Snakes are my
passion - or one of them! They were my father’s passion too, when
we lived in Trinidad and Tobago. He bequeathed his passion to me,
as I have done to my daughter. I have been associated with snakes
all of my life: I have kept them, bred them, caught them, rescued
them and released them; they have excited me, scared me, embarrassed
me, bitten me and shit on me!
age five with a boa constrictor
us all, deeply. We have an innate fear of them, indeed, so does
much of the animal kingdom. Snakes hold this revered position
by virtue of the venomous members of their ranks. Our culture,
its myths and legends abound with references to snakes. They are
revered and reviled wherever they occur, and often slaughtered
as a result. Our combined feelings of revulsion and fascination
towards snakes could hardly be more eloquently articulated than
by the words of Alexander Skutch, a passionate birder and coauthor
of A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. I quote: “The serpent crams
itself with animal life that is often warm and vibrant, to prolong
an existence in which we detect no joy and no emotion. It reveals
the depth to which evolution can sink when it takes the downward
path and strips animals to the irreducible minimum able to perpetuate
a predatory life in its naked horror. The contemplation of such
an existence has a horrid fascination for the human mind and distresses
the sensitive spirit.”
I don’t share Skutch’s
feelings, though most of us do. I hold snakes to be one of the
most beautiful, precise and lethal carnivores ever to have been
sculpted by evolution. Ideed, they are the most successful terrestrial
carnivores ever to have lived on Earth, and out number all other
terrestrial carnivore species many times over.
have nothing in excess. Snakes are without limbs, ears and eyelids
- but as though to be compensated, evolution has equipped each
snake with two penises! However, despite their morphological frugality
(or perhaps because of it!), snakes move and hunt in any realm
with pernicious economy.
The most commonly expressed
fear by people I take into rainforests of Corcovado concern snakes.
The fear of snakes expressed by two women I was about to take
into Corcovado was uncommonly intense, however. In fact, they
were about to cancel the tour when I told them that I don’t carry
anti-venom with me. I barely managed to persuade them to go when
I exclaimed “don’t worry, you very rarely see snakes!” The women
were only partially convinced when we stet off by taxi to Carate,
the southern gateway to Corcovado. The mischievous side of me
prayed we would find a snake!
Whether it is a figment
of my imagination or not, it certainly seems to be the case that
there is an inverse relationship between a persons desire to see
snakes and their likelihood of seeing them. I seem to find more
snakes when in the company of those who dread them most! Never
was this paradoxical phenomenon better illustrated to me than
in the events that were about unfold as we set off to explore
“You never see snakes,
huh!” remarked one of the women as the taxi driver pointed out
a large, electric blue keel-backed racer, Chironius carinatus,
on the road a short distance ahead. I just can’t resist catching
snakes and, despite the protests from the women, I burst out of
the taxi and ran towards the snake. Keel-backed racers are fast
diurnal hunters, with large eyes and keen vision. They are wary
snakes, and one cannot afford finesse when attempting to catch
them. So I lunged at the snake, just as it was about to disappear
into the undergrowth, and seized it by the tail. The snake turned
and struck at my face, but with reflexes of a prize boxer I dodged,
and the snake missed.
I now had six feet
of angry snake suspended from my grasp. Meanwhile, protests from
the taxi were reaching fever pitch: “No, Mike!” “please don’t,
snake then bit my knee, released and struck again at my chest. In
the process of getting the snake into a more manageable position
it bit me several times more on my left arm. With the snakes head
now under control and my knee, chest and arm oozing rivulets of
blood, I approached the taxi. I had a huge grin on my face – my
prayers were answered, I thought!By
the time I reached the taxi the snake had settled down in my gentle
grasp. The expressions on the women’s faces were ones of total disbelief.
They were aghast and speechless. My enthusiastic dissertation on
snakes, extolling their abundant virtues, went largely unheard!
with a boa on the road to Carate
I released the snake,
wiped the blood from my arm, chest and knee, and jumped into the
taxi. The women were amazed that I was still alive, and examined
my bite wounds minutely, and repeatedly. They said I was a complete
lunatic and begged me to desist from such activities lest I die,
and leave them abandoned in the jungle. But, of course, I didn’t!
In fact, I caught several
more snakes during the course of our explorations of Corcovado
over the coming three days – more than normal! But, their regard
for snakes gradually transformed from one of dread to fascination.
Indeed, towards the end of our tour, the women were searching
for snakes as enthusiastically as me.
“You lied to us!” one
of the woman exclaimed. “Yes, you did!” the other agreed, before
they both burst into laughter over a farewell drink. “We had a
great time though!”
This curios affinity between snakes and ophiophobes was evident
on another occasion, while I was working at Mapache Lodge on the
Rio Sierpe. Two Canadian couples arrived for a three-night stay
at the Lodge, bent on exploring the Osa’s rainforests. There was
one problem, though: one of the women was terrified of snakes.
Our frequent forays
into the jungle were for her a nightmare. Every time we returned
to Mapache Lodge her relief was palpable. She felt safe there!
However, her illusion
of safety in the confines of the Lodge was shattered on the second
evening while they were sitting around a table on the verandah.
I stood beside the table talking to them when the husband of the
woman said, in a matter-of-fact way: “ I think you had better
Directly above her
head a common tree boa, Corallus hortulanus, was dangling from
the rafters, stretched vertically, intent on reaching her head.
The boa’s intent was ultimately to reach the floor, but it was
funny that it chose her head out of the five that were there to
achieve its objective.
It amuses me how perspectives
among us can be so different in a given circumstance. I see the
jungle and its creatures, especially snakes, as things of beauty
and fascination. The perspective this woman held could hardly
have been more different. This incident reinforced in her the
conviction that jungles are hell, caldrons of serpentine nightmares.
She slept little that night and insisted on leaving the next day.
A day early!
One of my most embarrassing
incidents involving snakes was when I took a pleasant and modest
Italian couple on a night tour of the Rio Sierpe. This river is
a superb venue for nighttime, wildlife forays as its waters and
banks team with crocodiles, caimans and snakes, the eyes of which
glow red in a flashlight beam.
Julio, the owner of
the lodge at which I then worked, steered the boat diligently
between the rafts of water hyacinth that drifted down the river.
Armed with a one million candlepower spotlight, I scanned the
water and banks for telltale eyes. I had just released a small
crocodile, which I had caught to illustrate to the Italian couple
the virtues of these delightful beasts, when I noticed red eyes
from vegetation on the nearby bank. I knew that it was a snake,
and in all probability a common tree boa.
With my spotlight fixed
on the spot, Julio docked the boat, bow first, on the muddy bank.
I gave the spotlight to the Italian woman. She illuminated the
unfolding scene for her husband to video. Armed with my flashlight
I jumped ashore and approached the snake. It was a particularly
large common tree boa. Gently, I retrieved the snake from the
low vegetation. It was a two-handed operation, though, and I had
to hold my flashlight in my mouth. With the boa entangling my
both arms, I headed back to the boat. The Italian couple excitedly
videoed the drama.
However, mounting the
bow of the boat, with both my arms occupied, proved difficult.
It was when I raised my leg to attempt the operation that my trouser
snake made an untimely appearance from the leg of my shorts!
A diplomatic silence
pervaded the air. With a video pointed at me, and the power of
a million candles illuminating my embarrassment, I could do absolutely
nothing but continue to mount the boat.
Having done so, I attempted
to draw attention to the snake while simultaneously maneuver my
John-Thomas back to its proper, more seemly position without hands.
Having achieved partial success in this matter, and having delivered
my talk extolling the virtues of the lithesome beast occupying
my both arms, I turned, knees together, and delivered the snake
back from whence it came. Diplomacy was maintained, and nothing
was said. I prayed that the video wouldn’t be screened on television
at a later date, on one of those most funny home video shows!
at Mapache Lodge, some distance up the Rio Sierpe from the village
of Sierpe, I took it upon myself to rescue snakes from the machetes
of ohiophobic locals. I received considerable cooperation, particularly
from Don Marino from La Palma. He presented me with many fer-de-lances
caught by his farm workers.
a common tree boa near Sierpe village
Journeying to La Palma
from Mapache Lodge to collect Don Marino’s offerings involved
a boat journey, two bus journeys and an overnight stay in Cabinas
at La Palma. I often muse over what the reactions of the drivers
and passengers would have been had they asked me what I was carrying
aboard the buses on my frequent journeys!
For some reason, my
appeals to the local people to spare snakes, and allow to save
and release them, yielded mostly fer-de-lances. I would keep these
snakes at Mapache Lodge for a period before releasing them. My
At one point I had
fourteen snakes, seven fer-de-lances and seven assorted species,
variously acquired. I had at this time been making plans to set
up a snake breeding facility at the lodge, and had been in consultations
with the Clodomiro Picado for permission to do so. They were very
supportive towards the project, which left me only to deal with
the paper work. I, therefore, kept the snakes now in my possession
to stock my proposed facility.
Feeding these snakes
was a problem. I acquired three pairs of laboratory rats as a
solution, and prepared to breed them to satisfy the growing appetites
of my burgeoning menagerie. I waited, and waited, but the rats
refused to breed. Meanwhile, I had only an infrequent and inadequate
supply of trapped rodents from the Lodge’s kitchen to satisfy
the appetites of my snakes. So I now found myself in the annoying
situation of having six stubborn, celibate rats and fourteen hungry
snakes. In a fit of pique I released all of my snakes except one,
an injured boa constrictor, and verbally threatened the rats with
execution. (I like rats, and having to feed them to my snakes
is one the aspects of snake husbandry I dislike most.)
It was not long, however,
before the rats started breeding. I now found myself in the equally
annoying situation of having one well-fed boa and a growing surplus
of rats. A snakes’ economy also applies to its diet. Being heterothermic,
snakes require a mere fraction of the food that a homoeothermic
bird or mammal of equivalent size requires. My boa’s appetite
thus couldn’t keep apace with my rat’s procreativity. My problem
was by this time further compounded by the fact that the Lodge
was due to close and that I was about to leave. The snake-breeding
project was shelved and I was now faced with the prospect of having
put down over fifty rats, a prospect I didn’t relish.
A solution presented
itself in the form of a forty-pound boa constrictor. Henry, the
Lodge’s caretaker, and his brother had come across this boa while
working on their father’s farm. They had ushered it into a cage
for me to collect. With delight, I set off with Henry by boat
to his father’s farm.
feet in length, this boa was one of the largest I had ever seen
- and one of the meanest too! It retracted its head into the strike
position and hissed menacingly when I approached its cage. It
stuck violently at me, but missed. Quickly, I grabbed the boa
behind the head and proceeded to draw it from the cage. It’s hissing
intensified. To control this large snake I had to subdue its head
in my right arm, its’ hind end with my left arm and drape the
bulk of its’ body around the back of my neck and shoulders. Unable
to bite me, the boa discharged its next line of defense: shit!
It delivered a payload of several pounds of its fetid turds down
my chest and legs. The smell was horrendous!
Henry and I installed
the boa at Mapache Lodge, and left it for a few days to settle
into its new surroundings. Once settled, I began delivering rats
to it. The boa ate them without hesitation, six at a sitting.
Over the next month this boa gained considerably in weight as
it disposed of all my rats. I released it, along with the convalescing
boa, and left Mapache Lodge.
Being bitten by a snakes,
large boas, pythons and venomous species excepting, is really
quite an innocuous experience. Despite their formidable reputations,
snakes are light boned and fragile creatures. Because snakes eat
relatively large prey whole, the bones of their jaws are necessarily
light, designed to disarticulate during swallowing. Lined with
needle-like teeth, the jaws of snakes function to hold onto rather
than crush prey. Therefore, snakes do not have a powerful bite.
A good friend of mine,
Philip Davison, and I took being bitten by animals to an art form.
We met at university in Portsmouth, southern England, as a result
of our common interest in reptiles. Between us, we kept veritable
menagerie of snakes and lizards. Frequent bites from our reptiles
and our macho boastings about them conspired to engender spirited
of competition between us. Eagerly we would place our fingers
in the jaws of any reptile that was willing to bite them.
Consequently, we both
lost our fear of being bitten. Although we reserved a respect
for venomous snakes, and never deliberately allowed ourselves
to be bitten by one, that respect was starting to diminish. Meanwhile
our catalogue of bites was growing along with our boasts: I had
the bite from a powerful three-foot tegu (a large South American
lizard) atop my list of credits; Philip had matched that with
the bite from a nine-foot reticulated python.
One day we both added
baby European adder bites to our lists. Some time previous we
had caught twenty-four adult adders, and from those had kept three
gravid females. On that day, the adders produced between them
about thirty babies. They were the most delightful little snakes,
and mean too. We bagged the babies and prepared to release them.
But first, we could not resist putting our hands into the bag
to let the mass of babies bite us - which they did with gusto!
The experience was like putting our hands into a bunch of stinging
Some days later, Philip
greeted me with big grin on his face. He couldn’t wait to tell
me that one of his cane-break rattlesnakes had bitten him. Fortunately
for him it was a dry bite, causing only a little localized swelling.
He was so proud of his wound and displayed it to every one. He
knew that it would be a hard act for me to follow. He was right!
Today, some twenty-five
years hence, we find ourselves together again on the Osa Peninsula,
still indulging our passion for reptiles. We meet frequently on
reptile forays, and often handle coral snakes and the lance-head
vipers of the area. But to this day, Philip can still boast that
he has been bitten by a more dangerous reptile than has ever bitten
On night tours, I like to demonstrate to my clients the amazing
alarm call of the smoky forest frog, Leptodactylus pentadactylus.
This large frog emits a loud series of shrieks when captured,
reminiscent of a crying baby. It has been speculated that this
alarm call, emitted naturally when seized by a predator, is meant
to attract other predators to the scene. If a scuffle between
the predators then ensues, the frog may be given a chance to escape.
The likelihood of this
speculation being true was suggested to me recently in Corcovado
Park. I had brought three people on a canoe trip up the Rio Sirena,
an awesome river that flows from the Corcovado lagoon to the sea
near Sirena Station. The Rio Sirena teams with fish, including
huge snook and snapper, which support a healthy population of
bull sharks and crocodiles - I have encountered bull sharks several
miles up river! It is also a favorite with tapirs, which spend
a good portion of their time swimming in the river and browsing
on vegetation from along its banks. A conoe trip along the Rio
Sirena can be very rewarding to the keen adventurer and naturalist.
About three miles up
river, the Rio Pavo is joins the Rio Sirena. From this point onwards,
the Rio Sirena changes in character. Its flow becomes more sluggish,
lush growths of water vegetation sprout from its bed and rafts
of water hyacinth cling to its banks. Shoals of curious snapper
swarm in the crystal clear water, and often emerge from the among
the water plants to follow our canoe. Northern jacanas, purple
gallinules, anhingas, Muscovy ducks and other water birds abound.
So do crocodiles!
It was on this stretch
of the Rio Sirena, while savoring the natural ambience from under
the shade of a large fig tree, that my fellow canoers and I heard
a strange noise coming from the forest on the far bank. A first
we paid the little heed to the noise, but its persistence began
to draw our attention.
The noise was strangely
familiar to me, yet I couldn’t put my finger on its identity.
A jaguar or puma cub perhaps, I speculated. We grabbed our paddles
and made our way the far bank to investigate.
Quietly, I got out
of the canoe, ascended the bank and surveyed the scene. Perched
on low vegetation, directly above the source of the noise, were
two common black hawks, looking down intently. As I approached
they flew off revealing a huge snake trying to swallow a large
smoky forest frog, rump first. The snake, a black-tailed cribo,
Drymarchon corais, was perhaps the largest colubrid (typical snake)
that I had ever seen. It was now that I realized why the noise
seemed familiar to me. I am well acquainted with the alarm call
of the smoky forest frog, but hearing it out of context, namely
during the day, had confused me.
I beckoned the others
to come, and together we looked on in amazement. The huge cribo
wrestled with the frog, trying in vane to swallow it, oblivious
to our presence. The smoky forest frog shrieked repeatedly while
struggling to get away. The scene was a gruesome one and I fought
against helping the hapless frog. Though, I did take the opportunity
of stroking the cribo while its mouth was occupied. It nudged
my hand away with a coil of its body, and continued its task.
We left and let nature take its course.
The struggle between
the two combatants had been going on for ten minutes or more when
we arrive, and continued until we were out of earshot, some fifteen
minutes later. The cribo was too large for the common back hawks
to deal with, but I wonder what would have happened if the racket
had attracted the attention of one the large cats? Would the cribo
have fared so well? I doubt so. In that scenario, perhaps the
frogs shrieking could have saved its life!
To be continued.....
a biologist, wilderness expedition guide, and the president of
Osa Aventura. You can contact him at at firstname.lastname@example.org