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Snakes: A safety lesson

It’s no secret that I love snakes. I take pride in the fact that I’ve been bitten by a venomous snake (though the story isn’t as exciting as it sounds). I spoil my Mary Magdalene so much, it’s amazing she’s not overweight. If I had my way, I’d have a warehouse full of reptiles, and that’s not a hyperbole. I love them, I respect them, I would die happy if I could just get a glimpse of that wondrous oddity Xenodermus javanicus (and so help me, I will).

Because birds do more harm than a small snake ever could, I had always found it weird that people fear snakes so much more than thousands of equally dangerous animals. I can understand how big pythons, boas, and especially deadly elapids can strike fear in the hearts of men, but even so ,it’s all about how you handle the danger. So I’ve decided to impart my knowledge on the subject to any unaware backpackers.

Southeast Asia is the most popular choice among budget backpackers, and with plenty of reasons. It’s a massive amount of land, lush with life, cheaper than a dog’s ass, and a veritable hot pot of colorful cultures. It also holds its weight in gold when it comes to biodiversity, and plenty of that is reptilian. One thing that helps to understand its wildlife is to know what common behaviors most reptiles share, such as their affinity for moisture, darkness, and warmth. High humidity at night, especially on a new moon, will be certain to draw out droves of animals.

Take Care at Night

Yeah, let's sleep on that tonight!

Insects and amphibians, and the predators that prey on them, are why hammocks are a godsend. If, for some unknown reason, you’d rather spend the night on the wet ground, prone to such things, the number one danger would be a stray snake snuggling up to share some of your warmth, then getting pissed when you turn around and accidentally pin it down. This is also a real danger in the States, where rattlesnakes are prevalent. Plenty of people die in their sleep because of this, so the first thing you can do to prevent serious injury or death from a bite is to employ a hammock.

Leave Well Enough Alone

No matter how cute you think it is.

Coming across snakes in the wild while fully conscious is a completely different scenario, and one that can be easily handled if you know what to do. Now, take whatever image you have of snakes in your head and throw it away. Assume that every snake you meet is venomous and DON’T HANDLE THEM. Yes, that includes dead ones–for all you know, it could be mimicking death to lure prey. Even if it is deceased, it is possible for the nervous system of the roadkill to kick-start at a touch, which will cause that snake to impart a posthumous bite, still filled with venom. You might hear of a common practice of decapitating dead snakes before you touch them, and lemme tell ya, it’s very true. So, to recap, DON’T TOUCH THEM, alive or dead.

More Afraid of You Than–blah, blah, blah

Though it certainly doesn't seem like it, huh?

If you do come across a snake that’s alive and kicking, understand that MOST snakes would rather run from you than to waste their venom on something they can’t eat; e.g. you. In which case, rather than try to rush it and kill it, just walk away. They won’t attack you merely because your back is turned. If they are threatening you with hissing, rattling, or any aggressive posture, they’re doing it to make you leave them alone, and you should do just that. There are times when snakes feel cornered, however, and if the only escape route they have is through you, they will try to bite you to get past you. Never corner a snake on purpose, make sure to look where you walk, and whatever you do, don’t disturb a female and her nest.

Maneuvers and Tricks of the Trade

Now, I’m sure you’re not like me. You’re not going to go off the beaten path purely for the thrill of cornering and, dare I say it, handling a wild snake. Any situation you find yourself in that involves staring down a snake that you have no idea what it’s capable of is going to be pure accident, and accidents happen. Say you’ve accidentally stumbled across a questionably venomous snake, it has nowhere else to go but at you, and it’s pretty peeved at the circumstances too, so it tries to bite you–if only to make you dance out of the way. The first thing you do is distract it. Get a stick and wave it in front of its face (preferably a very long one). Snakes are dumb, remember that and you’ll live. It wouldn’t hurt to tap its head a little bit too, whatever it takes to move its head away from any of your extremities and get it trying to bite the stick instead. Too busy trying to kill whatever just poked its eye, it won’t notice that you’ve already retreated, crying and flailing to a safe distance. Hooray, you’ve won! But wait, there’s more…

That's the purpose behind the stick on the end of a snake charmer's pipe, exploiting predictable behaviors.

Escape and Breathe

Venomous snakes aren’t the only danger in the forests of Malaysia. Neighbor to the home of the burmese python and the site for many a reticulated python, plenty of snakes in those climes will easily reach ten to twenty feet long. Though never big enough to consume a full grown human, they are plenty big enough to constrict and kill one, and reticulated pythons aren’t known for their docile nature. So what do you do when a behemoth of nature has a hold of you and is squeezing the life from you? You can’t pry the snake off, their body is wrapped and wound in rock hard muscles, and you’re in no position for leverage.

That head is as big as your hand, and it can dislocate to get even bigger. RESPECT.

First things first, when struck, don’t pull back if you can help it. They have large teeth that curve backward to hook prey and drag it down its throat. If you were to yank your arm out of the mouth of even a subadult python, the teeth will rip your skin open, possibly break a tooth off–now lodged in an open wound–and probably require emergency stitches, something you can’t afford to have in the middle of a jungle. The second thing you need to do is breathe in, not out. A python’s technique to constricting its prey is to squeeze tighter for every exhalation, thus preventing the next inhalation. Don’t give it a chance to constrict tighter, sacrifice a moment’s amount of air to figure out what needs to be done next, and that is to break some bones.

Do I need to say anything?

It’s been said that if you suddenly dunk the snake’s head in cold water, they’re more likely to let go, but the more aggressive the snake, the less likely it is to be startled enough to release its grip. It’s also known that snakes despise the taste and smell of alcohol, so if you have vinegar, rubbing alcohol, or good ol’ beer, pour it down its throat (if you even have a hand free to do so). Most likely, though, you either won’t have alcohol on your person, or you’ll have no way to get it in the grips of a python, so the best thing you can do is break its tail. The tip of the tail is the weakest, most vulnerable part of the snake. It’s also full of little, delicate vertebrae, and if you twist it hard enough to break some bones, the flash of pain should be enough to at the very least get its mouth off of you. Usually, when it starts getting to the point where the snake is accruing more physical damage than its prey, it would rather escape than try to eat it, so more likely than not, it’s going to now get the hell away from you.

A snake's Kryptonite.

Don’t be Stupid, Be Social

The worst thing for you in any situation involving a snake is to be alone. If you get bitten by a venomous snake, the first thing you need to do is get to some antivenin, and you may be too out of sorts from the venom to manage that by yourself. Venom works fast, it’s massively painful, a certain type will paralyze you solid, and more often than not, it’s fatal. If you’re bitten, try to make sure someone can either recognize exactly what kind of snake it is, take a picture of the snake, or at the very least kill it and bring it to the nearest hospital, otherwise it becomes a guessing game as to which antivenin is applicable to you. Friends are just as vital in a giant snake attack as any number of tricks you try may still fail, and a group can work to help free you from the snake much better than you alone could. And remember, not all snakes stay in the jungle; many feel right at home invading cities, or even homes, so always be careful.

If you have any other safety tips I forgot to mention, any questions for me to answer, or if you think I gave misinformation, feel free to leave a comment!


About herptraveler

With a passion for travel and for herpetology, I plan on embarking on a year-long Eurasian adventure early 2012, exploring many countries and getting to know their reptilian wildlife.


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