Of Fear and Phobias - Ophidiophobia

Recently I've been reading (and talking) a lot about fear and how pervasive it can be in our lives. There are ways that fear can be used to our advantage (self improvement for example) or we can be right tossers and use it as a weapon against other people. The second instance is generally not in good karmic form and I strongly advise against it.

Childhood Phobia

From a very young age I was deathly afraid of snakes. It was not your average fear vibe, it was a full blown phobia of snakes - one in particular which plagued me with recurring nightmares for years...the low, fast flying purple snake. Yes I know, sucky name but I was a kid.

This snake coupled with flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz movie and it would turn into full blown night terrors.
Alas, I survived.

The first dangerous snake that I encountered was a juvenile Cape Cobra. One of the 3 deadly snakes in the Western Cape. Juveniles tend to be more dangerous than adults as they are far less likely to inflict what's known as a dry bite (where no venom is injected) and their venom is more concentrated than adults.

Considering that I was absolutely terrified of snakes, when I walked into this one while walking back from checking the post box, I instinctively froze. The snake had already flared a hood and if I had messed with it, it would have defended itself. Even in the state of fear, I slowly backed away and then jumped over the veranda wall and ran inside screaming my head off.

Determined to Overcome

When I decided to get my degree in Conservation, I knew that this snake phobia would become a disadvantage that I would have to overcome.

This photo is me during my first year of studying (2003) having come across a snake in Newlands Forest with an old school friend of mine. He thought he knew what it was (which it wasn't) but I remember it well and now know it was a little Slug Eater which is pretty harmless - the worst they can do is defecate on your hand which is ridiculously stinky, but won't kill you. Can you see the terror on my face? Yeah I was not impressed with this idea.

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In order to overcome this fear I decided to learn everything I could about the snakes in my local area. There are three snakes that rank high up on the venomous scale in South Africa and who's bite is quite possibly deadly if no antivenom is administered in time. The Cape Cobra, Puff Adder and BoomSlang.

They are all beautiful animals and I now like all of them. But it was a process. Overcoming a life long phobia is not an overnight thing.

Training and Execution

In 2006 I did a basic snake handling course as well as a snake bite first aid training course.

The first lesson we were ever taught :

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Mr D - the legend! His favourite response was "Yes - but did you die?"

In my position as the reserve manager, I was called out to snake removals frequently and by 2008 was quite proficient in relocating snakes from residential areas. This included being called out to what turned out to be worms, lizards and even having to remove an entire garage ceiling to relocate a Boomslang once. You never know what you will be called out for and it was always quite exhilarating.

In 2008 I did refresher training for official certification. This was great fun for me as by this time I had overcome my fear, had a very healthy respect for the venomous ones and a love for all the others.

The training was given by three certified, professional snake handling trainers and each person was allocated time to correctly capture and secure a Molesnake (non venomous but still bitey), a Cape Cobra (neurotoxic venom), a Puff Adder (cytotoxic venom) and a BoomSlang (hemotoxic venom).

As I had previously worked with Marcel the trainer I was allocated, he thought it a good idea to get the snakes very irritated before unleashing them for me to capture. You know, make it challenging.
#whenindoubtwaititout

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This is a really angry Boomslang (male) that I'm giving some breathing room to calm (the heck) down before approaching it. You can check out a video by a colleague of mine Grant Smith here on Boomslang which includes the pronunciation and meaning of the snake's name.

It's always a good idea to observe a snake for a while before trying to capture it if this is an option.

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Going for the tail end of the molesnake while applying rule no 1.

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Large Cape Cobra going towards the capture box.

This is probably one of the trickiest parts of the capture as Cobras tend to double up on the snake hook and head back towards you. You have to focus 100% on what the snake is doing and adjust yourself, the hook and the snake - to keep it going towards the box instead of anywhere towards you.

Once in the box, the capture is not over and this is often when snake handlers get bitten by not keeping their eyes on the snake while securing the lid.

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Where is the blighter's head?

You have to make sure you know which direction the snake is facing in the box when you secure the lid. Clearly this snake was confusing the crap out of me.

Images taken with my gear, have no idea who had my camera though.

The Feeling of Success

This has been one of my most monumental feats of overcoming a large obstacle and limiting characteristic of mine. Now I love snakes. I've even been bitten by a few non venomous ones, but I've handled probably hundreds of them without mishap. They are very misunderstood animals, have a very important ecological role to play and they are actually really pretty.

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Holding a Brown Water Snake

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Holding an Egg Eater (they mimic adders as a defense mechanism)

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Me being bitten by a Cross Marked Grass Snake

I've been struck at by Cobras and Puff Adders but I've never been tagged. While the venomous snakes are beautiful to see, they are not snakes that you want to trifle with as they will not hesitate to defend themselves. Boomslang tend to be far more docile and it takes a lot for them to get angry, however they will still bite if provoked (do not believe the stuff they say about them not being able to bite because they are back-fanged - they will bite you if they want to).

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The Puff Adder - Bitis bitis is it's scientific name and that should say everything you need to know.

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A juvenile Cape Cobra ready to be relocated back into a natural area. Note the semi flaired hood and raised position - this one is readying itself to strike.

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A female Boomslang after being captured and ready for relocation into a natural area.

While these snakes are highly venomous, they would prefer to leave people alone than to waste their venom which could be used on prey. If you encounter any snake in the wild immaterial of the species, the best course of action is to keep your eyes on it and then back away slowly. They will very rarely be aggressive enough to pursue you.

After years of being absolutely petrified of these animals, I now have a fondness for them unmatched by many other animals I have encountered. They are exceptional hunters, fantastic ambush predators, will defend themselves heroically against mongoose and even lions. Fascinating creatures that deserve our respect.

Ambassadors for Snake Conservation

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All the field rangers that got certified that day automatically became ambassadors for snake conservation - protecting their role in the ecosystem while reducing people-animal conflict situations through environmental education and awareness.

Disclaimer: No NDA is or was in place with my previous employer regarding the events outlined in this article. These are recollections of my own personal experience during that time and are portrayed as such.

Please do not attempt to handle any snake without the correct and adequate knowledge base, training and experience required.

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