’s bathroom and coiled itself deftly around the towel rail.

Thanks to this small band of brave, and some may say crazy, people (mostly men, but a couple of women too), the rest of us can take comfort in the fact that when the ‘rubber bone’ that the dogs are barking wildly about under the drinks cabinet turns out to be a Cape Cobra, or a Boa appears in our bathroom, we don’t have to risk our lives to try and capture it, or worse still, kill it.

So, are all snake-catchers ultimately adrenalin-junkies? Do they love the thrill of catching a Cobra or a Puff Adder, the buzz they feel knowing they are risking their lives?

“The first venomous snakes I caught, I got that adrenalin rush. I don’t think you can really help that. It’s that ‘fight or flight’ thing. I remember pulling the Cobra out of some rocks in someone’s driveway and my legs were shaking non-stop, but I still wanted to catch it,” says Gabriel. “I like adrenalin, but in such a way where I can control it! I’m terrified of heights, but if I can be in contact with the ground, it’s all good. I love riding my motorbike really fast and catching venomous snakes.”

Grant is a paraglider pilot, which tells you something about his personality. On 16 June 2016, he lived a dream, flying from Signal Hill to Kommetjie. According to an interview on the website, Raw Adrenalin, Grant says: “Flying has changed my life. Whether I’m riding the thermal wave up to cloud-base, gliding over spectacular scenery or just playing around on the slope, paragliding gives me freedom, adventure, stoke.”

And although Aidan says he’s too old for adventure now, he casually admits that he’s done bungee jumping and jumped out of aeroplanes.

So, the traits required to be a snake-catcher are pretty clear. Age does not seem to be a factor, but it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. Although a Google search for snake-catcher job vacancies didn’t turn up much, as expected, it did spit out an article referring to a vacancy being advertised by a university in Mumbai, India, in 2013. Apparently two of the students who volunteered their services because they loved snakes had just graduated and there was now a dire need for such a position on campus.

In the absence of a formal job ad, the following may suffice to outline the qualities such an individual would require: Must love snakes; needs to respect, but not fear these scaly creatures; must be trained and qualified, and have the correct permit; should be ‘on the ball’ when it comes to snake behaviour; must always act in a responsible manner; must enjoy teaching; and, of course, must be adventurous and thrive on adrenalin.

So, as summer has crept up on us and we welcome the warm weather visitors, both human and reptilian, either you can check if you fulfil the criteria above and become a snake-catcher, or more likely perhaps, save a snake-catcher’s number on your mobile phone and be prepared to deal with your unwanted guests in a smart and informed way.

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