Animals Opinion

'Sneaky encounters': The beauty and deception of snakes

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A Common Tree Snake emerging from a brightly coloured bromeliad (image by Mark David)

Mark David describes his experiences with a most feared creature in the Australian environment: the snake. 

I NEVER exaggerate. Because there’s no need.

So when I’m catching a Huntsman Spider the size of a Volkswagen, I don’t indulge in embellishment. When you live where I do, the facts don’t need any help. The truth is weird enough.

That brings me to the story about the python in the laundry. At least two football fields long and with the girth of a school bus, I was at a loss about what to do with it. I mean, it was in the damn laundry. Are we talking cold wash or warm wash? Stains or delicates? How would I know? I’m from the city.

I’ll come right out and say that the reason I mow the grass around the house is to discourage snakes from coming inside. Because it’s fair to say that snakes normally don’t like travelling out in the open. This is why the expression “snake in the grass” took hold. Notice that the expression is not, “snake right out in the open” or, “snake on the freshly mowed lawn”?

And people think I mow my lawn out of some kind of civic pride! However, the laundry experience showed that there are some rebellious snakes out there that don’t follow rules and so will travel across the open areas. Snake anarchists.

Despite a significant investment in time spent mowing since my move to Southeast Queensland, I’ve therefore encountered quite a few snakes. Most of them are harmless (non-venomous) pythons and tree snakes. But I’ve seen some Eastern Brown Snakes too.

A Carpet Python shows off its rows of sharp teeth (image by Mark David).

The reassuring thing about snakes is that while we do everything we can to avoid them, the snakes are quite happy to play along with that idea and so they do everything they can to avoid us. It’s a good system. I was walking the dog once and almost stepped on a very large Eastern Brown Snake. I just froze when I saw it. The snake streaked past my foot and disappeared into some nearby grass. There you go — more snakes in the grass.

Sometimes, I will actually go out of my way to involve myself in a snake’s day. For example, I was walking into town one day and noticed a beautiful big Carpet Python starting to cross the road. And there was a car coming. The car is the arch-enemy of the snake. So I ran out onto the road and held up my hand to stop the car. The driver thought I was a bit weird stopping her “just” because of a snake. But it was such a fine snake. I’d like to think that if the roles were reversed it would have done the same thing for me.

There was another time we had a snake in the house. This time it was after buying some pot plants at the markets. We didn’t realise it at the time of purchase and it certainly wasn’t sign-marked, but by the time we got the plants home, we discovered that one of them came with a free snake. Now that is a good deal.

This time it was a Dwarf Crowned Snake: cute, small, only very mildly venomous and not aggressive. I used some barbecue tongs to gently coax it into a pillow slip and then released it in some nearby bush, being extra sure the snake was not still in the slip before putting it back onto my pillow. Now there’s something I don’t try with Eastern Browns.

I’ll take this opportunity to fill in some details about the pythons around my place. I’m talking about a Carpet Snake, or Carpet Python. These beautiful animals are not considered venomous but that doesn’t mean it’s a good experience being bitten by one. Because at the back of their mouths they have rows of razor-sharp teeth.

There’s your first problem: you’re going to bleed and bleed. But the next part is the real worry. The fragile pointed tips of those teeth often break off and get lodged under your skin when they bite you. This means tiny fragments of snake, covered with snake mouth germs, end up under your skin where they seriously don’t belong. Under those circumstances, painful, long-lasting infection is a huge potential risk.

Most of the snakes I see are harmless tree snakes. The Common Tree Snake, for example, is a gentle, timid creature. And pretty. Yes, I called a snake pretty. But what happens when I see one is that the part of my brain that registers “snake” speed-dials the part of my brain that knows about Eastern Browns, and so my first reaction is always alarm.

A visitor leaving before Mark David could get to the door (image by Mark David).

I’ve seen enough of them now to be better at identifying them but I still try to be careful — because a very young Eastern Brown can look very pretty indeed and might be mistaken at first glance for a tree snake. A young Eastern Brown easily has enough venom in its bite to cause serious illness or fatality. I was once even told by a snake expert that a bite from the young ones can be worse, because when they bite they tend not to let go. That gives the bite more time to envenomate you.

Eastern Brown venom is so bad it only takes a minute amount of it to kill, so it means the young ones can be very dangerous indeed. I’ve never personally met a young Eastern Brown. I’ve only read the reviews.

I’ve developed a bit of a routine for taking photos of snakes, and the method, and my bravery, varies according to how venomous the snake is. It’s amazing how much courage I have when the snake isn’t venomous. So, with the Common Tree Snakes, I might even attempt a shot with my macro (close-up) lens. With the Eastern Browns, my method of choice is to use a long telephoto lens, working from inside a car. On the opposite side of a lake. With the engine running.

The truth is, there is a lot of bravado around snakes, with people sometimes getting bitten because they think they know what they are doing. I would argue that the snakes know what they’re doing but the people not so much. The good news if you encounter a snake at your place is that you don’t have to deal with it. Snake catchers are often only a phone call away. And they know what they’re doing.

They will identify and catch the snake in a manner where no snake catchers, homeowners, snakes or laundry are harmed. And they will release the creatures in some bush nearby but far enough away to stop you from worrying about them, as required by wildlife regulations. Snakes, and you, will generally live longer that way.

Mark David is IA's resident cartoonist. You can see more cartoons from Mark on his website Mark David Cartoons, or follow him on Twitter @mdavidcartoons.

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