Venomous snakes are definitely animals like no other. Love them or hate them, you just can’t be indifferent to them- they might well have contributed to the evolution of our lineage much more than we would think (see this paper for a highly discussed example) and are a recurring element in the spiritual/religious practices of countless cultures. Even among herpetologists, who by definition approach these animals via the tools and framework of science, the allure of venomous snakes is apparent- sometimes to the detriment of harmless species, I might add, which however constitute the vast majority of snake diversity on Earth. I myself am all but immune to such fascination- I’ve loved venomous snake since I can remember, and now that I am able to work with them directly or indirectly, I consider it a true privilege.
However, privilege must come with respect.
A few months ago, I paid a visit to herp keeper Udo Schutte in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where he lives with his collection of amazing venomous snakes. I had been looking for opportunities to train my handling skills since coming back homr from South Africa one year prior (to no avail), so when Udo agreed to supervise me for a day, I was head over heels. Grabbed my snake hooks, put a jacket on, and took the first train- simple as that. Once there, we chatted for a bit- Udo wanted to see what was my level of training in snake handling- and then moved up to meet the animals. It was a world-scale venom galore. Timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) from the US, a juvenile king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) from China, and even an inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus), the allegedly most venomous snake in the world native to the Australian outback. I got to handle them all, and it went alright- however, it is what went wrong that I want to discuss in this piece.
Among Udo’s animals, I was especially thrilled to see his pair of breathtakingly beautiful Eastern green mambas (Dendroaspis angusticeps). Now, these snakes display a livery so splendidly green it would make the most precious of emeralds pale in comparison- if you add this to the elegance and sensuosness of their slender, muscular body, you get a wonder of nature. With such premises, it goes without saying that I was ecstatic when Udo took one of them out for me to hold with my hook. The mamba, on its part, was collaborative- no thrashing around, no stress signals, just an innocently inquisitve attitude manifested by the movements of its head in every direction in an attempt to make sense of the surroundings. Still, Udo was right there next to me, ready to step in should anything happen- and taking this picture in the meantime.
A few moments later, the fairytale collapsed. I felt the snake and my gear become heavier and heavier- my arm was getting tired, which obviously made my grip onto the handle of the hook more shaky as seconds went by (even lightweight snakes such as green mambas can become surprisingly heavy after a while when you are skinny like myself ). Instinctively, I tightened my fingers around the handle and pressed it against my forearm- looking at my hand instead of the mamba’s head.
Now, green mambas are exquisitely arboreal- they love climbing trees and swiftly cruise from branch to branch. To that beautiful individual, my hook was a perfect support- so much so that it started moving up its length, which I didn’t notice because I was too focussed on my grip. When I got my eyes on the snake again, its head was no more than 10 cm from my fingers- and trust me, that is not where you want a green mamba’s head to be. My heart sank. Had the snake wanted to bite me, it could have done so way faster than I could possibly dream to react. Luckily, it had no intention whatsoever to do so- it was just exploring around, and probably would have climbed all the way up my arm if I had let it. Of course, I didn’t- I kneeled slowly, put the snake down, took a step back, and grabbed my second hook to get the animal back under control. Everything was fine. I was safe. But my mind was a turmoil of thoughts.
First of all, I was pissed as hell at myself. Rule no. 1: always keep your eyes on the head. “Don’t get bitten” is rule no. 2, because it is basically a direct consequence of rule no. 1. I knew that in my mind, yet I made such a foolish mistake right when I needed to be 100% focussed on the matter at hand. As painful as it was to admit, complacency had gotten the better of me. I should have put the snake down immediately once I felt my arm shaking. I should have used a deeper hook to begin with. I should have been more aware of the space I had to move and maneuver the animal. These and many other points were raised by expert handlers and herpetologists once I posted the pictures on social media- criticism was more than deserved, no question. So why, despite all this, am I re-publishing that very picture and discussing the moment again?
The answer is, that mistake was my first ever close call- at a stage when I was (still am, who am I kidding) a beginner. For the first time, I realized that the risk of a bite is real- one brief distraction is more than enough to screw up big time. Of course I knew this already, but only from the recounts of others Sure, in the end nothing of this actually happened, but the chill I felt running down my spine when I saw the mamba’s head so close to my hand will stay in my mind for a long time. Handling these animals is no joke and under no circumstances can one afford to underestimate them or act with complacency around them.
I can already assure you that you won’t see me posting snake handling pictures on here unless there’s a reason for it – it is not my intention whatsoever to promote such practices to non-experienced people, let alone give the impression that I am a “pro” or whatever when I still have so much to learn and so much training to do. I decided to open up about this episode because it reminded me of my place and how dangerous it is to overestimate yourself. Also, allow me to point out once more how the snake didn’t even try to bite despite having every opportunity to do so. For this, and for the lesson that this moment taught me, I feel obliged to keep learning and improving so that I won’t make such idiotic mistakes again.
To the mamba itself, I can- and must- only say: I owe you.