My husband is a keen herpetologist. He left England for Africa aged eighteen purely because he considered there would be far more interesting snakes there. To his mother’s disapproval he had built a small snake pit in the garden and when he knew he was leaving, he donated the inmates to the nearby Bellvue Zoo in Manchester. Due to his exploits with snakes in Africa, the local people gave him a nick name, Manyoka, meaning snake man.
My first contact with his snake interest came not long after our honeymoon while we were settling in to our house on the shores of Lake Kariba, Rhodesia. I was in the kitchen (a very hot kitchen I might add, due to there being no electricity and having to cook on a wood-burning Dover stove. There was no ceiling to the house: one looked up onto the rafters and the corrugated iron roof, and this together with the terrific heat in that part of the country made it feel like a sauna). However, there I was and in walked my new husband, clutching his hand, blood pouring out all over, anguish and pain on his face. Startled and alarmed I listened with horror as he said “I’ve been bitten by a snake. I’ve probably got only about ten minutes left.” Shocked, I burst into tears exclaiming “Oh no! I’ve only been married for three weeks, and now I’m gong to be a widow!” At that, he burst out laughing saying “Don’t worry, it was only a striped sand snake, completely harmless.” I was not amused! The striped sand snake Psammophis subtaeniatus is a back fanged snake and these snakes have to get a good chew on you to actually cause serious harm.
Striped sand snake: Psammophis subtaeniatus
On early evening while still light we thought we would drive up the hill and go to the local hotel, Kariba Heights, in our open-top Series 2, short-wheel based Land Rover. At that time I couldn’t drive. Going round a bend, there in the road, winding it’s way laboriously across to the other side was a puff adder in imminent danger of being run over by any other vehicle. Peter immediately slammed on brakes, leant over to the back of the vehicle and grabbed the snake stick he always carried. (This was a long hollow tube with a loop inserted, the idea being you would place the loop over the victim’s head, pull it firmly from the bottom of the tube thus ensuring it could be picked up without any danger to yourself). Leaving the engine running, he jumped out, placed the loop over the puff adder’s head, pulled it gently so that the noose was firmly round its neck and got back in the vehicle. He then passed the stick, complete with dangling snake, over to me! I gingerly moved it across to my left side and off we set again. Round a couple more bends on our way up the winding hill, when lo and behold! there was another puff adder dicing with death moving cross the tarmac. Again Peter jumped out. But now there was not another snake stick, and so he picked the snake up very carefully in his right hand between finger and thumb, it’s mouth firmly shut. But now, how to drive? This was resolved by Peter steering with his left hand, and me changing gears, at his command, with my right hand. We were both wondering what we would do if we came across a third snake, but luckily this didn’t happen. We arrived at the hotel and the two snakes were transferred to a sack and placed in the back of the vehicle. Any would-be thieves hoping to snatch the sack and its contents would have had a nasty surprise. Back home later, the snakes were released into freedom into the bush near our house at the lake edge.
Puff adder Bitis arietans
Our adorable Miniature Schnauzer, Chunky, had two bad events with snakes. He was bitten on the head by a puff adder. He came into the house and sat in front of me in a strange manner, trying to move his head. I reached out to touch him and he squealed and yelped alarmingly. It was obvious he had been bitten and our gardener confirmed he had seen the snake. We rushed Chunky off to the vet and had to leave him there. He was placed on a drip and was in a bad way. On the way to the vet I had been unable to touch him without him screaming out in pain. I phoned as to his progress and a couple of days later went in to see how he was.. He was hunched up in a corner, the drip still in, but as he heard my voice he whimpered and turned round to greet me. I was given a course of anti-biotics for him and was able to take him home. His hair had begun to slough off and his head and chest were bald. His mouth was raw and very tender and he now seemed to be blind in one eye. He was in a terrible state. I fed him milk by dripping it into his mouth and at last he was able to eat small amounts of minced meat. Gradually over the days he improved, his fur re-grew and he became quite fit again.
The second incident happened when he had accompanied Peter on a walk through the bush. Peter heard a yelp and was just in time to see Chunky in the mouth of a huge python. Grabbing the snake he tried his best to grapple the dog from its jaws, but to no avail. He grabbed its head, but it began to wind itself round Peter’s arms, tightening its coils all the time. In the meantime Chunky was still in its mouth yelping like mad. Peter was now down on the ground struggling with the snake, which just would not let go. There was a small bush nearby, and still being held by the snake’s coils he at last managed to stretch over and break off a small, spikey branch which he thrust time and time again into the corner of the snake’s mouth. At this, the snake at last let go and slithered off. Picking up the traumatised Chunky, Peter carried him home. I could not believe my eyes: there was Peter standing at the kitchen door, covered in blood, and Chunky running towards me also covered in blood, puncture wounds and some kind of digestive slime, which had a really awful smell. I got him into the bath, washed him thoroughly and applied anti-biotic cream deep into each and every puncture wound across his back, head and legs. Peter, apart from being lacerated and squeezed by the snake, was exhausted. It had taken over half an hour to get the snake off in a non-stop struggle and, being in the bush, he was getting desperate as there was no chance whatsoever anyone would have passed by to help. But there was no way he was going to lose our beloved dog.