When it comes to routing for snakes, the underdog of the animal World, you will find very few as strong in support as I am! My interest in these secretive, graceful and highly efficient predators started at the age of ten years old and, as much as my parents hoped for this fascination to be a passing craze, snakes are still very much part of my life today.
Living in the Boland area, with our beautiful farms and mountains, contact and encounters with snakes are commonplace. With this level of exposure, come potential risks to humans and our pets, especially dogs, but we have it pretty easy here. Out of the 150 odd species of snakes in Southern Africa, 10% are considered dangerous to man and of those we need to be able to identify only two species in our area, the puff adder (Bitis arietans) and Cape cobra (Naja nivea). Yes, we have Boomslang and, yes, they are classed as the most venomous snake species in South Africa, but theirs is a strategy of avoidance and close encounters with these peaceful and placid snakes are rare.
I can harp on about the beauty of snakes, the absolutely essential roles they play in our lives, whether we like it or not, and the irrational fear surrounding an animal weighing in at a few grams only. I can preach about our encroachment on their territories and the influence we have had on their numbers, but I have to accept that most people do not like them at all. In fact, people fear and despise them and to many the only good snake is a mangled snake!
In order to serve both parties, I’ve started to offer a problem snake removal service in and around Paarl. Animals found and caught are released on the same day in a reserve close to their natural range, but well removed from built-up areas and human activity and we’ve been pretty successful in relocating several cobras, puff adders and house snakes over the past few years, but there’s always that one special challenge…at a specific house in Southern Paarl there seems to be a lot of activity from a very large Cape cobra. Now this is a seriously venomous and potentially dangerous animal and the owners have a small dog, so they would prefer to have madam moved. On a sunny Summer’s day, I get a call to come and remove her from the premises. Upon arrival I immediately notice the extent of the problem. It’s a stunning indigenous garden with lush growth, a borehole filled with ample water, a sparkling pool, birds chirruping away and there is a huge compost heap at the end of the garden. There are toads, lizards and field mice all over the plot…in short, this is snake paradise!
After a lengthy, unsuccessful search, I decide to rather focus on calming and educating the homeowner. From what she tells me this specific snake has been seen several times over the past 8 years! That’s my queue…I explained that this snake has been part of the ecosystem the owners lovingly created in their indigenous garden, that it has always been here without ever posing a threat. I explained that these creatures much prefer to avoid contact and that no snake will ever go out of their way to attack a person. I also point to the fact that this individual has even been able to avoid the unwanted attention from her dog, which appear far more interested in lounging next to the pool! After several good arguments from my side and lengthy discussions on orchids and trees, I feel confident in having settled the owners fears. On our way to the gate, my eyes catch a glimpse of a small Karoo Whipsnake basking in a palargonium. Enthusiastically I show the owner another one of her new friends, only for it to dart out of sight at the speed of light! I leave the premises with a now even more distraught owner….she only knew about one, now there were two!
A few months later the same owner calls about the same cobra. This time the snake was out in the open and had caught a toad for lunch. They owners ran for their lives to call the practice, but by the time I arrived minute later the snake was all but visible. It slipped down a drain and no amount flushing could get it out. Once again, I parted empty handed, but we agreed on a strategy, the owners would only call if they could clearly see the snake and they would keep their eyes on from a safe distance. This would give us the best change to get her and to finally put an end to the owner’s concerns.
An then, a few weeks ago, the call came. This time, however, the owner saw a puff adder in her bird feeder! Now, whereas cobras rush to get away from danger, puffies follow a completely different strategy. Being rather plump and slow, they freeze and rely on their excellent camouflage to remain undetected. However, if a dog sees a puff adder, starts jumping up and down in front of it, barking and snapping at it…well lets just say, there is a reason why most puff adder bites in dogs happen to be to the face! I asked the owner if she could see the snake and she assured me that she was looking at it as we speak. This was my chance to finally make amends! I rushed out…hook, check. Grab-stick, check. Container, check. Here we go!
Upon arrival I was greeted by a very nervous voice over the intercom at the gate. The owner opened the gate remotely. She wasn’t going to take her eyes off the prize this time! As I entered the garden, the owner’s daughter met up with me and led the way to the bird feeder. She held her two toddlers back. This was a dangerous situation after all. As I rounded the corner of the house I could now actually see the owner too. She pointed towards the bird feeder in question and stared at the enemy through her binoculars…we did agree on keeping a safe distance! With mounting tension, I walked up to the feeder…this was no time to get bitten. I leaned over to get a better view, cracked a smile of relief, dropped the gear and pulled out a beautiful, big, fat, oh-so-harmless…..TOAD!
We all had a good old chuckle…through the binoculars those beady eyes and warty head, as well as a good dose of imagination and fear, had the owner locked indoors for most of the morning! The toad played its role in educating the children about ecology and good neighbor-ship before being safely released in the garden.
And the cobra? I’ll catch up with her in Spring!