After 20 months I am finally getting a bit of snake action.
First call a couple of weeks ago was to a home where a baby dugite (Pseudonaja affinis, of the Brown Snakes – classed as dangerously venomous and as a genus statistically the most common cause of snake bite in Australia) was hiding in a compost heap. It was small and we shepherded it away to the reserve nearby.
On Monday Carl the Ranger called me to tell me there was a big dugite on the main street of Katanning, right in the middle of the shopping precinct. Sure enough there it was, admiring its reflection in the shop windows, and slowly slithering down the street, startling and alarming the shoppers. Carl and the bystanders were keeping well back. I gently picked it up with the aid of my snake tongs, adapted from an old litter picker and dropped it into my fishing/butterfly net. Into a bucket in the boot, and off to the airfield to release it in the bush at the back. I learned that I really need a bag to contain a snake. They don’t necessarily want to stay in a bucket, and they can be harder to get out of the boot than they were to put in. We learn as we go. I now have a bag and I have made further adaptions to the grabber that I affectionately call my “snake gotcha”.
That pretty much established my reputation. Dozens of reliable witnesses saw the cool aplomb with which I handled the snake. By the time I returned to the Shire office, word had already spread about the mad shire worker who picked up a dugite with his bare hands. Michelle patiently pointed out that snake catching is not in my job description. I suggested it should be, as a health-related community service as well as for conservation reasons, but mostly because I really love snakes.
We struck a deal. I would make up any time spent on herpetology. I love Michelle. She is a great boss.
On Wednesday a picture in the Great Southern Herald, the local rag, consolidated my reputation. I was not actually in the picture, as the photographer had focussed on the creature in my net, but that did not bother me. Word gets round. I was now the shire staff who responds to snake calls. So I was pleased indeed when another call came so soon afterwards. Today.
As we approached, the young man who had called the ranger and I out, held aloft the five foot long remains of the decapitated dugite he had just attacked with a shovel. It was indeed a beauty, but now it was dead, even though the head on the shovel blade acted as if it was not yet convinced of the fact. The triumphant grin on the youth’s face suggested he expected a bit of hero adulation for his deed. Instead he got a bollocking. “Why did you kill it you feckin eejit?” – “Because it was heading for town”. – “Was it threatening you?” – “No.”. Then why? Apart from being illegal, it is wrong, immoral and – and just fecking stupid. Why call us if you are going to kill it?” I stalked off and left Carl to explain in gentler tones what the pratt had done.
The thing about these snakes, is that unless you are unlucky enough to step on one, or foolish enough to attack and corner one, they will not harm you. They would rather just go on their way. I have spoken to several people now who have been bitten and came to no harm, because the bite was defensive and the snake did not envenomate. This is what usually occurs when it is caught unawares, and startled. It reacts with a bite. A warning. But it does not want to waste venom on a non-food item.
When Carl and I go out, our intention is to guide the snake away from anyone that feels threatened by it (and therefore might try to kill it) and shepherd it back to its usual habitat. Around most of Katanning that need not involve capturing it at all, merely getting it to go where it can escape safely. In some areas, it is better to relocate the snake, as much for its own welfare as for that of the residents. The main thing is to handle it gently and keep the sharp end away from biteable extremities. I am very gentle. Don’t think I am not afraid because I am. It would not be rational not to be afraid when you are confronting something capable of killing you. But that is the point. I feel the fear, and try to act rationally. I just don’t understand the irrational fear of some people that drives them to either panic, or to attack. But then how could I? Irrational fear is after all, by definition, irrational.
I believe very strongly that I have survived several “near death” experiences during my lifetime merely because I tend not to panic. Maybe it is because I am a bit slow, but the fear takes a while to filter through, and I can usually stay calm and find time to work out some kind of response. You might say (and I know you will) that the most rational thing to do is to walk away from snakes, or even to kill them on sight. The former most definitely is indeed the best course of action for most people, but if one actually cares about the snake’s welfare (as well as people’s) then someone has to be willing to be a rescuer.
I hope soon to be able to take a course on snake handling, and qualify as a licensed handler. In the meantime I can only act under that catch all section of the legislation that allows one to remove a protected creature when it is reasonable to believe it is at risk, and take it to an appropriate place.