Snake Tales- Part I

Toby Ninan retired from Delhi Zoo about two years back. With his varied experiences with the wild animals in the zoo, he is the right person to direct your queries to. Hear what Ninan has to say about his life and chosen career!

Lots of people have fear of snakes and I was no exception to this.

Parents and friends tell all sorts of stories and as a child these stories have very lasting effects on one. They have the habit of frightening the minds of impressionable youngsters.

Well, when I joined the Zoo, it had no serpentarium. I had no exposure to looking after snakes except to shooting the odd crawly that got into the monkey cages/their sleeping dens. Here they posed a threat not only to the monkeys but also to the keepers who could and would get bitten by snakes. It was one of my responsibilities to see that no animal or keeper would get hurt. Thus I used to keep an old .22 bore rifle all oiled and cleaned up with a magazine ready to knock out any snake that dared to come into the realm of the monkeys. This was one of those messy jobs that involved a lot of care and very good marksmanship. A bullet fired off the mark of the snake might easily ricochet and instead of the snake, the monkey or yourself would end up in hospital with bullet wounds.

This state of affairs had to come to an end soon. After I was appointed the curator in the Singapore Zoo I watched my assistants, who were mostly boys of 16-18 years of age, catching all sorts of snakes with impunity. Here I was, 34 years of age, heading the curatorial side of a large zoo, not being able to catch a snake! I really felt very ashamed and resolved to learn the art. I started observing my keepers catching snakes very carefully. One day I got my chance to catch a snake away from the peering eyes of others.

My wife used to throw household garbage in a large dustbin kept in the centre of our housing complex. There was secondary jungle right around the living quarters. There, right on the lid of the dustbin was a snake all reared up to strike the lady. She screamed and dropped the garbage. I was watching from a distance and did exactly what one of my keepers would do. I took a rounded stick, about 2.5 ft in length and 2 inches in diameter and pinned the middle of the snake down on to the top of the dustbin and keeping the pressure down rolled the stick slowly towards the head. When I managed pinning down the neck region, I grabbed the snake by the neck. As soon as I got a good grip I lifted the snake off the bin and in a trice he twisted himself around my arm. The twisted snake was not at all uncomfortable; it only had the firmness of a hearty handshake!

I caught hold of the tail with the other hand and after uncoiling the coils on my hand I released the snake into the jungles nearby. The snake never made his appearance on that bin again. I believe he had had enough and did not want to be partner to a wrestling match with me.

On my part, I lost my fear of snakes and never looked back. I have caught snakes galore since then- including an anaconda (where I nearly lost my life) and a huge cobra in the Prime Minister's residence. But then these are other stories!

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