Before I came to Botswana three years ago, one of my biggest concerns was snakes. I wondered if I’d feel comfortable just walking around the yard and garden. It turned out I was, even walking in flip-flops and barefoot.
For starters, Pip, the dog, dependably alerted us to any and all garden interlopers, those with two legs, four legs, wings, or none of the above. Add to that the fact that we saw precisely zero snakes in the yard week after week, and, yeah, I romped around freely.
Pip, sadly, is no longer with us.
Today, Missy and Mister, the young dogs in the house, began playing on the deck beside the pool. Nothing unusual there. But then I noticed that while they were lunging and prancing, as they often do, they weren’t lunging and prancing at each other. They were focused instead on something below the bottom step of the veranda.
I got up to investigate, curious but not concerned.
It was small, but the head and hood were up.
We’d been warned about spitting cobras. All the animals, save these two young ones, have had venom in the eyes and know a thing or two about snakes. Was this a spitting cobra? I had no idea. There are other kinds. All the same, I kept my distance and averted my face. Cobras can spit venom as far as three meters.
I ordered the dogs to “leave it” and come to me. Thankfully, with just a little firmness and/or persuasion, they did. Bandit, the cat, on the other hand, walked off the other way. I secured the dogs in the bedroom and alerted Mike, who just the other day commented on not seeing snakes in the yard.
We have a rubber tool like a short whip—a sjambok—that can kill a snake, but it’s probably not even a meter long, so you’d have to be awfully close to the reptile to do it. That’s a bit closer than I want to be to most snakes, but this thing was tiny enough that I actually thought we could handle it. But who wants to kill anything if you don’t have to? Certainly not Ali and Mark, the home owners.
Mark, the Nephew
In addition to having instructions about spitting cobras, we are also armed with a phone number for Ali’s nephew, Mark (not to be confused with homeowner Mark), who loves snakes and is willing to come rescue one, if he’s not out being a pilot or saving rhinos or doing something else interesting and useful. We got lucky. He was home and able to come right away.
Mike kept an eye on the cobra and I kept an eye on Mike while we waited for Mark. As soon as things calmed down, the wee snake put her hood down and slithered off. Not wanting a cobra wandering around the yard, Mike corralled it, preventing it from fully escaping.
So the snake opted for an upward path and slithered toward a nearby short tree . . . under which Bandit sat. Ack! I called for him to come to me, and I used my watch-out, hurry-up voice, but the stubborn cat just looked at me, bored and unconcerned. I didn’t want to lunge for him because I didn’t want to get that close to the cobra and because that would look to the cobra like I was lunging at it, possibly putting it on the defensive, or worse, the offensive. I remained as still as Bandit, and the the cobra slithered on by, not a foot away from the cat, and continued a short way up the trunk. Bandit got up and walked away.
The snake was still on the tree trunk when Mark arrived, and he smoothly and delicately grabbed the snake with his snake grabber. Cue the New Age music. Mark proceeded to gently lay the snake on the ground. It didn’t rear its head up or put up its hood. Everyone was calm and slow and quiet.
Except me, of course. My heart raced, and I wanted to prance and lunge as the dogs had done, but I didn’t.
Kneeling beside the snake, Mark pressed a skinny, insubstantial twig down, just behind the cobra’s head, and walked his fingers slowly up the stick to the cobra’s neck. Then he swapped his finger for the twig, and gently picked up the snake, which wrapped its tail around Mark’s wrist as though holding his hand. She appeared perfectly calm. I imagined her saying, “Thank goodness you arrived! These people don’t speak snake. How can you be in Africa and not speak snake?”
Hey, I said it was small. Actually, it’s about 14 inches long. And it’s a young female. And it’s not a spitting cobra but a “highly venomous” cape cobra, which grows to be about five feet long. That wee thing could seriously hurt or even kill us and/or the dogs.
The guidebook also says it “readily bites.” I am so relieved the dogs escaped unharmed.
Mark slid the cobra into a pillowcase and tied the top in a knot. He will drive her out into the Bush to live happily ever after, away from people.
So, after about four total months or so living on this property, counting three years ago and this year, we saw our first snake in the yard. Exciting, eh? The story should end here, right?
Well, guess what: It doesn’t.
The Story Continues
The dogs and I were doing our before-dinner walk around the garden. The young ones were racing ahead as the old one and I cut a corner. My eyes were fairly glued to the ground as we walked, noting every stick and seedpod. When my eyes screamed at my brain, snake!, my brain thought it was a joke or a signal that had taken a detour through my imagination.
I stepped a wee bit closer, shielding my face with my hands, and looked harder. Told you so, brain, it’s a snake!
The young dogs were oblivious, but the old dog, Gib, who doesn’t move quickly anymore, was right by my side, determined to take the shortest way back to dinner, which was straight over the snake.
Once again, my fervent gestures (Gib is deaf) persuaded the dog to come to me, and we went around the snake. I whistled for the youngsters, who came obediently, as there was nothing curious competing for their attention, and all the dogs were contained, out of harm’s way.
“Mike, you won’t believe it, but there’s another snake in the yard.”
I called Mark again but got no answer . . . and no voicemail. A message after the series of rings said something like I had a bad number, but the voice was accented, and I didn’t fully understand the words. I dialed another two times, hoping to leave a message, but always getting the same result.
The snake was surprisingly mellow. In fact, we wondered if it was dead, but it moved slightly when poked with a stick. We decided we might be able to get it into a pillowcase ourselves, even without a grabber. I watched the snake as Mike rounded up a pillowcase and the sjambok. I suggested we put the pillowcase in a trash can or bucket, so no one was holding it while we dropped the snake in. The snake waited patiently while Mike rounded up a trash can.
On the third try, Mike had the snake balanced well enough on the sjambok to get it into the pillowcase. Now who wants to touch the pillowcase and tie the top in a knot? Neither one of us, but I picked it up and Mike gingerly tied the knot. We draped the pillowcase over the edge of a large trash can and put the lid on top, pinning the knot so the snake and pillowcase dangled over the edge on the inside of the can.
The phone rang. It was Mark. “I see I missed three calls from you.”
Ahem. Nice, patient guy, Mark.
I told him about our second snake, describing it as about 18 inches (46 cm) long, solid gray-black, small head. I said we had it snugly ensconced in a pillowcase for the night, and he promised to pick it up in the morning.
I swore I wasn’t going outside anymore today, but, of course, the dogs had to go out before bed, so I lied. I took the brightest flashlight we had for the night stroll, and stayed out only as long as it took Gib to take care of business.
In the morning, Mark opened the pillowcase for a peek at the new specimen. Only now did we attempt to get a photo, and it was a pretty lame attempt. Sorry, you get proof of a second snake, but no good look.
On first glance, Mark wasn’t sure if this beauty was a harmless purple-glossed snake or its dangerous lookalike, a burrowing asp, which has long fangs and painful venom and cannot be held safely behind the head. Looking closely at the head scales, he thought it most likely the purple-glossed snake. My guidebook says the purple fellow is slow and rarely bites. He was certainly slow last night. (I don’t actually know it was a he. We didn’t look.)
Can That Please Be All?
And now the story ends.
With luck, we won’t have any more snakes in the yard, but you can bet I’ll be looking. And probably wearing sneakers instead of flip-flops.