Sunday, August 19, 2007

Snake Dharma

Mahil's comment in the previous post made me think. I was particularly reminded of my first few hesitant months in the U.S. way back in 1974. I had come to study Biology and was trying to find my feet in this strange new place. It was a bit of an adjustment. I had been brought up in Africa, with very few people, infrequent electricity and ingenious but primitive seeming technology. For example, our fridge ran on methylated spirit and baking cakes in a firewood fed oven is a real challenge.

I was just as terrified of snakes as my fellow human beings right till the age of 11, which is when I ran into my first 'snake man'. There was a small reptile collection in the Mundawanga Zoo South of Lusaka. There I spent a day in 1969 and was amazed to see the local 'snakeman', one Mr. Chanda, casually handling snakes that I knew to be very dangerous. He eventually convinced me to pick up a Whip Snake (Psammophis), and it wasn't slimy, in fact quite dry, and even pleasant to hold!

That made all the difference! I became a friend, and wherever possible, protector of snakes. Shortly thereafter I found a 2 foot long black snake (unidentified) in our garden, and coaxed it into a large bottle and hid it in my bureau. I then took off to play. Unfortunately, the next morning my mom suddenly got the urge to clean my (admittedly messy) room. She casually pulled out the big bottle and set it on the dresser and kept cleaning till she thought she saw something move. Needless to say, things went downhill rapidly after that. I got home to find my mom standing in the garden shaking with fury, refusing to enter the house, and my dad looking rather helpless. After word of that incident spread through school, I was frequently called to my fellow students' homes to help out with snakes that had somehow crept in.

Anyhow, skipping forward a few years, here I was in Cincinnati, staying with my sister and her hubby (the Jeyaveerans) when a close friend of theirs dropped by. Roger Stuebing was an expert in statistics and worked at the U.C. computer center. Roger decided to try and help me out with my acclimatisation. We got to chatting and soon found that we had a lot of common interests one of which was snakes. A few days later Roger picked me up early and we headed out to join my first American snaking trip.
Now, I was amazed to find another true snake man who, like Mr. Chanda had been bitten by venomous snakes umpteen times - Dr. George T. McDuffie. A Ph.D. in herpetology (that roughly covers the crocs, gators, snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs and salamanders), McDuffie lived in a big brownstone with a huge basement. We joined an assortment of folks at his place and headed out to the hills. We were after any snake, but he was particularly interested in copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix)
and timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus - below) both pit vipers.

McDuffie had his right arm in a sling and as we drove, the conversation veered round to his most recent snakebite, and hence the sling.

It turns out that he had been bitten by a rattler 3 days back and had a slightly swollen and painful arm. He had lost count of the number of times he had been bitten, but it had reached the stage where he had developed some natural immunity and McDuffie had also become allergic to the usual (horse protein based) antisnakevenom, and so could not be treated with that at all!

I had no idea what pit vipers were, so the day turned out to be very interesting indeed. We found one beautiful timber rattler and McDuffie had it on his snakestick when I saw someone struggling to hold the sack open with two more sticks. I promptly picked up the sack and held it up for the snake to be lowered in right between my outstretched hands. McDuffie calmly let the snake down into the sack and I bagged the snake and handed the bag to McDuffie.

He then looked intently at me and said "that was a very brave thing to do". I was really puzzled and asked what other way there was to bag snakes. Only then did it dawn on McDuffie that I may not know what pit vipers were! Indeed, in Africa there are a plethora of venomous snakes but no pit vipers.

The common vipers in Africa were the Puff Adder (Bitis arietans, not shown) and the very striking Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonicus - left), neither of which have the heat sensing capability of the pit vipers.

That beautiful, big, timber rattler could clearly 'see' my hands as two large, live, hotspots on either side of its head as it was being lowered into the sack, and I didn't even have a clue as to the danger that I was in!

That was the same snaking trip where McDuffie caught a big Black Racer (Coluber constrictor) using only his teeth, but that tale can wait, as can the account of what we found in that large, hot, basement of his after we got back...

Bitten to the point of immunity, McDuffie really did live-out his dharma. I was saddened to hear that George died (apparently of natural causes) this April at the age of 79 - a true snake man and fondly remembered!

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