Geoff Hill

The joy of rescuing snakes

A King Cobra (Credit: Getty images)

Snake rescuers like me always get asked the same question: have you ever been bitten? I’ve dealt with mambas, giant pythons, cobras – some of the world’s deadliest snakes – and, thankfully, the answer is no. But why do people always assume the worst about these wonderful creatures? People love to hate snakes. They are the Biblical baddy, the reptile that represents evil. Having nursed a sick cobra back to health, gently holding his head up during a daily bath, I know this depiction is deeply unfair.

I’ve long been fascinated by these animals. My father’s family landed at the Cape in 1795 but I was the first to develop a love for snakes. Everyone I knew killed them even though most of the species in Africa are harmless to humans. In a few, the venom can be lethal.

This affection came about after a school trip to the zoo. How remarkable, I thought, that something without arms or legs could swim and climb trees. I was hooked, and not long after I caught a harmless house snake that rode around in my pocket and slept in the sock drawer. I still recall my mother’s shriek one day when she put away the washing.

A snouted cobra (Credit: Graham Alexander)

I let the cobra go by the side of a river; he lay next to me a while, then moved into the water, swam to the far bank and was gone

For a while, my parents tried diverting me to fishing, cricket and the Boy Scouts, but these were dull compared with rooting out a Mozambique spitting cobra holed up in the ceiling at a police station.

Sometimes, relocating a snake can lead to other problems: the police chief phoned a few months later to ask if I also removed rats. ‘Eight years I’ve been here and not one. Now we’re inundated,’ he told me. 

‘That’s how long the cobra was in your roof,’ I replied.

By age 14, I’d caught most of the hot stuff including mambas, and my dad joined in. Family and friends knew not to touch any bags they found in my room.

Cobras have long been a favourite because they have such personality, spreading a hood to say ‘Back off!’ People mistake this for aggression but it’s simply an effort to make themselves look bigger and scare you away. Keep coming and they will usually flee. They are from the same broad family as the black mamba, second longest of all venomous snakes after India’s king cobra.

Mambas can reach 12 feet in length and are a challenge to hold, being so strong and muscular. When threatened, they open their jaws and hiss, but it takes a lot of provocation before they strike and bites are rare.

My most treasured memories include a six-foot specimen of what’s known commonly as the Egyptian cobra. He was near death after getting himself locked in a cupboard under the sink at a house in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where we lived at the time. I was called in by the homeowners. ‘They say you know how to deal with cobras!’

‘Since I was 10,’ I said as they led me to the kitchen.

The snake could barely move, starved and dehydrated after more than two months in the dark. His mottled skin was the colour of ash. This is the species that, according to legend, killed Cleopatra when she held it to her bosom to avoid capture by the Romans. They’re found the length of Africa – not just in Egypt – and in the south are known as a snouted cobra. Even so, my wife named him Pharaoh.

It was winter, the nights were down to zero degrees (Harare lies on a plateau higher than Ben Nevis) and Pharaoh took up residence in a cage in our spare room, coiled on a hot-water bottle that was changed every six hours. At some time during his exile to the cupboard he should have shed his skin, but, being so dry, it was stuck to him like paper soaked in glue.

Pharaoh’s daily bath was part of a ritual that gradually brought him back to life. The old skin came off; under it were beautiful bands of brown and gold. I fed him with a tube down his throat and into the gut. At the other end was a syringe filled with baby food.

In the spring, I let him go by the side of a river at a game reserve; he lay next to me a while, then moved into the water, swam to the far bank and was gone.

Pharaoh was far from my only patient. A ten-foot python called Julius Squeezer had a lung infection and by the second month of looking after him, he’d curl up on a cushion next to me while I wrote. With the help of a local vet we got him well and back to the wild.

So, how have I avoided being bitten? My advice is simple. Snakes are deaf but alert to movement. Do nothing sudden or unexpected, and remember that each one has a unique personality. Like us, they can also be moody. They feel pain, fear, hunger, thirst, cold and anxiety, but given time will learn to trust you. Support the body as you hold them – this also helps with breathing as they only have one lung – and know that a wild snake is terrified when first handled: make sure the head is secure.

Over the years, I’ve rescued thousands of them and given talks and lectures, persuading people not to kill these animals that have been around since the dinosaurs. Without snakes, Africa, India, Brazil and even the southern states of the US would be inhospitable; we’d be unable to grow food, so great would be the plague of rats.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on all six continents, meeting others who share their knowledge, of rattlers in America, tiger snakes Down Under and the increasingly rare adders of Britain. But at a zoo or on a call-out, Pharaoh’s kind is what I long to see. My cobra meetings remain the thrill of my life.