Snakes and lads

Why do snake-rescuers have to be such macho showmen? Well, it’s a male thing

mansplaining snakes and lads

Some months ago, a famous snake-catcher was nearly despatched to the afterlife after being bitten by a cobra. Hooked to a ventilator in a Kerala hospital, the 47-year-old fought for his life for days before surviving to see the light of another. The media circus around the episode was interesting. His fans cried hoarse and hysterical as they prayed for his life, while his detractors angrily denounced his methods, which they said did more harm than good. 

The drama raises pertinent questions about animal welfare and our role in it, as well as about male preoccupation with valour and rescue. It also evokes the sexual symbology of the serpent, one that originates in its villainisation in the Garden of Eden.

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Snakes draw crowds, as do snake-catchers. The man in question built his personal brand around a rags-to-riches biography, claiming that he chose this path led by love for snakes and humanity alike. It’s debatable whether snakes return his affection, but humans, mesmerised by his antics, more than compensate for any love lost. 

Self-love, though, trumps every other kind. For, you see, the man is a YouTube star and a talk-show fixture. He arrives on the scene accompanied by sidekicks toting cameras and mobile phones to record his exploits, always conducted with more drama and flourish than are actually necessary to catch a snake. 

Among his prize catches are King Cobras — magnificent, intelligent snakes whose enormous size and venomous nature cause them to be feared and revered. One prevalent myth is that the mate of a killed King Cobra will return for vengeance. In truth, human deaths from King Cobra bites are rare, for the world’s largest venomous snake is far less interested in humans than in other snakes, which form its prey base. Chasing fleeing cobras and rat snakes for lunch, a King Cobra may follow them into human dwellings. It’s hard to expect people, conditioned to view snakes with suspicion and dread, to coexist calmly with a 15-foot King Cobra coiled up in the kitchen sink.

For intrusion, the snake pays a heavy price. We react to the snake exactly as it does to us. The amygdala is a part of the human brain that is primitive and reptilian. Its function is to help us survive in the face of threat with freeze, fight or flee responses. During an Amygdala Hijack our emotional response is out of measure with the scale of the threat. Instinctively, the kangaroo court in our heads leaps to pronounce death to the snake. 

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Killing a snake, akin to George Orwell’s observations in his essay Shooting An Elephant, is an elaborate performance, one in which the protagonist is ‘an absurd puppet pushed to and fro’ by the will of the gathered audience. Rescue or retreat are seen as cowardice, and the fitting denouement to this masque is to produce the condemned, battered body of the snake to quiet the baying mob. 

Arm-twisted by laws that make killing wild animals punishable, the actor’s role has evolved from puppet to protagonist. Snake rescue commands a higher premium as a spectator sport with immense viral potential, so suave thespians have mastered how to prolong the drama and orchestrate a happier ending — one in which man and snake exit the stage alive. 

In this kind of vulgar theatre the snake is an unwilling and unfortunate co-actor. Dehydrated, exhausted and trapped, its reaction is not to play along but to fight or flee. Raised hood, bared fangs, ominous hissing and striking add spice and flavour to the show, while flirting with danger makes the snake-catcher look like a brave gladiator. The worst thing to do at this stage is to handle the snake, but most crowd-pleasing snake-catchers do that and more. Some, overcome by emotion, attempt to caress them and kiss them, with undesirable consequences. 

Snakes are vertebrates, and wildlife veterinarians have observed that mishandling damages their delicate backbones. A snake in pain will bite, and that is what probably led to our friend landing in hospital. Although, curiously, this wasn’t his first time being bitten. If a so-called snake rescuer collects snakebites the way the valiant collect medals, he inspires more people to follow in his footsteps and adopt his methods. And this is what has conservationists up in arms. 

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Trained and ethical rescuers know better than to harass a stressed snake. The ideal rescue involves minimal handling. A crooked stick, a length of PVC pipe, a gunny sack or cloth bag (or even a pillowcase) are all the tools of trade necessary. Tucking the pipe in the bag, the rescuer guides the snake to enter the open mouth of the pipe, which it does instinctively. The snake is then bagged and released where it can survive unmolested. 

While many snake rescuers, among them more than a few women, go about their job sans histrionics, it is invariably men that crave and hog the attention. The reason may lie, well, below the belt. To psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the snake was a phallic symbol representing libido and sexual power — or the lack thereof.

A classic case of hiss and hers? 

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