There's a snake on my stoep! This is how to handle slithery visitors

2018-10-17 14:22
A black mamba snake. (Craig Nieuwenhuizen, Gallo Images, Foto24, file)

A black mamba snake. (Craig Nieuwenhuizen, Gallo Images, Foto24, file)

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Spitting cobras, black mambas, puff adders… These are just some of the snakes that are slithering about as spring brings rain and warmer temperatures to South Africa's provinces.

And these snakes don't just roam the bush. They can be found in people's homes - under fridges, in cupboards, on curtain rails, in ceilings, pretty much anywhere, according to snake experts News24 interviewed.

And these experts agree: Trying to catch or kill a snake in your home is not a smart idea. The closer you get to one of these creatures, the more likely it is that you will get bitten.

READ: Snake farm manager dies from black mamba bite

According to Durban-based snake expert Byron Zimmerman, snakes' metabolism is weather-dependent and they become more active in warmer climates.

In KwaZulu-Natal, some of the most encountered snakes are the night adder, spotted bush snake, mambas and cobras, among others.

"Black mambas and spitting cobras are the most common deadly venomous snakes. Night adders are venomous but not deadly, but most snakes such as house snakes and bush snakes are harmless," Zimmerman told News24.

Health24: Where snakebites are deadliest

He regularly receives calls to remove snakes from people's homes.  

"When you encounter a snake, the best thing to do is to back away slowly and call someone who knows what to do. Don't try to restrain the snake yourself, especially when you don't know what type of snake it is," he warns.

"I don't recommend killing a snake for two reasons: Obviously I have a soft spot for snakes and don't like them to be killed unnecessarily; but the more logical reason is that snakes become defensive when confronted and it's going to end up biting you. If a snake can run and hide, it would rather just do that."


'Get to hospital'

When you have been bitten by a snake, regardless of what snake it is, Zimmerman's advice is to get to a hospital as quickly as possible.

"Contact someone to let them know you've been bitten so that when you become unconscious, they will know what has happened. Don't waste time trying to catch or kill the snake. Snake bites can cause death quickly in certain cases."

According to Zimmerman, a black mamba bite can kill a person quite rapidly, normally between one and two hours.

Other bites, such as from a spitting cobra, may not result in death but can cause massive physical damage, "much like a burn wound".

Health24: Snake bites - what to do

Snakes have different types of venom that have different effects on people.

"One is a neurotoxin that a black mamba carries that affects your central nervous system and shuts down your heart and lungs. Another common venom is a cytotoxin, which spitting cobras and adders carry, which destroys tissue and causes an incredible amount of damage."

Another type of venom is called a haemotoxin, found in, among others, the boomslang, that affects one's blood's ability to clot and causes death through internal bleeding.


'Snakes can be found anywhere'

Mpumalanga is home to a wide variety of snake species. According to the head of Reptile Recovery, Chris Hobkirk, snakes are encountered mainly in the Lowveld area such as in and around Mbombela, White River, Hazyview and other nearby towns.

"Common snakes [in the province] are snouted cobras, Mozambique spitting cobras… black mambas are pretty common, as well as the boomslang, and then there are many harmless snakes as well."

Reptile Recovery consists of a group of qualified volunteers who provide a free snake-removal service. During the summer months, Reptile Recovery receives between 12 and 15 calls per day to remove snakes from buildings and houses.

"We're already on around five calls per day," says Hobkirk.

"Snakes can be found anywhere. Point anywhere, you'll get one. In the bedrooms, on the couch, under your bed, in the kitchen, behind the stove, in the garage - anywhere!"

Hobkirk agrees with Zimmerman that untrained people should not approach snakes. "You're putting yourself in so much unnecessary danger. You don't want to get within striking range of that animal."


'Kills dogs within minutes'

Gauteng may be South Africa's most populated and built-up province, but there is no shortage of snakes.

"House snakes, snouted cobras, rinkhalses, spitting cobras, night adders - those are the top ones we encounter," Gauteng-based snake expert Arno Naudé told News24.

And they can be found anywhere, says Naudé.

"I've removed a snake 200 metres from Church Square [in Pretoria] and I've removed snakes from three shopping centres so far this year."

Naudé says not only people are at risk. Dogs often encounter snakes and get bitten. The rinkhals poses an enormous threat to dogs as they usually confront the reptile and then get bitten.

"Rinkhalses are very toxic to dogs, not so much to humans, but it kills dogs within minutes."

Health24: Cool snake facts

The Western Cape is home to a number of snakes, most of which are nonvenomous, according to local snake expert Grant Smith.

"Recent call-outs for venomous snakes include puff adders. We had a Cape cobra, a boomslang - those are the venomous snakes that are more prevalent here."

People especially encounter puff adders along hiking paths.

"The biggest misconception about puff adders is that they're lazy because they don't move, but that is their defence mechanism - camouflage. So they will lie still and wait for you to pass. They are scared and trying to remain as inconspicuous as they can."

Smith says snakes are not aggressive and won't attack unless they feel threatened.

"When a snake can find a hiding place, usually that is what they do. But if they are driven into a corner, they seem 'aggressive' but they are just scared."

'Looking for food'

Zimmerman says snakes that find their way into people's homes are usually looking for food such as rats, mice, frogs and lizards.

"But sometimes black mambas go into people's houses to eat their kittens - they prey quite frequently on kittens. I've seen that more than a handful of times."

Hobkirk says water features, ponds and swimming pools usually attract snakes.

Water features "attract frogs and lizards, which then attract snakes. A lot of people don't know that they're creating a McDonald's for the creatures, but that's exactly what they've done. A snake can smell a frog from a mile away."

Pythons eating poodles, snakes in shoes…

Zimmerman says he regularly removes black mambas from people's bedrooms or spitting cobras from their bathrooms.

"I've found pythons eating Maltese poodles, snakes in people's shoes… But this is a normal day for me. What's chaos to the fly is normal to the spider - I guess I'm like the spider."

Hobkirk recalls recovering a black mamba from the ceiling of a house. "It's like 40°, I'm sweating bullets. I'm climbing back through the manhole down the ladder, and the farmer is standing there with a loaded .45 pointed at my hand holding the black mamba. I'm like 'Dude! Whoa! Relax!' I was more scared of the dude than the black mamba…"

Naudé says "hitchhikers" are quite common.

"These are snakes that 'hitchhike' with bags of wood, produce, or underneath buses and other vehicles. I've caught three black mambas in the centre of Pretoria, we've caught black spitting cobras that come from the Western Cape… We on occasion find snakes that do not occur in Gauteng."

Smith says he is often called out to remove a snake that turns out not to be a snake at all.

"I've been called out for rubber snakes, I've removed a sock from a tree…

"But we also find real snakes in car engines, under fridges, on top of curtain rails - they can be anywhere," says Smith.

People who encounter snakes at their homes or offices can find a snake removal expert by visiting snakeremoval.co.za.

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