Charming snakes

When pitching the more…eccentric…story ideas at Health24, it’s necessary to persuade our editor that there’s a health angle in there somewhere. Snake handling, a skill I’d been feeling incomplete without, seemed a cinch as regards the health angle: they bite, don’t they?

But I was to discover another angle – one, like the serpent, more subtle: handling snakes does wonders for your mental health. And your blood pressure.

Before signing up for Snake Wrangling 101, I’d fancied snakes from a distance. But by the end of the course, I was shopping around for my own snake hook (more on that shortly), and informing friends that, should they encounter a snake on their premises, they could call me because I now felt capable of dealing with anything from a garden hose to an anaconda.

I also felt Empowered. Confident. Serene. Those snakes had charmed me.

Snake Awareness, Identification and Handling
The course, run by the Cape Reptile Institute over two days at Driftsands Environmental Centre on the Cape Flats, is officially titled Snake Awareness, Identification and Handling, but it’s the Handling part that’s the real drawcard, and where the real transformative magic happens.

Day one is devoted (wisely) to snake ID, snakebite first aid and plenty of hands-on quality time with non-venomous members of sub-order Serpentes.

After the initial mild shock (OK, maybe not so mild for some) of touching those cool, muscular, alien bodies, the neophyte herpetologist starts to relax and realise: all in all, snakes are pretty chilled out. They’re not the one with the aggression issues: we are.

The greatest asset in dealing with snakes is Calm, and they’re good teachers in this; hot-blooded mammalian angst is not helpful here. To successfully handle a snake, you need to match your moves to their graceful, flowing, unhurried style – and as you do, you find your breathing quietens, your pulse slows, stress starts to ebb.

On day two, Handling Snakes That Can Kill You, it’s even more important to rein in any primate hysterics when you catch sight of a box labelled “Puffy”.

Venomous snakes – Cape cobra, puffadder and boomslang on this occasion – are handled using a snake hook, an implement that looks something like a shepherd’s crook.

Handling a puffadder with the double-hook method. (Photo: O. Rose-Innes)

Method differs somewhat according to species. For cobra and boomslang, you slip one hook under the front part of the body while you simultaneously use the other hand (yes, really) to grasp the snake firmly a little way above the end of the tail. Some snakes, such as puffadders, require two hooks because they're able to turn and strike so quickly.

Snakes aren’t particularly interested in tangling with us, and only do so under duress, such as when we stand on them, or do intelligent things like poking them with sticks. If you make them feel uneasy, they’re generally decent enough to give you ample warning of the fact, with obvious signs like hood spreading, rearing up or drawing their heads back into pre-strike position.

None of these are good moments to storm in with flailing snake hooks.

As with their non-venomous cousins, patience, calm and grace are called for as you choose your moment, then smoothly bend, scoop and lift the snake into the air, where, amazingly, if you’ve executed the move properly, the creature will feel relatively at ease. From there, you hold the snake’s weight well-balanced at arm’s length, and pour it gently into a box, sturdy bag or collecting tube.

Tony Phelps demonstrates “tubing” a Cape cobra. (Photo: O. Rose-Innes)

There is something both empowering and humbling about mastering this simple, elegant procedure: a metaphor for gaining control of yourself in order to conquer your fears and solve problems. Or something symbolic like that. Besides which, it's excellent material for impressing people at your next dinner party.

In addition to acquiring this admirable new skill, I also revisited a few snake fundamentals (and picked up plenty of other snake tips and trivia too), the two most important being:

It’s foolish to fear them
Dr Tony Phelps, Director of the Cape Reptile Institute and lead instructor of the course, says “We get about 10 calls a day from people about snakes, but only about 8 out of 10 turn out to be venomous.”

In an era when most moviegoers live in cities and hardly ever encounter snakes, Hollywood still reckons it’s a safe bet to sink dollars into the likes of Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane. Because the human fear of snakes endures: the extreme form, ophidophobia, remains one of the commonest clinically recognised phobias.

There may be some hard-wiring involved here, dating from when our primate ancestors lived in continual threat of snake predation. But studies suggest that although babies seem to have an innate tendency to notice snake- and spider-shapes more than, say, bunny-shapes, they don't fear snakes until their parents teach them to do so.

So if snakes are problematic for you, there's hope: you learned that fear, and you can unlearn it - and no better way than confronting it head-on by literally getting to (gentle) grips with it on a snake-handling course.

Admittedly if you suffer from a full-blown phobia (and are most unlikely to be reading this article) a spot of desensitisation therapy might be a more appropriate place to begin.

It’s even more foolish not to respect them
You don’t want to get so laid back around snakes that you start getting sloppy. Experienced “snake people” who’ve been bitten will invariably tell you that’s why they got nailed.

They also all have stories of “heroes” or “cowboys” (some of the other labels are unprintable) who’ve been bitten because they were showing off and trying to prove they were the Man (or Woman, though I suspect that happens less often).

The dramatic scar shown here, the end result of a berg adder bite, belongs to one of the course instructors, non-cowboy Ryno Bezuidenhout.

Scar from berg adder bite followed by multiple surgeries and skin grafts. (Photo: O. Rose-Innes)

An old snake-handling hand, Ryno was “not that worried” when he was bitten, because he knew that, at least, the bite wasn't venomous enough to kill him.

But just because a bite isn’t fatal doesn’t mean it can’t be very serious. Ryno’s body reacted particularly violently to the bite, and recovery took two and a half months in hospital and eight operations.

Scary stuff, but nonetheless, very low on the average 21st century urbanite's anxiety list - or it should be, way way down under the risks posed by homo sapiens, the motor vehicle, and transfats, for instance.

As long as you keep that in perspective, and remember to stay on the path, alert and aware (in a calm, cool-blooded manner) next time you go hiking, you'll do fine. Even if you don't have your own personal snake hook.

The author putting the moves (hook and tail method) on a boomslang

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated August 2011

For more information on the course run at Driftsands, contact Marcel Witberg

Other accredited snake courses:
Gauteng - contact Mike Perry of African Reptiles and Venom:
Hartbeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park - contact Jason Seale

Read more:
Snakebite: what to do
Cool snake facts

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