Whenever I get a snake call I ask a series of questions to try to ascertain the level of urgency, likelihood of finding the snake and potential identification of the snake so I know what I am dealing with. I ask when it was last seen; as I will only attend if the snake is visible or the caller is very certain of its location otherwise it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Very often I am pointed to a massive pile of scrap or rubble or a room filled to the brim with crap and I wonder to myself whether I am being called to rescue a snake or whether the home owner has found a loophole in the system and is trying to get me to give them a free cleaning service. Without fail, nearly every single time the caller reports a ten metre long Black Mamba that’s as thick as a man’s arm and without fail, nearly every single time it’s not the case and is most often a pencil sized Harmless Brown House Snake or Herald Snake.
I think it was a Wednesday morning in 2014 when I received a phone call from the Manager of Coronation Cottages in Bulawayo informing me that a snake had entered one of the houses of a Ninety-two year old tenant. Coronation Cottages, for those who don’t know, is an old age home located in the city. I went through the motions of asking all the questions and much to my surprise I got a very refreshing description of the snake from the manager. Instead of the usual twenty metre, fire-breathing black mamba, I was informed by the caller that the snake in question was brown in colour and estimated at less than one metre long. Apparently it had been outside the house and some ground staff had thrown stones at it causing it to leisurely slither into the open door of the house, past the Ninety-two year old lady that lived there and disappeared somewhere inside. From all the information I had been given I was convinced it was going to be a simple Brown House snake removal. So I told the Manager that I had to first attend a meeting at 8am and would come as soon after that as possible and that the old lady should be kept in the office with a nice cup of tea and the doors and windows of the house closed until I arrive. And then I promptly forgot.
At 12 noon, my phone rang again. It was the Manager again who calmly asked if I was still planning to attend and when I could be expected as it was drawing close to lunch and nap time. I apologised profusely, dropped the clutch and engaged the over drive on my trusty old Mazda Drifter and high tailed it across town to attend the scene. Scotty! We need more power! Hurtling through the streets of Bulawayo I remember fantasising about having my own siren and flashing light on the roof with “Snake Rescue” emblazoned across the sides of my vehicle. That would be cool in a nerdy kind of way. Instead my unmarked car probably just looked like it was being driven by some kind of demented hooligan. I promise I drove safe though.
When I arrived at the entrance to Coronation Cottages I informed the guard what I had come for who promptly waved me through and pointed in the right direction. I pulled up in front of the house and was met by the Manager with the little old lady and a crowd of residents and staff. I spoke to the guys who had thrown the stones at the snake and gave them a bit of education on why snakes deserve to live and shouldn’t be killed as well as the old “You have more chance of being bitten if you engage and try to kill a snake” speech. They then assured me again that it was a little brown snake so I grabbed my snake tongs, in this case because they allow me to move things without having to bend over, and a square plastic storage bin and confidently entered the house whilst telling the onlookers to close the door behind me and ignore any screams for help.
It was a small little cottage consisting of a small kitchen and bathroom at one end, a central little living space and the other end a small alcove closed off by a curtain that served as the bedroom and just fitted a single bed and a dresser with a small space in between. As I entered my heart sank a little. As so often is the case, this poor little old lady had clearly been living there a long time without any help or visitors. Under every available space there was stuff hoarded over years. The place was an absolute cluttered mess and I knew I had just signed up for a housekeeping mission. Please understand there is absolutely no judgement on her at all but finding a small snake, or any snake in that environment becomes a mammoth task.
I spent about an hour searching and tidying and moving stuff around and still had found nothing. I was just about to give up and call it a day when a little voice told me to check the bedroom alcove. I poked around under the bed for a bit listening out for a hiss or movement but heard nothing. As a last resort I hastily thrust my tongs under the dresser and was greeted by a loud hollow hiss! Bingo! This hiss was loud and long, which meant this was definitely not a little brown house snake. The underneath of the dresser was also cluttered with all sorts of paraphernalia and there was very little space between the bed and the dresser for me to get down and look properly so instead I opted to pull the dresser away from the wall a bit to see if I could look down the back and see the snake. I managed to pull the dresser about six inches towards me and all I could see was part of an olive coloured coil of snake. My immediate thought was that it was a nice big cobra. I slowly lowered the tongs down into the space in an attempt to grab the coil but as I touched it the snakes head shot out from beneath dresser right between my legs with another hollow hiss and its inky black mouth agape in a defensive threat display. It was a freaking mamba! In a split second I levitated and found myself standing on the bed contemplating my choices in life.
I hadn’t come physically or mentally prepared to deal with a Black Mamba, especially one of this size. Being shallow with a large square opening and lid, the container I had brought was completely inadequate and I knew the most dangerous part of this capture was going to be timing the closing of the lid. So I stood on that bed for about 10 minutes weighing my options and trying to decide whether the risk to my own safety was worth it or whether I should just call a buddy to bring a weapon so I could shoot it. I eventually decided that I would give it a go and that if I felt it was getting too sketchy I would call my friend.
I opened the container and balanced the large lid against its side so that it would be in easy reach. For the second time, I gently lowered the tongs into the gap between the dresser and the wall and gently prodded the snake to try and coax it out the bottom again. It reluctantly ventured out, a little further with each prod and when it had emerged about 30cm I slowly brought my tongs round the front and secured it behind the head. And that’s where it all went tits up. As the tongs clasped around its neck the snake shot out from under the dresser and proceeded to coil its body round the tongs all the way up my arm to my shoulder. The end of its long thin tail at one point was poking up my nose. It was trying to pull its head free from the grip of the tongs and I knew that if it broke free then I was going to be in some seriously deep shit. The initial grab of the tongs had not been in a good enough position for me to “neck” the snake by hand so now my options were very limited. I was in too deep. No going back now. With a fear induced vice like grip on the tongs, I used my other hand to try and uncoil the snake from my shoulder but with each coil I removed it seemed the snake had other ideas and would wrap another two around me in defiance. I knew then that I had to slow down and try to relax and in turn try to get the snake to relax. With a few deep breaths I slowed down all my movements and with a much gentler approach, started to uncoil the snake again, who was now seemingly much more cooperative. Once the last coil had been removed, I managed to ease the tongs into a much safer position and then succeeded in transferring the sharp end of the snake to my left hand. It was finally properly “necked” and securely in my grip. Half the battle was won. Now I had the arduous task of trying to put the angry danger noodle into a very inconveniently shaped receptacle.
I placed my left hand holding the head in the box first and then with my right hand tried to add a coil at a time into the box. As you can imagine, the snake was less than impressed with my efforts and each time I put one coil in another coil overflowed the side of the box. To add misery to mayhem, the mamba was also trying very hard to pull its head free from my hand. Again, I slowed my breathing and my movements to try and calm the snake and myself and continued to gently put the coils into the box. Success! Now for the hard part. I needed to, with perfect timing and precision, let go of the snake’s head and remove that hand while simultaneously slamming the big rectangular lid onto the wide opening of the box without the mamba shooting out and teaching me who is boss. With a few deep breaths and a couple of mental visualisations, I let the snake go, retracted my hand and slammed that lid down perfectly ! I engaged the 2 locking clips on the lid and fell back onto the bed and lay there for a few minutes to regain my composure before going out to show the bystanders my bounty.
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