Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Close Encounters of the Slithering Kind – The Adventures of Snakeman.

“I hope that when you get to Singapore, you will do your homework the night before and not in class. Otherwise let them feed you to the snakes! (especially bushmasters)”

-Mr. Mitchell, 1987.

For those of you who are reading this blog for the first time, let me back up a little. My name is Wout Wynants, and I am a Third Culture Kid. This means that I spent most of my youth in foreign countries, ‘blending my home culture with foreign cultures to form a type of third culture’. We are also known as Global Nomads and are notorious for not being able to make up our minds as to what we want to do with our lives. I’m a rather fine example of this… A lot of us also had the privilege of getting to do stuff that few others ever get to do. I was lucky enough to have had many such experiences, and my favorite by far was getting to explore my interest in snakes…

As many a kid has done, I used to whine to my parents about wanting a snake as a pet. Annoyingly, they kept saying no… For lack of a genuine serpent, I checked out all available literature on snakes from the kids section of our local library in Eindhoven. One day my mom even bought me a book about the ‘adder’, (Vipera berus) which is the sort of thing I liked to read before going to sleep. It happened to have a complete list of all species of adders, vipers, and pit-vipers known at the time, including their scientific names. By the time I was 13, I’d memorized the lot… Back then, despite being afflicted with the raging hormones of typical young teenager, I dare say this geek was more interested in snakes than in girls…

My first ‘hands on’ experience with a real snake was when I found a dead one along the side of the road in France one summer. It looked like some kind of adder (venomous) so I made quintuply sure it was in fact dead by giving it several pokes with a big stick. The flies departing the blob of twisted entrails that were emerging from a gash in its side convinced me that it was safe to pick up. I carried it by the tail and took it back to our cabin. When my parents saw their 11 year old approach the premises with what appeared to be a venomous snake, they about had a heart attack (Wout-induced heart palpitations are a recurring theme in my life). Once their nerves had settled, being the cool parents that they are they drove me to the local pharmacist where we bought a large glass bottle of formaldehyde solution. The mortal remains came home with us to Holland and I got my ‘pet snake’ after all. Never mind the fact that it sat, dead as a rusty doornail, in a jar on my bookshelf. There was now a snake in my bedroom and as far as I was concerned it was a start.

Fast forward a year or two to some amazing news. My dad, who worked for a Dutch electronics company at the time was getting transferred to Singapore, and we’d be moving there for a period of several years. I found out that there were a whopping 144! species of snake (compared to 3 in Holland) lurking in various nooks and crannies on that island. These ranged from reticulated pythons to cobras, rat snakes to pit vipers, as well as sea snakes. This was a reptile nerd’s equivalent of a wet dream… On the practical side, it meant that I was off to an International school for the first time, and I started that school year (1987) at ISSE in Eindhoven. Within a few weeks I was known there as ‘Snakeman’. The school had a small library where I discovered reptile books written in English. It was fascinating, though I admit I was a little intimidated when I first read about the sheer size that a king cobra could grow to. But it was a time of discovery and anticipation. Would I really get to see sea snakes and salt water crocodiles? One animal whose sheer beauty captured my mind was the mangrove snake (Boiga dendrophila). Jet black with bright yellow bands, and considered ‘relatively mildly’ venomous, this was the one I wanted to get my hands on the most.

My first educational experience in Singapore was at a place called Dover Court. My English grammar needed a bit more fine tuning before I could enroll at UWCSEA. By the school office, hung a poster showing the most amazing photos of the ‘Dangerous Snakes of Singapore’. I was soon drawn toward the Wagler’s pit viper, better known as the ‘temple’ pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri). I was having visions of going out into the jungle and catching one to keep as my first ‘real’ pet snake. Never mind the fact that it was venomous... According to the poster, its bite was supposed to be non-fatal, but ‘extremely painful’. As a gung ho 13 year old snake expert, the ‘extremely painful’ bit was something I would just ‘deal with’. I was completely oblivious to the fact that the cause of that extreme pain would be tissue destruction and abscess formation, and that it would likely lead to permanently impaired function and possible amputation if I was really unlucky… To me it was a cool snake, and the part that probably intrigued me most was that it was allegedly very docile and could be ‘freely handled’.  Later that year, I got to test that theory out.

My art teacher at Dover Court (this slightly crazy Australian lady) intrigued me with tales of the blue coral snake (Calliophis bivirgata) which was then considered to be the ‘most venomous’ snake in Singapore. To this day there is still no anti-venom. The school had a sizeable ‘grounds’ area, and in one corner there was a big pile of rubble that I regularly sorted through during recess, hoping and hoping to find one… Alas, all I found was a big agamid lizard which nonetheless proved to be good entertainment. I showed it to a pretty girl from Poland who I had a crush on, thinking she’d be all impressed… All I got for my efforts was the loudest scream I had ever heard and a lot of swearing in Polish. Something told me this was probably not the most effective way of getting a date... I really could have used the book ‘Dating for Herpetologists for Dummies’ back then.

At ‘half-term’, we flew an hour north to the island of Penang in Malaysia. High on my list of priorities was a visit to the famous Snake Temple, where Wagler’s pit vipers wander around freely, being considered a sign of good luck. My first snake encounter of the trip occurred on our second day there. I had some time to myself and went for a walk on the beach in front of our hotel. There, sitting on the sand was a snake charmer. And he just happened to have a real cobra, complete with the famous ‘spectacles’ on its hood. He was a friendly chap and even allowed me to stick my hand in the box to pet it. It hissed quite loudly, but otherwise it was a fairly gentle animal. Seriously misunderstood creatures, those cobras ;-) He also happened to have a second basket sitting next to him, and when I inquired about its contents he pretty much made my day. He had a mangrove snake! This one he allowed me to play with and he was nice enough to take a picture of me holding it… My ‘WHAM!’ shorts positively date this picture to the 80’s:  

Toward the end of the trip we visited the Snake Temple.  As it had said in the guidebook, the vipers were crawling all over the ornaments in the temple, and were indeed docile enough to handle:

I was very tempted to let one ‘accidentally’ slip into my leather bag, but I figured Singapore Airlines might have issues letting me bring it on the flight home…

After the summer of 1988, I entered UWCSEA where the adventure continued. I’d gone on numerous visits to the Singapore Zoo, where I had inquired about the possibility of volunteering at the reptile house. I was told that the only way in which they would consider that, was if it was for an academic project. I mentioned this to my head of year. He then did something that I will be eternally thankful for, as it put in motion the single most incredible experience of my life. He wrote to the Zoo, asking if they could help me with my 3rd Year biology project. I wanted to do it on pit viper venom. According to my books, it had some interesting digestive properties (it breaks down tissues, essentially digesting the snake’s prey from the inside out) which I intended to explore. This study, of course required some venom… The letter we got back from the zoo was very positive. They would be happy to help out, and provide me with what I needed. I wasn’t (of course) allowed to do the venom extraction myself. Their head keeper would be doing that for me. He ‘milked’ two Kanburi pit vipers (Trimeresurus/Cryptelytrops kanburiensis) for me. The following day (when we were supposed to work on our projects in school) I took it to Biology class along with some cubes of chicken breast I was going to test it on. Another aspect of snake venom that had me curious was that it was supposedly safe to drink. According to ‘the literature’ it is essentially a cocktail of various proteins that should be processed by the stomach like any other food. So…I had myself a little taste and about gave my poor teacher a coronary. It wouldn’t be the last time. The venom, as expected didn’t do anything to me, and by my teenage standards this theory had been ‘peer reviewed’… ;-)

I have to say I miss the carefree days of the late 80’s. I don’t want to be one of those people who whine about the ‘good old days’, but it was fantastic, as a young teen to be able to walk along a beach in South East Asia without fear of being kidnapped. Similarly, if an eccentric kid were to bring snake venom onto a school campus anno 2012, it would likely result in a SWAT team being called, as well as felony charges being filed…

The Singapore Zoo, like most others, had an on-site veterinarian. But when it came to reptile medicine, especially when it involved the dangerous ones, most treatments were done by zookeepers. The vet determined the treatment, and the keepers were responsible for administering it. One of the most common issues when keeping exotics of any type, is that they refuse to eat. In most reptiles, a feeding response can be obtained by administering an injection of vitamin B complex. If the vitamin B shot didn’t work, the animal was usually quarantined and observed to determine other treatment options.  This being a large zoo, inevitably specimens died. The staff was very aware of my keen interest in all things snake, so if one died, they were more than happy to give it to me for dissection. My teacher loaned me a dissection kit which I took to the zoo on Sundays. Usually I would dissect whatever was there during the day, and as a result gained quite an extensive knowledge of snake anatomy, as well as (occasionally) diseases and causes of death. A small (2m) king cobra died with a big lump in its body:

With local species the zoo didn’t usually bother with extensive necropsies. The frozen snake went home with me in a cooler, to be taken to school Monday morning, where my teacher had kindly allowed me to dissect it during activity time after classes. With help from my chemistry teacher, the skin was preserved as well. The swollen ‘lump’ turned out to be the heart, surrounded by a massive blood clot. It was swollen and torn in four places. Do king cobras have coronaries? Perhaps having too many reticulated pythons for lunch (king cobras eat other snakes in the wild, and at the zoo were fed primarily on small reticulated pythons which were readily available locally) has adverse effects on its cholesterol levels…

The list of stuff I was able to dissect while I volunteered there is quite staggering. It included reticulated pythons, a blood python, Indian cobra, spitting cobra, king cobra, many-banded krait, several species of Tropidolaemus Cryptelytrops & Trimeresurus pit vipers, a mamushi viper, false habu…the list goes on and on… When I enrolled at Ghent University for my brief ill-fated stint as a veterinary student last year, I quickly realized what a lucky bastard I was for having had access to all these exotics… The only dissection practical scheduled for that semester was an ‘Ascaris suum’, which is a worm…which lives up the ass of a pig…

My habit of continually bringing ever more exotic carcasses to school didn’t go unnoticed, and one day when I brought my (now infamous) yellow cooler to school containing a baby salt water crocodile which had been crushed by its minivan-sized ‘mom’, my teacher (and the other) had had enough. He was (quite rightfully so I should add) concerned about the risk of infectious diseases that these animals might carry. None of the staff at the school were reptile or exotic animal experts, and their insurance didn’t come anywhere near the coverage required for the stuff I was bringing onto campus. There was also no way of knowing for sure what diseases or parasites these animals carried. He wrote a letter to my parents explaining all this, and that for those reasons I would no longer be allowed to do dissections on campus. I was bummed about this at the time, but when I look at that letter now I can only look back in deep gratitude. I will be forever thankful to the science staff at UWCSEA for putting up with, and supporting my eccentricities for as long as they did. The experience was simply awesome.

I had now held snakes, fed them, and dissected them, but I hadn’t yet caught one… Our house in Singapore, at 25 Sunset Place, bordered a local park and the neighborhood has a system of storm drains. One morning I was taking a shower when I heard screams in the garden through the bathroom window. This was followed about 20 seconds later by my mom banging on the door saying there was a snake in the garden. I didn’t bother drying off. Soaking wet I put my clothes on. I grabbed my self-made snake hook and ran downstairs, through the kitchen and into the garden. On a low tree branch, was a mildly venomous green vine snake (Ahaetulla prasina). My mom took pictures while I caught it. My parents knew by this time that I more or less knew what I was doing and weren’t too concerned anymore. This was neat though. It was the first snake I ever caught, and she got it on camera:

When you play around with snakes, there are going to be occasional mishaps, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had one take a nibble on me. Getting bit by a non-venomous snake is something that’s really a lot more startling than it is painful, though for most people the thought of snakebite has this romanticized aura of sheer horror about it. If you want to see exactly how ‘not that big of a deal’ it is, I suggest you check out the ‘SnakeBytesTV’ channel on YouTube. There’s a colorful character there known as ‘Chewy’ who usually gets tagged several times in each episode. It isn’t a big deal and I really wish the broader public would ‘get’ that. There is currently some fairly vicious and above all, sleazy! legislating happening in the United States (those politicians should really be focusing on fixing the economy), which recently resulted in several species of python being banned from the reptile hobby. And it unfortunately seems to be only the beginning. A few highly publicized incidents with privately kept venomous snakes is threatening that hobby as well, which would be a big shame as the vast majority of new knowledge we gain about these animals comes from the dedicated studies done by private keepers. Most Universities have neither the desire nor the funds to do proper research on venomous snakes, and it is largely the efforts of those private individuals which stimulate the propagation of new knowledge. One of the finest examples of why the ‘venomous hobby’ should be here to stay is the amazing work done by Al Coritz, better known on YouTube as ‘Viperkeeper’. I would strongly encourage you to check out his YouTube channel for a look at what the responsible day-to-day work with a collection of venomous snakes looks like. One video which is a must-see is entitled ‘Polylepis on a stick’. It puts to rest a lot of the myths surrounding the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) which has had a lot of undeserved bad press recently, and has traditionally had the reputation of being a vicious killing machine.

Looking back at my experiences, I can say without a shred of a doubt that the ideal ‘job’ for me would have been a hybrid between the late Steve Irwin, and Mark O’Shea (I’m far too geeky to be a pure Steve Irwin type). I went off to College as a double major in biology and music, hoping to do more research on snake venom, but at my University the one herpetologist was mostly an ecologist and had very little interest in snakes. The TV channel ‘Animal Planet’ didn’t exist yet, and I had no idea that within a few years there would indeed be a market for eccentric reptile geeks like myself. More recently, hardcore academics and passionate enthusiasm have been able to mix very successfully. Dutchman Freek Vonk, a PhD candidate at the University of Leiden, is combining a  television career with National Geographic and Discovery Channel, with his fascinating research into the medicinal (potential pharmaceutical) properties of animal toxins.
As for me, snakes will always be a part of my life in some form or another. I’ve been very, very! lucky to have had the opportunity to explore my interest in them to the max, and this at a very early age.

This article was a condensed version of one of the chapters in my book. There are more stories involving sea kraits, spitting cobras, komodo dragons, monitor lizards, and salt water crocodiles, but for those you will have to wait for its publication.