Snakes are a huge part of the psyche of humankind, striking irrational fear into the minds of most people. Growing up on a farm where snakes were a part of daily life, with Puffadders, Cobras and Boomslangs sharing the garden, and sometimes even the house, has left me with an interest in them that borders on fascination. The fascination, however, does not extend to handling them.
There are people who are very adept at handling all manner of snakes, and actually enjoy the hobby, but I have never been one to go out of my way to pick up a snake. There have been instances when I have had to swallow my angst and man up, such as the time a Boomslang entered the office of the nature reserve I worked at. Many attempts and ideas at enticing it out from under the table failed and I eventually grabbed it by the tail and used a stick to keep its head away from me, before carrying it out to freedom.
The only reason I did this, to one of the most venomous snakes in Africa, is that the Boomslang is seldom responsible for biting anyone due to its fangs been located further back in its jaws than other snakes.
Puffadders, the short and fat, sausage like snakes, are responsible for almost seventy percent of snakebites in Africa every year, the reason for this being that they do not move out of the way when they sense approaching vibrations, as other snakes do. Instead they will blow out air as a warning, hence the name. Many people do not hear this sound and will be bitten as they get too close.
I have lived in places where Puffadders seem to inhabit every inch of earth, sunning themselves on the front steps or lounging around on the paths. Puffadders are cytotoxic, meaning the venom works on the cells and if not treated in time the limb where the bite happened mostly has to be amputated, so damaged is the muscle.
The Art of Snake Handling
The only Puffadders I have ever handled have been dead ones, and on one memorable occasion in the Mababe Depression in Botswana I nearly rode my luck a little too far. It was around midday and very hot, and I was with a group of eight people heading to Savute when I noticed a Puffadder lying in the road. I slowed down and saw that it had been run over and was looking very dead.
I stopped the car and got out, and realised that it was indeed dead. Just to make one hundred percent sure I prodded it with a stick and seeing no reaction I carefully picked it up to show the guests. Standing next to the vehicle, and handling the dead snake like a pro, I began to explain the workings of the fangs. Sometime during the talk the snake moved in my hands.
When I focussed again I was in the car and driving at speed towards Savute, the Puffadder lying some distance from where the car was parked. My stomach was churning and my palms were sweating. I glanced back at the guests but they were all back in their midday heat reverie.
Sometime later I began to feel very foolish – rigor mortis is a strange thing.