Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Social Snakes

In 1985 I made an observation that has taken me over time to this present day to realise, that snakes are social animals. The last four years of observing snake behaviour in Tasmania has resulted in this report that I hope will generate discussion and just maybe change attitudes regards sharing this planet with snakes.
I am not so naive as to suggest that others in the 'herp-community' will agree with what I have to say; however I believe that the late Steve Irwin had made the same observations that influenced the relationship and handling practices that influenced his amazing handling skills.
Over my life of working and studying snakes, I have always promoted respect for, and safe handling of, venomous snakes. I remember feeling concern for fellow enthusiasts who to my mind, at the time, appeared to be to complacent with their handling practices during public education programs.
One man in particular, Bruce Munday, a man with extraordinary talents in snake husbandry had two remarkable snakes he called the chaps. Both snakes weighed in at over three kilograms and were so placid that Bruce handled them confidently and they in turn were totally indifferent to him and lay in his arms like contented babies. CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO ENLARGE
Bruce had raised these ”slugs” as he called them, from birth and were conditioned to routines and handling practices from birth, resulting in a raport where there was no malice from either side.
At the time, I was working at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and in the late eighties was invited to put on a live snake display for International Museum’s Day. I approached Bruce and asked for his assistance, as we had been working together keeping snakes in common for several years.
A local hardware store assisted with a temporary enclosure that was erected in the zoology gallery at the QVMAG Wellington St. in Launceston, and on the day, emptied a mixed bag of tiger and copperhead snakes into the enclosure.  CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO ENLARGE
When Bruce and I climbed into the pit we were aware of the defence posturing of the snakes as we settled in to deliver our message on snake behaviour and first aid. Within half an hour the snakes settled and accepted us walking amongst them with mutual indifference.
I continued with the cautious approach while Bruce free handled with me suggesting that he was sending the wrong message to children, and was placing himself in constant danger of being bitten. At the end of the day, my instrument based handling technique had me under observation for a possible envenomation, while Bruce cruised through the day without incident.
At the end of the day when it was time to bag the snakes. Bruce simply scooped them up in his arms and proceded to drop them into the bag, much like you would pick up the clothes to put into a laundry basket. I was so amazed that I took a photo as proof. Most of the snakes in question were wild caught.
The events of the day was the catalyst that would over the following years, influence a shift in attitude as I observed and studied the social side to snakes and how they condition themselves to accept human activity when not persecuted.
At one time during the '90s I received a call from a lady in West Tamar, requesting that I relocate a snake that had been resident on her property for some time, She was worried that she might run over it with her lawnmower. I can recall telling her that next time it was out to give me call, as it was a long way to travel if it was no longer out. She assured me that it was out as she had mown around it about half an hour earlier. Regardless on my insistence, she raced out and had a look to confirm it was still there.
Intrigued, I headed there expecting to find a dead snake coiled up on her lawn. I was surprised to be met by an old black Labrador dog wandering around the yard. Why hadn’t the dog attacked the snake? The lady directed me to her snake, and sure enough there was a copperhead coiled on a patch of un mown lawn. I touched it with my foot, to which it responded by turning it’s head as much as to say, ‘do you mind?’
I bagged the snake and then inquired as to why the dog hadn’t disturbed it, she replied that they showed no interest in each other, and that the snake had been basking under bushes around the yard all summer. She had had un mown patches on many occasion after mowing her lawn.
Another observation more recently was at the Tamar Island Wetland Facility, at West Tamar. Anyone who works with snakes would be aware of the usually shy nature of copperheads. On this occasion along with snake lady Sally Wilson, I was invited to attend as a guest speaker at a public event being held there on the day.
Copperhead snakes have often been observed from the walkway leading to the centre, sunning themselves on the water edge. We were doing an open pit display, where there is no enclosure and we work with snakes in hand and on the floor while surrounding observers keep a respectable distance.
At the end of one of these talk sessions some folk said that there was a copperhead eating a Green and Golden frog, Litoria raniformis. Intrigued, once again I was surprised to see a dozen or so people crowding around taking pictures while the snake ate with indifference. So what conclusion can be drawn from these observations?  How often do we hear about a snake not scurrying for cover on walking tracks when approached by bush walkers? Why is it that people have commented on resident snakes that appear to ignore human presence, including the need to use the front door to exit their house due to a snake coiled on the back door mat and refusing to move?
Socializing (for the want of a better word, a term I use that best describes this inter-relationship behaviour, as defined by Wikipedia) is the reason. Left unpersecuted snakes will readily adapt to human activity around them and become conditioned in a short period of time.  The first few encounters will as a rule be predictable where the snake will hightail it; however with constant repeats without incident, the snake will accept human presence and movement and be conditioned to coexist  That’s the time one should consider having the snake relocated. Snakes will, if given the opportunity, enter the house if entry can be gained.
It should be noted that due to the absence of nonvenomous snakes in Tasmania, snake enthusiasts have been having up close and personal relationships with their snakes for decades, mostly without incident, a practice that in the past I had discouraged.
So what has changed? Let me introduce Sally Wilson a young herpetologist living in Launceston. Sal as she is known, rose up through the ranks to join snake lady, Jane Guy, an experienced snake management-training officer who works at the QVMAG. Sal became President of the Tasmanian Herpetological Society and one of our best snake wranglers. Though cautioned on safe handling practices, Sal established her own unique working relationship with the snakes, and with enthusiasm as her guide, she handled them with, as some would say, reckless abandon.
Both Jane and myself have worked in the pit with Sal continuously since 2007 and marvelled at her handling prowess. Sal would sit on a high stool in the middle of the pit and allow snakes to engage with her, interacting as though the snakes were all nonvenomous, without a hint of antagonism. At first I thought that Sal had inherited the Irwin touch. Two snakes in particular always headed straight to her, one would drape itself across her lap or around her shoulders, the other, affectionately known as Gonzales, would weave  its way through her hair and coil, both staying for as long as it took to steal body warmth before heading to ground. These are not the actions of wild critters. CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO ENLARGE
This engagement, to some, would be seen as unnatural; yet to those in the know, predictable, as snakes respond to routine. Both the snakes that Sal interacted with were conditioned by routine. When the fear response is relaxed there is no inclination to bite. Snakes bite as a reaction to fear, or accidently if the smell of prey is on the person handling the snake. Take away these incentives and you can engage in predictable behaviour. Applying disinfectant lotion prior to handling, masks odours  and reinforces notice of intent of the handler to engage.
As a result of this change in attitude, our pit demonstrations keep the use of instruments to a minimum. I have noted that snakes are antagonistic towards instruments and become nervous and unpredictable when used on them. So how can you tell when a snake has settled and is in the zone so as to speak?
Firstly, most snakes, when placed in a pit, will appear cautious and restless. After half an hour of human activity in close proximity, they settle and accept human presence in their space. This can be demonstrated by walking amongst them without a reaction or posturing. Gently picking them up mid body, keeping open palms to support them, snakes will engage within the bounds of their own comfort level. If they are uncomfortable they will head to ground, if curious and unconcerned, will engage in a tongue flickering exploration of you, showing no inclination towards aggression.
It must be said, that anyone thinking that they could engage with snakes this way in the wild, would be inviting a quick trip the emergency section of their nearest medical facility. Children especially should be discouraged from interacting with any snake regardless of how confident they feel. It has taken me fifty years to arrival at these social relationship observations to a point where I feel comfortable and confident with my handling practices. I assess the risks and handle accordingly. I am responsible for any outcome when I engage with snakes without instruments. No one should feel obliged to follow my example.
I have demonstrated my hypothesis in the company of a Workplace Standards Officer and received the tick of approval. To others who have not witnessed these handling practices first hand, I’m seen as reckless and one who sends the wrong message. My challenge is to witness one of our demonstrations this first hand before drawing conclusions. If we continue to demonize snakes, we reinforce prejudice. By all means treat snakes with respect, don’t be complacent. Assess the risk and relocate errant snakes where necessary. Observe don't persecute! Explore the possibilities and you may be pleasantly surprised.

I would appreciate any feedback on similar occurrences between human and reptiles. 
Ian Norton, CEO, Reptile Rescue Incorporated, Tasmania.