How to Handle Snakes  (Revised Version)

 

Introduction

 

Nothing frightens people in India more thoroughly than snakes. Fear is the single most important fact behind the indiscriminate killing of snakes. Snakes, whether poisonous or not, are generally killed on sight. The sighting of a snake generates a hysterical mob armed with all manner of sticks and stones. The snake is invariably killed because if it is not, people feel it will wreak its revenge for any undesirable attention given to it.

 

This booklet has been written with the specific intention of curing the reader of his or her hostility towards snakes. If you read it carefully, you should no longer fear snakes and may even begin to love them. People who overcome their fears through knowledge are no longer anxious with the presence of snakes. On the contrary, they turn into their protectors.

 

Snakes have occupied almost every niche in the earth’s ecosystem. There are snakes that live on trees (arboreal snakes), there are snakes that have made the ocean their home (sea snakes), there are snakes that live in fresh water (water snakes), there are snakes that live under ground (fossorial snakes: these depend on homes made by other creatures. Very often, a snake will enter a rat’s burrow, eat up the inhabitants and make the burrow its home). Then, finally, there are snakes that occupy the ground (terrestrial snakes). So, as we can see, there snakes have specialized to take advantage of every available earthly habitat.

 

All snakes are predators and since they have such a wide range of habitats and vary in size from a few inches to around 25‑30 feet, they also prey upon a wide variety of creatures ranging from insects, lizards, birds, fish, frogs and rodents to even pigs and deer. As predators, snakes play a vital role in controlling the population of these animals -- especially rodents, frogs and insects -- since a majority of the snakes feed on them.

 

In turn, many creatures also prey upon snakes: birds of prey, the mongoose, civet cats, peacocks etc regularly feed on snakes. In fact, rats and larger frogs and birds like the crow and mynah will not pass up an opportunity to eat a baby snake. So apparently the population of snakes in nature is kept in check by these animals and thus, a balance between the various populations is achieved and maintained.

 

When human beings enter this scenario, everything changes. Human beings not only alter and destroy the habitat of snakes and other creatures, as far as snakes are concerned they will not hesitate to kill them simply because they fear them. Although most snakes found in India are harmless (non‑venomous), they are still killed because of the lack of information about them and due to an overabundance of myths and misconceptions about them. Then, of course, there is also the trade in snake skins. Therefore the population of snakes is being decimated at an unnaturally high rate.

 

On the one hand, snakes are being killed relentlessly by human beings and on the other, their main source of food, that is, rodents (rats and mice) continue to benefit from the farming activities of "humans", increasing their populations to alarming proportions. Rodents consume about 25% of the total food grain produced every year in India. Allowing such an unnaturally high population of rats and mice can also lead to the spread of dangerous diseases like the plague and other diseases transmitted by them.

 

We can conclusively say that snakes play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance. In fact, the snake still remains the best method of biological rodent control.

 

Perhaps one of the reasons why the snake family is always regarded with a sense of fear is that very little effort has been made to understand them. While such a reaction is understandable because of the very appearance of the snake itself, accurate information will go a long way to remove superstitions and unfounded fears about these creatures. Once people are aware and sensitized to snakes, they will find co‑existence with them much easier and safer.

 

When dealing with snakes, the most important general principle to keep in mind is that most snakes are truly harmless and want best to be left alone. On their part, snakes will generally try to keep out of man's way unless they come into sudden, unexpected and unwanted contact or confrontation, when they will usually react. Most snakes are not only harmless, they are positively beneficial to humans.

 

Myths about snakes

 

 

Snakes probably have the largest number of myths attached to them and are generally ill treated because of them. On the occasion of Naga Panchami in Maharashtra, hundreds of snakes are killed during their so-called "worship". But there are other myths:

 

Snakes hunt human beings: False. Snakes never hunt humans. They usually hunt small rodents, birds, etc. Given even the slightest warning, a snake will run away from humans. They only attack in self-defence, when surprised or cornered.

 

Most snakes are harmful: False. Most snakes are harmless.

 

Snakes feel slimy: False. A snake is cool and dry to the touch.

 

Snakes can hypnotize people and animals: False. The myth probably rose because of the way snakes stare without moving, and because many animals freeze when a snake stares at them.

 

Snakes are aggressive and strike whenever possible: False. Most snakes are cowards that prefer to swish away and avoid a fight.

 

Snakes are revengeful creatures and seek out the person who has injured it or his family: False. All snakes are afraid of human beings and will keep away from people as far as possible. Moreover, snakes have a very tiny brain and cannot remember such incidents so as to be able to take revenge days or months later.

 

Some snakes have two heads. False. There is no such thing as a two headed snake. Snake charmers encourage people to believe in this myth when they display the Sand Boa snake which has a blunt tail which looks almost like its head. 

 

Snakes cause leprosy. False.  This myth has probably arisen because some snakes have mottled skin. However no snake causes leprosy or any other illness in human beings. Snakes are clean animals.

 

Cobras guard jewels and treasures. False. Snakes have no use for precious stones and money nor are they even attracted to them. This myth has probably arisen as a consequence of movies which create such fantasies, preying on peoples fears.

 

Cobras have a diamond in their head. False. This is logically, simply impossible.  No snakes have any jewels embedded in their bodies. Neither do they have any supernatural powers which enable them to create precious stones or any other objects. 

 

 

Life cycle

 

Snakes were the first of the vertebrates that could complete their life cycle outside water. This is because reptile eggs are provided with amnion and allantois both of which perform the necessary functions of respiration, excretion, etc., and keep the embryo from drying.

 

All snakes are oviparous i.e. they propagate through eggs. However, some snakes are ovo-viviparous. In such cases, the eggs hatch within the body of the mother and the young are born live, eg. vine snakes, vipers, etc.

 

Snakes lay clutches of eggs, usually breeding once a year. They hide the eggs so well that one rarely comes across them. Unlike bird eggs, snake eggs hatch at a normal temperature of about 31-33*C. The mother may remain to guard the eggs in some cases and may even go to the extent of building a nest (as in the case of the King Cobra), but she plays no real role in incubating them. The only exception are some pythons which coil around their eggs and by shivering or twitching their bodies, manage to raise the temperature of the eggs.

 

Once, when I was called to catch a water snake (a checkered keel back) in a well, I found she had laid eggs on the lowermost inner step of the well. Two or three of the eggs were already submerged but the rest were still dry. I didn’t think they would hatch, but I kept them any way in a glass tank at home. The main thing is to keep them from drying by sprinkling some water on them from time to time. Two months later, out of 13 eggs, 11 hatched. The young were 7-8 inches long. I released them in my compound after a few days.

 

The newly born normally do not eat till they complete their first moult which is usually a week after they are born. The next moult may take a few more days and the time between each moult continues to increase as the snake grows, finally stabilizing at about 6-7 times a year in big snakes. Snakes grow in size till they die but attain sexual maturity at half their full size. Mating in cold countries may occur in spring and young are born/hatch in summer. But in tropical countries like ours the time may vary. One interesting fact is that female snakes possess the ability to store sperm, so they can lay fertile eggs for a second breeding season without meeting a male.

 

Normally a snake can live in the wilderness up to 30 to 35 years whereas in captivity it

survives up to only 20 to 25 years.

 

Kinds of Snakes:

 

In India, 236 species of snakes have been identified. Of these, only four main species are truly poisonous for human beings: the cobra, the krait, the Russell’s viper and the saw‑scaled viper. (Sea snakes are also fatally venomous but hardly encountered by the common man).  It is important to be able to identify a snake in case you or someone else gets bitten for it is only when the snake is correctly identified, that effective treatment can be provided.

 

There is no specific external difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. Before you ever attempt to go close to a snake you must try and identify it from a safe distance. Study good photographs of these snakes and visit a snake park, if possible. Once the image of these snakes is fixed in your head, identification is not at all that difficult.

 

We now provide some notes on poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, for easier identification:

 

Venomous/Poisonous Snakes

 

The Indian (Spectacled) Cobra Naja naja naja

 

Distinctive Features: Medium‑sized to large; smooth, shiny scales; wide head and neck; wide black band on underside of neck; distinctive hood marking on top of neck.

 

Description: The ‘spectacled’ cobra is a smooth‑scaled snake with black eyes, wide neck and head and medium body. Colouring varies from black or dark brown to yellowish white. The underside is usually white or yellowish with a wide dark neckband. The body is generally covered with a speckled white or yellow pattern, sometimes forming ragged bands. The famous hood marking of the classic design shows a connected pair of rings. Occasionally, it may not even resemble spectacles, or the design may be altogether absent. The cobras of north­ west India are blackish and have a barely distinguishable hood marking.

 

Cobras are often confused with Indian rat snakes which have a much thinner neck and head, and become three metres long (a metre more than even the biggest Indian cobras).

 

Distribution: Throughout India, sea level up to 4000 metres (in the Himalayas).

 

The Indian (Monocellate) Cobra Naja naja kaouthia

 

Distinctive Features: Medium‑sized; smooth, shiny scales; wide head and neck; distinctive hood marking different from that of the spectacled cobra.

 

Description: The skin of the monocellate cobra is shinier, the hood rounder and smaller and the head smaller than that of the ‘spectacled’ cobra. The skin colour varies widely, from yellowish to greenish brown to black, with ragged bands. There is a conspicuous white monocle on the hood. The underside is yellowish white. Monocellate cobras superficially resemble ‘spectacled’ cobras, but there are many small differences.

 

Distribution.‑ Monocellate cobras are a sub‑species most commonly found in north west India, parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and the Andamans, all of Bengal and Assam.

 

The Common Krait ‑ Bungarus caeruleus

 

Distinctive Features: Medium‑sized; smooth, glossy scales; head slightly wider than neck: jet‑black, usually with distinct white cross lines.

 

Description: Common kraits are smooth, glossy bluish‑black snakes with the rounded head slightly distinct from the neck. The body colour varies from a dark steely blue‑black in a specimen, which has freshly shed its skin, to a pale faded bluish grey in one just about to moult. There are normally about 40 thin white cross bands across the body. The young, and some adults of the species, may have white spots along the first third of the backbone in place of the cross lines. These variations as well as uniform black variants appear in certain geographic races. The underside is white. Common kraits are often confused with wolf snakes (Lycodon sp.), which are much smaller, with flat, somewhat pointed heads. The common krait is the best known of the six krait species found in India and one of the big four dangerous snakes. Besides the common and banded krait (see below), the other kraits are rare and confined to the eastern Himalayas and Assam.

 

Distribution.‑ Most of India including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands -- sea level up to 1700 metres. Uncommon in Bengal, Assam and Orissa, where the banded krait is found.

 

The Banded Krait Bungarus fasciatus

 

Distinctive Features: Medium‑sized to large; smooth, shiny scales: wide bright yellow and black bands on back.

 

Description: The banded krait is a large, conspicuous yellow and black banded snake with a prominent backbone, blunt tail and rounded head slightly distinct from the body. The bands are faded on the underside. This is one of the most cool headed snakes and will almost never bite even under maximum provocation.

 

Distribution: Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and reported in parts of Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Found up to 1500 metres above sea level.

 

The Russell's ViperVipera russellii

 

Distinctive Features: Medium‑sized to large; strongly keeled scales; distinctive bright chain pattern; large triangular head.

 

Description: Russell's Vipers are heavy, rough‑scaled snakes with vertical eye pupils and generally a very bright pattern. The body colour is usually brown or yellowish and the pattern is composed of dark, round spots edged with white and black. The underside is white in the western, partly speckled in the south eastern and heavily speckled in the north eastern race. Colour variation is common, and the best recognition characters are the short, fat body, the triangular‑shaped head and very regular chain like pattern. Russell's vipers resemble the fat, harmless common sand boas, which however have shorter, and blunter tails and irregular body patterns. The bright symmetrical spots on the Russell's viper's back make it easy to recognise. Russell's Vipers are one of the big four dangerous snakes of India.

 

Distribution: Hills and plains throughout India up to 3,000 metres.

 

The Saw‑Scaled ViperEchis carinatus

 

Distinctive Features: Small; strongly keeled scales; head wider than neck; dull colour; cross mark on top of head is distinctive.

 

Description: A rough‑scaled snake with large eyes, wider head than neck and stocky body. The scales are heavily keeled. The body is brown, grayish or sandy with a darker zigzag pattern on the back and a distinct cross or lance mark on the head. The underside is white with brown speckles. The tail is short and stubby. Saw‑scaled vipers are the smallest of the Big Four venomous snakes and are less of a threat in south India because of the small size of the southern type. The northern form, however, grows large enough to be a potentially dangerous member of the Big Four. This snake gets its name from the sound that it makes by rubbing its scales against each other in a twisting fashion. It is one of the most hot tempered snakes available and will not hesitate to bite.

 

Distribution.‑ Throughout India, mostly on the plains. In north west India, saw‑scaled vipers are reported from up to 2000 m in the hills. They are plentiful in certain area such as Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra, parts of Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

 

Other Venomous/Poisonous Snakes

 

The King CobraOphiophagus hannah

 

Distinctive Features: Large; smooth, shiny scales; distinct light cross bands mainly on the fore body, large head scales edges with black.

 

Description: The large head of the giant king cobra is little wider than the neck. The head scales are edged with black and the overall colour varies from yellowish to deep olive‑green but the tail is often jet‑black. The underside is a lighter shade of the body colour. The yellow bands on the snake's back are more obvious in the light coloured specimens from Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. King cobras are the largest venomous snakes in the world. The king cobra female makes a nest of dry leaves, branches, small stones etc, in rain forests before laying eggs. No antivenom is available for this snake in India. Due to its massive size, king cobras inject a quantity of venom that is enough to kill even an elephant. However, encounters with them are rare.

 

Distribution: Rare in India, king cobras are confined mostly to the dense forests of the Western Ghats and the northern hill forests. Nilgiris, Plains and Western Ghats up to Goa, the Himalayan foot hills (up to 2000 metres) starting near Lahore in Pakistan through north India to Assam, forests of Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal and the Andamans.

 

The Slender Coral SnakeCallophis melanurus

 

Distinctive Features: Small, slender; smooth, shiny scales, blunt, black head, tail black, scarlet and blue.

 

Description.‑ The slender coral snake is light brown in colour and fairly speckled. The head and neck are black with two conspicuous yellow spots on the top of the head. There is a ragged black ring at the tail‑base and at the tail up. The underside is uniform pinkish‑red (coral), bright scarlet at vent, and the underside of the tail is bluish. The head is blunt and has the same width as the neck; the scales are smooth and slightly glossy. Slender coral snakes are one of the 5 Indian coral snakes. The other 4 are hill forest species of the Western Ghats and eastern Himalayas.

 

Distribution: Reported from most parts of India on the plains, except central and North Western India. McClelland's coral snake is found up to 4000 m in the Himalayas.

 

The Bamboo Pit Viper - Trimeresurus gramineus

 

A medium sized snake, grass green on top and yellowish below. Has a prominent triangular head. The bamboo viper is always found on trees. It is hardly ever found in the ground. So if you come across any bamboo pit vipers, provide it with perches, because you won't find it on the ground. It will be comfortable if it has some branches/twigs to live on. This is a poisonous snake but normally not lethal enough to kill a human being.

Sea snakes:

 

There are many species of sea snakes found on the Indian coastal belt. All of them are poisonous but bites from them are very rare. Fishermen handle them with their bare hands. These snakes give birth to live young in water. They are totally helpless on land. If you see a sea snake stranded on the sand, pick it up with a long stick and put it back in the sea.

 

Non-poisonous snakes:

 

The Common Blind SnakeRamphotyplops bramina

 

Description: 12‑17 cm length, smallest snake in the country; looks like an earthworm, brownish black/reddish black in colour, rounded head and tail. Eyes are tiny, almost invisible to human eye. These snakes are very small and should never be held in one’s hand because the body temperature of a human being can kill it.

 

Distribution: Found underground and in anthills, wooden logs and decayed leaves in jungles.

yellow spots, neck and tail have yellowish and saffron coloured stripes on either side. Narrow pointed head, short tail.

 

Distribution: Found underground, but appears in the open during rainy season.

 

Pythons:

 

Pythons are non‑venomous snakes. However, they can deliver a very painful bite if unnecessarily provoked. A python strangulates its prey and therefore it has to be handled carefully. It  has very powerful muscles. Whenever you are handling such a reptile, especially when it is very large, it is advisable to have additional hands.

 

The Indian Python ‑ Python molurus

 

Description: Huge, pale brown in colour, body has dark brown shiny spots all over, long flat head which is distinct from the body, eyes oval and smaller.

 

Distribution: Deep jungles and rocky areas, near water.

 

The Reticulated Python ‑ Python reticulatus

 

Description: The longest snake in the world, reticulations on the body (like giraffe) in yellow, brown and black colours, brown head has a black stripe which runs from the tip of the head to the neck.

 

Distribution: Nicobar islands mainly.

 

The Sand BoaEryx conicus

 

Description: 60 cm, fat body, short in length, blunt tail with bristles. Oval head and neck is the same size as the rest of the body. Whitish yellow/dark yellow scales with pattern of cream coloured spots.

 

Distribution: Arid regions, lives in burrows or crevices.

 

The Earth BoaEryx johnil

 

Description: 90 cm, dark brown/cream colour cylindrical body with tapering head. Tail and head are identical with small eyes. A very coolheaded snake which almost never bites, ideal for beginners to handle.

 

Distribution: Found in black soil, also found in the open during monsoons.

 

The Common Kukri SnakeOligodon arnensis

 

Description: 30‑40 cm, short flat head, has an inverted V mark on it. Cylindrical body is yellowish green with a row of brown spots. Teeth are curved like a kukri (weapon common in Nepal).

 

Distribution: Terrestrial snake, lives in crevices in brick walls.

 

The Wolf Snake Lycodon aulicus

 

Description: 40‑50 cm, dark brown body with white bands. Pattern similar to the krait but the bands on the wolf snake are darker towards the head and lighter towards the tail.

 

Distribution: Black coloured with yellow bands.

 

The Rat Snake - Ptyas mucosus

 

Description: Head rather elongate, eyes large with vertical black lines on the face. Neck constricted, head smaller compared to body. Tapering towards both ends. Dark brownish or yellowish in colour. A very dark greenish brown colour is sometimes seen. Found throughout the Indian sub-continent. Can swim, and can climb trees. Normally tries to escape when sighted. Eats almost anything such as frogs, toads, birds, skinks, bats and other snakes.

  

The rat snake is non‑venomous. However people routinely kill it because they mistake it for a cobra, as it has a similar skin pattern. There is mass pelting and destruction of these snakes. In fact this snake is ecologically important because it eats a lot of rats. It keeps the rodent population in control and indiscriminate killing of these snakes will lead to increase in rodent population. When you examine them closely for a week, you will be able to distinguish them from cobras.

 

The Flying Snake - Chrysopelea ornata

 

The snake is called a flying snake because it glides. It does not actually fly. With the help of its ribs it can contract into a particular shape. It can make its body concave so there is a kind of a negative pressure and  a vacuum is created and it can glide upto a distance of 200 metres. It is poisonous.

 

The Bronze Back Tree Snake - dendrelaphis tristis

 

Description: a thin long snake with an elongate head, large lustrous eyes with a golden iris. Bronze brown on the dorsal surface. A yellowish stripe on the dorsal surface from the neck to vent is seen.

 

Habits: Bronze backs are found almost entirely on trees and on roof tops sometimes. They rarely come to the ground. They are highly active snakes and can climb trees very easily.

 

The Checkered Keel Back Water Snake - Xenochrophis piscator

 

Description: Quite a robust snake with an oval head. Eyes tilted upwards, colouration is variable, but normally yellowish or olivaceous with distinct spots or checks all over the body. Spots may be reddish in colour sometimes.

 

Habits: This is the commonest fresh water snake and is the most aggressive Indian snake. It erects and flattens its fore body before striking. It is a vary good swimmer. Feeds on frogs, fish, etc..

 

The Trinket Snake - Elaphe helena

 

Description: A beautiful coloured snake usually brownish or yellowish. Ornamented with crossbars on the anterior part of the body. Longish and moderately thin. Usually not aggressive.

 

The Common Green Whip Snake - Ahaetulla nasutus

 

Description: A very long and extremely thin snake. Bright green in colour with a pointed snout and horizontal pupils. Tail very long. Usually found on trees and can move very easily on thin twigs and leaves. When first caught, it may display aggression by opening its mouth wide. Usually eats small mammals, birds, lizards, etc.

 

 

Snakebites

 

The principal problem people fear about snakes is a snake bite. Snake bites usually occur in rural areas. People working in the fields or traveling through forests or desert areas get bitten by snakes. According to the general rule, poisonous snakes leave two big fang marks and non-poisonous ones leave many uniform teeth marks. However, in most cases, it is difficult to identify the bite as poisonous or non-poisonous because the bite mark in most cases is a small abrasion. Baby snakes are as venomous as their parents, even when the snake is just newly born.

 

In most snake bite cases, the snake does not get a chance to chew for long, which would give it more time to inject a lethal dose. Another fact is that venomous snakes don't always inject venom in their bites. Most snake bites are dry bites (the snake does not inject poison).

 

Technically, snake venom doesn't come from their mouths. It is produced in glands located in the back of the snake's eyes. Poison is injected from the venom sacs through grooved or hollow fangs. Depending on the species, the fangs are either long or short. Pit vipers have long hollow fangs. These fangs are folded against the roof of the mouth and extend when the snake strikes. This allows them to strike quickly and withdraw. Cobras, coral snakes, kraits, mambas and sea snakes have short, grooved fangs. These snakes are less effective in their attempts to bite, since they must chew after striking to inject enough venom to be effective.

 

However, all snakes may carry tetanus (lockjaw), so anyone bitten by a snake, whether poisonous or non‑poisonous, should immediately seek medical attention.

 

The general rule is: TREAT ALL SNAKEBITES AS POTENTIALLY POISONOUS.

 

Identification

 

The identification of poisonous snakes is very important since medical treatment will be different for each type of venom.

 

Snake venoms are basically of two types: haemotoxic, which affects the blood, and neurotoxic, which affects the nervous system.

 

Cobra venom, for example, is basically neurotoxic. The venom prevents the transmission of nerve impulses to the muscles. Thus the general symptom is paralysis. There is little local pain at the site of the bite. The paralysis is followed by drowsiness. The person experiences a choking sensation and suffocation. He loses power in the legs and paralysis of the lips, tongue, etc. sets in thereafter. The patient is soon unable to hold saliva in the mouth and is unable to swallow. The eye lids begin to droop. Salivation increases and the person begins to drop saliva out of the mouth. The venom then paralyses the respiratory centre and kills the person.

 

Krait venom is also neurotoxic. The symptoms are similar to cobra bites, but usually no local symptoms are observed. Sometimes severe abnormal pain occurs. Krait venom is many times more toxic than cobra venom.

 

Viper venom is mainly haemotoxic. The bitten area experiences severe pain and swelling. The venom prevents clotting and destroys blood cells and capillaries. Consequently the victim starts bleeding from gums, nose, rectum, vagina, ears and other orifices of the body. There is also vomiting induced. The person finally dies due to loss of blood and haemorrhage. Viper venoms are knows to affect the person even after 12-13 days. Therefore the victim must be hospitalized for a few days till the effects have worn off. 

 

First aid

 

First reassure the patient that he is not going to die and you are there to help him. Take the casualty to the medical treatment facility as soon as possible with minimum movement. If bitten on an extremity, do not elevate the limb and keep it level with the body. Make the position comfortable.

 

If the bite is on an arm or leg, place a constricting band or narrow gauze bandage, one or two finger breadths above and below the bite. If only one constricting band is available, place the band on extremity between the bite side and casualty's heart. If the bite is on the hand or foot, place a single band above the wrist or ankle. The band should be tight enough to stop the flow of blood near the skin, but not tight enough to interfere with circulation.

 

Do not attempt to cut open the bite. Do not suck out the venom: if the venom should seep through any damaged or lacerated tissues in your mouth, you could immediately lose consciousness or even die. A suction device may be placed over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound without making any other cuts. Suction instruments are included in commercial snakebite kits.

 

Caution ‑ When a splint is used to immobilize the arm or leg, take extreme care to ensure the splinting is done properly and does not stop the circulation. Watch it closely and adjust it if any changes in swelling occur. Wash the wound thoroughly with soap (preferably soaps used to wash clothes) and water. Do not use ointments of any kind.

 

Never give food, alcohol, stimulants (coffee or tea), drugs or tobacco to the affected person. Remove rings, watches or other jewellery from the affected limb.

 

Antidotes available and how to use them

 

Antivenom

 

Antivenoms are basically antibodies used to destroy or neutralize the effect of snake venom. The antivenom is created by injecting tiny doses of raw snake venom into horses and gradually increasing the dose till the horse builds up immunity and produces antibodies. The blood of the horse is then taken, the serum separated and the antibodies in the serum used for producing antivenom. (Recent research has shown that the same antivenom can be made out of the yolk of eggs. After this is proven and stabilized, horses will no longer be needed to producing snake antivenom.)

 

Antivenom produced now is actually poly antivenom, since it is effective against bites of all the four poisonous snakes of India. The antivenom is available at places like the Haffkine Institute in Mumbai. The antivenom doses come in a special portable kit, with directions on how to use them in case of emergency. The antivenom can be stored without refrigeration for a minimum of five years.

 

It must be said that anti‑venoms are very specific and should not be experimented with. Anti‑venoms often produce strange reactions among certain people who cannot tolerate their presence in their bodies. There are cases when people have died due to the anti‑venom itself rather than from the poison.

 

Some people are allergic to horse serum and thus need to take anti allergy drugs before taking the antivenom. Also one may need in individual cases artificial respiration, blood, etc. thus it is best if antivenom is administered in a hospital. Antivenom is given through drip and the blood is then tested for clotting factors and other toxins at regular intervals till the effect of the venom is totally neutralized. In an emergency, however, antivenom may be injected directly.

 

Preventing Snake Bites

 

Except for a few species, snakes tend to be shy or passive. Unless they are injured, trapped or disturbed, snakes usually avoid contact with humans. Most people are bitten in their attempts to tease a snake or when trying to kill or frighten it.

 

Most snakes are active during the period from twilight to daylight. Avoid walking as much as possible during this time. Look around carefully before sitting down, particularly if in deep grass among rocks. Wear thick‑soled leather boots that cannot be penetrated by the snake’s teeth. Attempt to camp on clean; level ground. Avoid camping near piles of brush, rocks, or other debris. Sleep on camping cots or anything that will keep off the ground. Avoid sleeping on the ground, if possible. Check the other side of a large rock before stepping over it. When looking under any rock, pull it toward you as you turn it over so that it will shield you in case a snake is beneath it.

 

Try to walk only in open areas. Avoid walking close to rock walls or similar areas where snakes may be hiding. Hike with another person for company. Avoid hiking alone in a snake‑infested area. If bitten, it is important to have at least one companion to perform lifesaving first aid measures and to kill the snake for easy identification, unless you are sure of the species. Providing the snake to medical personnel will facilitate both identification and treatment. If a snake is killed, handle it with a long tool or stick as snakes can inflict fatal bites by reflex action even after death.

 

Where you will most probably find snakes

 

Snakes are usually found in very specific kinds of places. They are, for example, usually concerned about finding a shady place in summer with fresh water and a dry warm place to hibernate in winters. In fact, people can be educated about this so that snakes are not unnecessarily disturbed and people can avoid getting bitten.

 

Snakes like hiding underneath stones and boulders in forests and on the road. So educate people about not lifting stones or boulders, because that is a favoured hiding place for snakes. Be careful when you are shifting any stone which has been lying in the same place for sometime. Also make sure that there is no snake around. Be observant.

 

Thorny bushes and tall grasses are the natural habitat of snakes. So if you are removing some thorny plants from your garden or from an area, you might encounter a Russell's Viper.

 

The most common places where you are likely to find snakes are piles of rubble and building material, trash cans, waste water outlets, bath rooms, behind washing machines, under the gas cylinders, store rooms, verandas, climbing water pipes, backyards or gardens/lawns, around garden plant pots, bonnets of discarded vehicles, etc.

 

Cracks or holes in the walls are also very good hiding places for snakes. So make sure that your building compound or the wall of your house does not have any cracks or any holes. You can use water to flood snakes out of wall cracks. Scrap materials or junk are also good hiding places for snakes. Make sure there is no garbage or waste lying around your house. Again most snakes are ground dwellers. So if you step on a snake accidentally it might bite you on the legs. Proper boots while going into the forest or jungle will help you avoid getting bitten by snakes.

 

If it is dark always use a torch or lamps because you may not be able to see the snake in the dark and might put your foot on it.

 

Snakes are naturally attracted to sources of food. So if there is any large presence of livestock such as birds, poultry or pigeons being kept either as pets or for commercial purposes, snakes might be attracted. These animals should always be kept at a height so that the snakes cannot see them or enter their cages.

 

The favourite food of rat snakes is rats (naturally). So if there is a large rodent population or if you have large rat holes, you are bound to have a rat snake there. Therefore, try and control the population of rats in your area.

 

Cut any creepers or any plants bending towards or touching any window or roof. This is a very easy way for snakes to get in.

 

Also, the smaller snakes eat the house lizards called geckos. If you are living in a house with a garden, because a garden attracts insects, insects attract reptiles. So make sure that there are few lizards in your house. If you can control the rat and lizard population, you will not come in contact with snakes.

 

It should be remembered that the eyesight of snakes is very poor. They feel vibrations with the help of their lower jaw. So whenever you are walking in the jungle or forest, if you stamp your feet and walk, you are sending vibrations. The snake knows something is coming and will avoid your path.

 

During the monsoon season various snakes can be seen moving around in cities or rural areas. They come out for mating and to access food such as rats, frogs, eggs of birds and their young ones because the populations of these flourish during this period.

 

 

How to deal with a snake in your house

 

Snakes rarely enter houses. They cannot move on smooth surfaces and therefore the only reason you sometimes find them in your house is because they have fallen from the roof by accident or they have tried to follow a rat into your house. No snake will ever enter your house with the intention of harming you.

 

There are two things you can do if you find a snake in the house. One is to call a snake rescue club for help. In this case, if you are brave enough, simply throw a blanket over the snake, or, if the snake is behind some object, leave it there and keep someone to watch over it, till you get help.

 

If help is not available, you have to deal with the snake yourself. Using a long stick try and pick up the snake from under mid body and then drop it in a large bag or put it out in the compound from where it has come. Snakes do not jump, therefore if you have a stick longer than 1 ˝ mt. you have no chance of being bitten. If the snake keeps slipping off the stick then gently and slowly guide the snake to the door with the stick. Once the snake is out on the ground it will move away fast and not come back to bother you again.

 

Catching and Handling Snakes

 

Catching snakes is a very risky operation and should be carried out with great care and caution. Snake catching should be learnt under the guidance of an expert, because even non-poisonous snakes can inflict painful bites.

 

The basic rule in snake catching is to avoid touching the snake as far as possible. No unnecessary acts of bravery should be performed. Good protective clothing is a must. Big boots, tough jeans, and a jacket and gloves will reduce the risk of getting bitten to a great extent.

 

A fairly safe way to catch snakes is to make a butterfly net kind of tool. One square metre of strong cotton cloth may be attached to a gutless tennis racket and such a contraption would suffice to catch a snake fairly easily. The length of the cloth could be about 100 centimetres. You could also use a double layer of strong mosquito net. However, the attachment must be firm and strong. All one needs to do is to dangle the bag so that it touches the ground in the snake’s path.

 

The snake, on seeing a dark place, will slide into it. Snakes associate any burrow, cave, hole or opening as a place of refuge or safety. This makes the snake glide into the cloth bag. Once inside, you may tie the neck of the bag. The cloth should be fairly thick as a snake could bite through it.

 

In case the snake avoids the bag, try placing it again in its path. Sooner or later the snake will go inside. This method is safe because the snake does not associate the bag with any danger and hence makes no attempts to strike back or flee.

 

A very good instrument which is often used for snake catching in India is the snake-stick. It is basically a long rod with a ‘U’ shape at one end and a fork -- which is useful is pinning down the head of the snake -- at the other. The ‘U’ shape is useful in lifting the snake without having to touch or directly hold it. The snake-stick can be manufactured by any blacksmith in the village.

 

To transport the snake after you have caught it, carry a canvas bag with a zip. A string can be tied to the zip, so that you can zip the bag, holding your hand far away from the mouth of the bag. Remember, the bigger the bag, the easier it is to get the snake into it.

 

Snakes are likely to be found behind some object rather than in the open. So don’t make any attempt to disturb it if it is not moving. If you move slow enough, the snake is unlikely to make any sudden moves or try to escape. Gently lift it with the U shaped end of the stick and drop it inside the bag. Sometimes the snake may keep moving and avoid the bag. In this case, it may be necessary to gently pin its head down with the forked end of the stick. After doing so, grab it firmly but gently behind the head bones and then put it into the bag. It is important never to let the snake coil around any part of your body. By doing do the snake will force you to loosen your grip and then bite you.

 

Never handle a venomous snake if you are far away from a hospital.

 

Once a snake is identified as venomous, it may be a good thing to place the cloth bag within another bag so that there is no chance of its escape or it attacking you. Never try to touch the snake at any point of time. Such antics may prove costly and yield nothing. Do not put the snake in a polythene or plastic bag as it would be unable to breathe and would die immediately. Also don’t use cardboard boxes to transport a snake as it can pierce a hole through such material and escape.

 

Some points to be remembered while handling each of the four different venomous snakes:

 

  1. Cobras will only strike downwards when they have their hood raised. Therefore, this makes them quite ineffective in attacking when their hood is up. Judging by how high the hood is you can tell how much its striking range is and if you stay out of this range you are quite safe.

 

  1. Kraits are highly venomous but rather inoffensive creatures. Secondly they are nocturnal and so are very shy in the day. Therefore avoid handling this snake at nights.

 

  1. The Russell’s viper is quite a hot tempered snake which will normally coil up and then hiss like a pressure cooker to warn you if you are too close. Vipers have the most advanced biting mechanism. Their fangs are very long and remain folded in the mouth. When they bite, the fangs become erect. The snake usually attacks at a 45 degree angle upwards. Though it is a heavy bodied snake it can move relatively fast so do not attempt to pick it up by its tail. Always use a snake hook to pick it up. As far as handling is concerned, this snake is much more dangerous than both the cobra and the krait.

 

  1. The saw-scaled viper is supposed to be one of the most hot tempered snakes on the Asian continent. It is a relatively small snake so do not attempt to hold it by the tail as it can easily turn back up and bite. The easiest way is to pick it up with a snake hook and drop it in a bag.

 

Rescue

 

Snake rescues are of two kinds. In the first kind, one rescues a perfectly normal snake from a house or compound that it has entered (in search of rats, mice, toads, frogs or lizards) and which has been sighted and cornered by the inhabitants or a snake which has fallen into a well or tank and cannot get out.

 

The second is rescuing a captive snake from a snake charmer.

 

Mostly when you are rescuing snakes from people's homes, respond immediately lest they cause any damage to the snake.

 

After the rescue, the snake has to be transported to a snake shelter, avoiding unnecessary jerks or movement and not exposed to sunlight. Though I use a canvas bag, you can also use mud pots which are available in every village environment. The pot is an excellent device. It is invariably cool to the touch. It is also dark, after one has closed the neck with a tough piece of cloth and tied it down around the neck.  Pots can also be kept extra cool with water sprays. The pot or bag is after all only an isolation chamber and not the place where the snake will be kept permanently. Once you put the snake inside you can observe it. Checking for injuries immediately is not advisable. In any case, do not actually grab a snake unless absolutely necessary. A dark retreat is what the snake wants. If there is any health problem or if the snake is badly injured or it has bruises on it, it can be treated but it should be less frequently handled.

 

Your foremost action should be to give fresh, cool water to the snake. Provide a dust or sand bath mixed with turmeric powder to rid the snake of any infection or blood sucking parasites, such as ticks. If you wish to observe the snake because you suspect it is ill or badly hurt, you can place it in a secure wooden box with safe locking device or a glass vivarium. Put sand, dry leaves, few newspapers and a water bowl in the enclosure.

 

Observe and give food because you don't know whether the snake is fed or not. Most reptiles do not eat everyday. They eat once in four days or once in 7 days depending on the species. Larger pythons, depending on if they have had a large meal, may not eat for 15 days. So not having known whether the animal is fed or not, offer it food. If it eats the food it is in good health. If it doesn't, then presume that it has already had its food or is ill. Give dead white mice.  Once it is fed, you can shift it to another cage. Or a pit can be prepared for the time being in a shady place till you release the snake into its habitat.

 

Looking after snakes is a very specialized job and is not recommended. It would be better if NGOs made efforts to teach snake charmers to be educators rather than enemies of snakes.

 

Handling snakes in captivity

 

To handle a snake is to begin touching it while it is inside its cage so that it becomes accustomed to human touch. If the animal attempts to bite, the use of a leather gardening glove is recommended. If the snake musks, the use of latex gloves used for washing dishes will keep the smell off your hands.

 

Once you have the snake in hand, utilize minimal restriction rather that firm restraint, essentially guiding the snake as it moves through your hands. Restraint will be interpreted by a snake as a definite threat and this will frequently result in a quick turnaround and biting. Handle small non-venomous snakes by grasping them firmly but gently behind the head -- near the angle of the jaws -- and then supporting the body with your other hand.

 

Larger snakes require more support: 5‑6 people may be need to restrain a moderate‑size snake for a physical examination or an injection. As a general rule you should handle no constricting snake of more than 8 feet in length without someone else in the immediate vicinity. A thorough physical examination may require two people to hold down such a snake while a third person examines the animal.

 

When administering an injection be careful of sudden violent jerks by the snake toward the needle. The expert can wrap his hands around the snake near the injection point to prevent the sudden jerking movement. You should insert the needle at an angle not perpendicular to the skin. If the needle is perpendicular, a sudden motion might cause it to penetrate too deeply, causing harm to the snake. Administer the injection in the front part of the snake or the medication could go through its kidneys, damaging them.

 

Examining a snake

 

Observe the snake from a distance. When examining it, observe its overall appearance, ease of breathing and the luster of the skin. Is it moving about the cage, is it alert and moving with good muscular and motor control? Is its tongue flicking? Examine the cage for stools ‑ are they solid and normal in colour, or loose, watery and foul smelling? Normal stools are dark (black or dark brown) with a white part. The dark part is the faecal matter and the white part is the uric acid. If the stool is watery, mucousy, blood tinged, greenish or yellowish, it is a sign of a problem.

 

If the snake’s body is flattened, it may be a sign of poor muscle tone and perhaps long term anorexia. Check the nose area for abrasions and check the mouth. Hold the snake behind its head with one hand (while supporting the body on a table or using your arm to hold it against your body only if non venomous). With the other hand, pull the skin underneath the lower jaw to open the mouth of the animal to see if the mouth area is clean, uniformly coloured, and free of mucous. Look at the eyes: are they bright, clear and moving alertly? The signs that a snake is actually in the process of sleeping include constriction of its pupils, tucking of its head into its coils, or burrowing in its substrate.

 

See if the tongue is flicking, the snake breathing easily or are there respiratory 'wheezes', open mouth breathing, puffing of the throat, blowing bubbles or a constant head elevation? Examine the skin for any abnormalities or discolorations: are there any ticks or mites, is the skin smooth and shiny, any abnormal lumps or bumps. Check the cloacal area: is it clean with a pink interior or is there dried blood or mucus present in this area? Make sure the substrate material is clean and dry, the cage furniture is secure, and that the water and water bowls are clean. Any shed skin should be removed along with any fecal matter.

 

To open a snake's mouth to give it some medicine you can follow these small tricks: you have got a small snake, take a folded business card, or if it's a large snake, a folded paper plate and put it in the snake's mouth. Paper products are good because they are soft and can be easily disposed of afterward so they don't need to be disinfected and the fold keeps the snake from getting paper cuts. A ballpoint pen can be used to poke open the front of a snake's mouth. Once the snake opens its mouth wide, put the pen in its mouth crosswise to keep it open. A rubber spatula works. If you need to give your snake medication, you can pop it right behind the spatula.

 

Always wash your hands with bactericidal soap such as betadine scrub after handling snakes. Immuno‑compromised people should not handle reptiles of any kind.

 

Snake Diseases

 

One of the most serious threats to captive snakes are from pathogens, that is, infections and diseases introduced by other wild animals and snakes. It is important to keep newly captured snakes in quarantine as they often carry infections and diseases that affect other snakes. The faeces of these snakes must be analyzed to determine their health and body condition.

Some common snake diseases a snake-keeper must be aware of are the following:

 

a)              Bacterial infections like pneumonia that can cause respiratory infections in the snake. Wheezing is a symptom common in such cases. Such snakes should be immediately quarantined least they pass on their infection to others. This infection includes the presence of bubbly mucus in the mouth, listlessness and decreased appetite. If left untreated the amount of mucus increases and the snake keeps its mouth open and its head is partially raised. Untreated respiratory disease leads to the death of the snake. Vets will administer oxytetracyline, which is given orally at the rate of 5O mg. per one kg. of snake's weight.

 

b)              Pseudomonas: This bacterium is usually in small numbers. It leads to a variety of diseases such as mouth rot (prevents the snake from opening its mouth), ulceration, etc. Use cotton swabs soaked in a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution. You can also use diluted Chlorhexidine (0.25-1%), povidine iodine solution (1%), vinegar solution (0.5%). By gently holding the snake behind the head, the swab can be pushed against the gums. Vets administer Betadine orally or its mouthwash solution is applied to the affected area at least once a day to cure these problems. Atropine (to reduce the thickness of the oral secretions) and vitamin C are also used.

 

c)               Cestodes (Tapeworms): Several effective treatments are available.

 

d)              Blisters on snakes are tiny spots or nodules (these may be hard but are often pus filled) on its skin. Immediately assess its enclosure. Excessively high humidity, damp and dirty substrate, and soaking in an unclean water dish can cause this disease. Clean and sterilize the cage, change the substrate, put in a smaller water bowl and remove any plants. If the blister disease is minimal, the snake will probably enter a 'rapid shed cycle' and rid itself of the problem within a shed or two. If the disease is advanced with underlying tissue damage, it will be necessary to rupture each blister and clean the area daily for 7‑14 days with dilute Betadine and hydrogen peroxide. Again the snake will enter a rapid shed cycle and after two sheds its skin should appear normal.

 

e)              Skin sloughing (shedding): The complete skin cover of the snake is shed in one single piece. This is not a complicated process. Rather it is quite natural. Healthy snakes shed their skin in one piece. Difficult shedding is caused by parasites, malnutrition, infection, metabolic irregularities, tumors or poor environment. If a snake needs help immediately, place it in a warm, wet pillowcase for 30 minutes to an hour. Tie the top and do not place the pillowcase anywhere where water could overflow and cover the bag or where the snake can fall or get stepped on. After some time, remove the snake. Assist the snake in. shedding its old skin including the eye shields or spectacles. Skin from the eye can be removed with forceps. You can also use a small amount of mild washing detergent in the soaking process. A dilute solution of one part hydrogen peroxide to 3/4 parts water also helps the snakes to shed easily.

 

f)                 Abscesses: Common cause of lumps/bumps is an abscess ‑ a pocket of bacteria and dead cells. This is caused if the snake has been badly housed causing malfunctioning of the immune system. You can treat abscesses by slicing them open and flushing them with povidine iodine solution (Betadine). Reptile pus is usually solid so remove the pus manually by applying pressure to the sides of the abscess and then scraping out the inside of the abscess with a small spoon like instrument. One abscess found is a warning for the presence of more lumps that you do not see. If you find a parasite when you slice open a lump, wash your hands immediately and take the snake to the vet.

 

g)              Ticks and Mites: Ticks and mites are found on the skin of the snake which sucks the blood of the snake causing anemia and eventually death of the snake. The tick imbeds its mouth parts in the skin between the scales. A pyrethrin spray is effective. Simply spray a cotton swab, apply the medication to the tick, wait a few minutes and remove the tick with tweezers. If the tick is imbedded near the snake's head, pyrethrin is not recommended. In this case, with a cotton swab apply a drop or two of rubbing alcohol or a small amount of petroleum jelly directly on the tick. Wait for 5‑10 minutes and remove the tick with the help of forceps and pluck out from the skin. Whenever pyrethrins are used, be sure to thoroughly rinse the snake in lukewarm water after treatment is completed. You can also use Nilgiri Oil or Neem Oil to remove these risks.

 

Mites are seen as tiny, dark, bead like creatures crawling on the skin of the snake. Their presence is indicated by tiny white spots on the skin. Pyrethirin spray is very effective in killing adult mites as well as their eggs which are also laid on the snake's skin. Dampen the cloth with the spray and wipe the snake with the cloth. Cover all the skin including the top of the head and the chin and throat area. The eyes must be avoided as pyrethrin can damage the lens of the eye. Pots and box furniture can also be treated with pyrethrin spray. Everything must be rinsed thoroughly before being used again. Mites are mostly found in the soil, when you paste your enclosure with soil. You must change the soil frequently within a short period of time. It is very important to use the above media to kill the mites as they actually kill the snake in a 3 or 4 days by sucking its blood. The scientific name of the snake mite is Feuonises nitorsis.

 

The old treatment for mites includes soaking the snake in soapy water and painting its head with various oils such as olive oil but not petroleum based. Disinfect the cage thoroughly with diluted sodium hypochlorite solution i.e. 1‑3 ounces of bleach in quarter of water. The cracks and crevices in the box enclosure or pot should be sealed or painted to get rid of the mites.

 

h)               Septicemia: Septicemia can result as a direct infection of the blood or after a localized infection (infectious stomatitis) spreads hematogenously. Septic animals are gravely ill and require hospitalisation and intensive therapy. Septic snakes are lethargic and refuse to feed. They may exhibit reduced muscle tone or contractions when handled during the examination. Maintain a warm environment (85‑90 degree F).

 

i)                 Ulcers: Ulcers often occur in the mouths of snakes due to improper eating and sometimes if a snake eats infected material. It is very difficult for the snake to swallow the food. First thing, the snake will not eat anything and a white fluid comes out from the mouth of the snake. It is a curable disease. The snake can be cured by diluting hydrogen peroxide (H20) or hydrochloric acid or you can use coca cola as it is acidic, it is a very safe process done by flushing it inside the mouth. 

 

Snake charmers remove their fangs and stitch their mouths with cotton thread. Whenever you find such snakes, you cannot rehabilitate them in the wild because they have lost their power to kill and they won't be able to eat anything. What can you do then is to remove the stitches and keep them under observation for a long time. In some countries, the zoos have strict welfare laws about not feeding live animals to any animals. Sometime snakes eat dead animals that cause such infections.

 

j)                 Constipation: Snakes can get constipated. Overfed or underactive snakes are more prone to constipation. Neither slightly cooler air nor slightly humid temperatures are accepted by the snakes body system. Cooler air temperatures can cause a snake to hug its heat source and the inactive snakes cooks the stool in its colon for several days, drying it out and making it more difficult to pass. Lower cage humidity increases the rate of evaporative water loss even more. Therefore correct the environment, eliminate drying substrates from the enclosure. Use a humidifier near the cage, if necessary. Increase your snake's exercise by increasing the size of the enclosure, reduce the frequency of feeding and feed small, digestible items. Place the snake in shallow warm water for fifteen minutes everyday for 3‑4 days causing it to defecate. Skip some feedings.

 

k)               Dehydration: Dehydration is caused due to lack of drinking water and high temperature in the cage. Avoid wooden boxes generally, drying substrates and excessive heat. House the snake in smooth‑sided enclosures and provide water all the time. Give an electrolyte solution such as dilute Pedialyte, mix it with equal quantity of water to produce a half strength solution. Keep the snake warm but keep in mind that increased temperature will increase the rate of dehydration.

 

l)                 Dermatitis (Skin Lesions): Burns, bite wounds, abrasions, retained skin from an attempted shed, skin tumors, parasites, excessive moisture of the substrate or high humidity and filthy enclosures may expose snakes to dermatitis by allowing the entry of bacteria. Dermatitis may be caused by fungi, worms or viral. Fungal lesions and infections respond to warmth, dryness and daily application of povidine iodine such as Betadine or in combination of antifungal ointments.

 

Place the snake in a container placing paper towels soaked in dilute Betadine solution and leave it for 30‑60 minutes. Remove the snake, rinse it off and then apply the antifungal ointment to its lesions.

 

m)      Diarrhoea: Diarrhoea is the occurrence of loose, watery and foul smelling stools. Give Kaopectate dose of I ml/kg of body weight of the snake.

.

Wounds and injuries

 

Injuries are caused by rough and careless handling during capture or through the continual efforts of the snake to escape from poorly made enclosures. Treat these wounds by dusting the exposed areas with a sulphanilamide powder obtained from a vet, then put the snake in a smooth‑sided cage where it cannot exacerbate the problem. Penicillin is a good drug to be administered as treatment in these cases.

 

There may be cases of prey attacks so offer only stunned or killed prey. If giving live prey and it is not eaten in 10‑15 minutes remove it immediately and offer at a later time. Most snakes are sight and olfactory feeders, loss of tongue may require you to hand feed for life. Rodent bites heal slowly and lead to scar formation and wound contraction at the skin edges ‑ skin sutures are removed or skin grafting may also be needed. Bedding should be changed to paper towels; remove branches and other rough surfaces.

 

Burns

 

For burns apply Polysporin ointment, Silvadene cream one percent to the lesions everyday for a few weeks to one month. You can allow the snake to soak in a povidine iodine solution for 30 minutes per day prior to applying the ointment. Particulate bedding material should not be used because it adheres to wet dressings and ointments ‑ clean cloth towels, paper towels are acceptable materials. Burns heal slowly and extensive burns require skin shedding to heal. Also when curing for burns take care of these things to prevent further suffering: do not place any heating device (pads, tapes, lights) inside the enclosure or anywhere that the snake can come in direct contact with it. Do not heat the entire floor or top of a vivarium. Heat only a portion of the enclosure that will allow the snake to thermoregulate and select cool areas according to its needs. Do not place the snake's cage in direct sunlight especially if it's made of glass.

 

 

Homeopathy for snakes

 

If the snake is very much feared, give Aconite. For eye cap problem, apply Thuja. For cold or coughs, give Nat Mur. For scale rotting, give Mars Sol and/or Heper Sulph should be given alternatively. For mouth sores, give Hemma Melis. If the female snake suffers from egg binding problem, give Pulsatilla.

 

Defanged Snakes

 

When checking for injuries, check the fangs of the snake as well. Defanging is very cruel and illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. Fangs are the most important part of snakes as they are directly connected to a venom gland and are useful for self‑defense and necessary for food. Snake venom is a highly concentrated digestive juice that contains proteins, enzymes and plasma. If the snake is defanged it might smell badly from its mouth due to maggots and pus formation causing septic. You can check the capula or gums to see whether the snake has been defanged or not.

 

If you keep extracting venom from a snake over a period of time, that would be cruel. In the Snake Park run in Chennai, snake venom is extracted only a few times after which the snakes are released back into the wild. At the Pune Snake Park, snakes are returned to the wild without defanging and without de‑venoming.

 

 

Treating a snake

 

Snakes feel pain as intensively as we humans, so be careful and gentle when treating a snake. As stated earlier, any antibiotics injected should be in the front half of the body. Different antibiotics have different characteristics and are effective against different bacteria. The choice should be based upon a culture and a sensitivity test. Proper dose must be administered because the proper drug administered at the wrong dose is actually a poison that may cause organ damage or death. A highly irritating substance accidentally injected into the lung may cause pneumonia. Therefore, consider all such things before attempting the treatment of the snakes in your care.

 

Rehabilitation

 

In the first instance, the snake is generally in a good condition unless injured by sticks or stones before the rescue, in which case the snake might have to be kept in captivity until the wounds heal and then released. Otherwise, the sooner the snake is released, the better.

 

It would also be an advantage if the ectoparasites that are usually found on most snakes are removed before the snake is released.

 

Most of the snakes rescued from snake charmers are generally in a bad shape and need to be nursed back to proper health before release. In the case of cobras or other venomous snakes, the fangs have usually been broken using a blunt instrument (like the opposite side of a knife blade), and the snakes have infections in their mouths due to this. In cases where the fangs have been broken, the snakes could be treated for mouth infection by the daily application of Mezatol or Butadine to the effected area till new fangs develop. However an expert snake handler should only do this, since the risk of being bitten is there. Some snake charmers also remove the venom glands, in which case the snake will not survive in the wild.

 

Housing

 

The necessity of housing snakes for a short period of time may arise when a snake is injured or is in other wise poor health. If you want to keep a snake in your house, you can either use mud pots or you have to build a vivarium. Snakes are shy creatures and should be kept in an area with minimal disturbance. It is best to provide in the enclosure, a dark place like an inverted pot with a small hole, under which the snake can hide and feel safe. Clean water should be provided at all times and the enclosure should be kept clean. Food should be provided once in 3‑7 days, depending on the species of the snake.

 

The needs of different kinds of snakes are specific and you have to provide them with their kind of environment for them to survive. For example, snakes of Rajasthan would require a dry atmosphere. But if you give it any humidity or if there is humidity in your area, where you live, then there is a disease condition called tail rot in which the end of the tail starts getting infected. This is a wound and it is basically due to increased humidity. It happens even in human beings. If your skin comes in contact with a wet area, then it becomes very soft, it scuffs off and you find an ulcerated wound. It might get infected with bacteria and may not heal, if you don't give it the right treatment. All this is just to emphasize that you have to provide a snake with the environment from which it comes.

 

There are no standard houses for snakes. Usually enclosures are prepared on the basis of their size and more importantly, their behavior. While some snakes are semi‑aquatic, others are adapted to desert conditions. Mostly snakes are kept in special display glass cages. This is the kind of cage that is used to exhibit the snake to visitors and observers. This can be sliding, for access to the cage or completely detachable, or access can be gained through the side or the top. But mud pots for those involved in rescue operations where the snake is destined for immediate release after observation are still the best for Indian conditions.

 

All‑glass cages are cages made entirely of glass such as fish tanks. These are useful for habitat set‑ups for arboreal snakes or water snakes.

 

In all such enclosures, when providing a climbing surface, place heavy logs directly on the cage bottom for the snakes to rest or hide behind. Captive snakes will use a hide box or other place of concealment. If forced to stay in the open many snakes will become stressed and refuse to eat. You can provide natural hollow barks. Items such as small stones and gravel,  newspapers are perhaps the best substrate as they are ingestible, cheap, safe and easily replenishable. Other options include sand, fine gravel, earthen pots and rocks as they help snakes to moult.

 

Baby snakes can be kept in plastic boxes that are intended for sandwiches etc. These boxes are available in different sizes, cheap, readily available, easy to wash out and very tough. Drill holes in the lid or sides for ventilation. Check the lids or they might just snap off. The snakes can be fed, watered and cleaned out regularly and if necessary, you can change a proportion of the boxes on a regular basis to prevent dirt from accumulating. Keep extra boxes handy in case of any damages. Put the snake boxes with snakes in them in wooden shelves to prevent them pushing off their lids.

 

Environment

 

One of the most important factors is to keep the snake in an area where the temperature is not too high or too low, because snakes are ectotherms and cannot regulate their body temperature on their own. This should be kept in mind even when the snake is being transported from one place to another. Even an hour of too high or too low temperature can be fatal for the snake.

 

Snakes are known to be most active and comfortable at temperatures between 25‑30 degree centigrade. This is known as the preferred body temperature of the snakes. The total enclosure does not require maintenance. Temperature can be very simply maintained by observing the behavior of the snake. If the snake is regularly moving from one side of the cage to another, it may be inferred that the temperature is perfect and desirable.

 

However, it must be stated that it is extremely difficult to accurately maintain and control temperature. In India, the normal practice while dealing with high external temperature is to regularly sprinkle water inside the snake cage. This keeps the cage and its substrate cool. Often snakes are put into buckets containing water up to 3‑4 inches and snakes are happy in it. They often drink the water from time to time. You can also use clay pots as hide boxes for your snakes, put an ice cube on top and let it melt over it. Use marble, not the round ones you roll but marble tiles, cutting boards etc., all of which stay cool no matter how warm the rest of the environment gets. A marble tile is a good hide box floor. You can put round marbles in a pan with a little bit of water so that the snake can lie on the bed of cool marbles without actually being in the water. You can put slightly damp soil in a pot for the snake to play in if its extremely hot.

 

It would be preferable to place some amount of natural life inside the enclosure depending on the habitat of the snake. Only put something, which can easily be cleaned and occupies little space. Some plants or stones are appropriate. There must be a bowl inside the enclosure filled with water up to half its capacity and not more. A round earthern bowl shall suffice. This bowl should be buried in the substrate in such a manner that water is available to the snake at ground height. Snakes find it quite difficult to climb. Water should replenished every 2 days and the bowl cleaned at the same time. Both the bowl as well as the enclosure must be cleaned using a solution of Sodium Hypo Chlorate and rinsed properly.

 

Quarantine

 

Check for signs of mite or other parasites when you get the snake. Separate the newly acquired snake from other snakes or animals. Do not move instruments, water bowls or uneaten food items from one enclosure to another. Use paper towels and dispose them off after each use, rather than using cleaning rags which could inadvertently be used from one enclosure to another spreading pathogenic organisms along the way.

 

Psychological Factors

 

These factors play an important role in keeping captive snakes healthy. They include handling, visual stimulation caused by human activity, the presence or absence of mates, prey size, hiding places and environment stability. You must restrict handling. Always try offering dead food items first as a dead food item is far less intimidating to most snakes. Put a hide box in the cage to provide security to improve its appetite, digestion and breeding behavior and also increase its life span. Do not place the enclosure on an unstable shelf as it may increase stress causing a loss of appetite.

 

Aggression in captive snakes

 

A hungry snake will sometimes attack either its mate or its keeper. This misdirected behavior is commonly caused by visual stimuli. A snake keeper who has just handled a rodent and then attempts to handle a snake, the snake smelling the rodent on the warm hand, may confuse the hand with prey and strike it. Two snakes housed in the same enclosure may compete for food in an aggressive manner. Territorial disputes can become a common cause of aggression because of food, cover, basking sites, breeding places or laying places they provide. Snakes bite in self‑defense when cornered, trapped or restrained. Quick movements on the part of a handler sometimes seem to frighten snakes. Firm restraint about the middle of a snake's body will often elicit a bite.

 

Snakes living non aggressively in captivity for years may suddenly become aggressive when they are placed either outside or in a different enclosure for a short period of time. Snakes crowded into a small area may be agitated constantly by physical contact with other animals. Snakes handled relatively peacefully at room temperature may become extremely aggressive and bite repeatedly after they have been warmed up.

 

Record keeping

 

This is a very important function and unless records are maintained, the whole exercise of keeping snakes goes waste. Each enclosure should bear all the details of the captive snakes inside it. Some important details are the type of species, food habits, sloughing dates, weight on regular intervals, treatments, size of the snake, if dead then the cause of its death, etc. An identification system must be maintained so that analysis can be used for future reference.

 

Feeding of snakes

 

There is no standard food for snakes. They feed on a large variety of animals, ranging from ants, termites and slugs up to large animals. They have no means of dismembering their prey and so they swallow it whole. Most snakes are given food like geckos, wall lizards, earthworms, frogs, rats, chicken, birds, snakes, eggs, etc. A majority of snakes offered for sale by poachers and vendors are rodent eaters. Such species need to be fed with their natural prey from time to time.

 

Sometimes to feed snakes you need to breed mice alongside the snakes. The mice are to be cared for and fed, just like the snakes. Snakes can swallow a day old chick at one time. However, this must not be made into a regular habit. You can collect earthworms and store them in a wooden or polystyrene box containing about 20 cm. of soil mixed with a good quantity of dead leaves.

 

Methods of feeding

 

The choice of food depends on the type and size of the snake. For example, a small cobra will eat small frogs. Snakes will eat anything from insects, butterflies, lizards, small mice and chickens and large rats as in the case of pythons. Some snakes like sand boas may prefer only warm blooded animals such as rodents or birds.  The whip snake may refuse to eat unless given lizards or birds. Sea snakes will take fish. With the exception of worms, all food given to snakes must be dead but sometimes a snake might refuse to eat unless it is given live food. A live rat can often mutilate or even kill a snake in its cage. The advantages of having dead prey are that they can be stored for use for a period.

 

Some snakes eat other snakes. The king cobra feeds exclusively on other snakes. Kraits also are known to eat mainly snakes. It may seem funny but the most ideal food for a snake is a snake, because it fits perfectly inside the body of a bigger snake.

 

Some reasons why snakes refuse to eat food are:

 

 

Try to hide the snake food behind some rock or beneath some natural life inside the cage. Snakes like to discover their food from such places and once they do, they will commence eating naturally. In some cases, the food has to be stored for a day before.

 

Some snakes seem unable to recognize food unless it is moving. Jiggle it or drag it slowly in front of the snake's nose a few times. This will stimulate the snake to strike and begin the swallowing process. Some species only like to eat frogs and lizards. In these situations, a live mouse anointed with the smell of their favourite prey is set into the cage. The snake jumps at the mouse and commences eating what it assumes to be its natural food.

 

If these methods do not work then it is important to force feed the snake. First, pin down the snake’s head with a stick and then hold it gently behind its head with your forefingers, and the thumb. Open its mouth with a spoon or an instrument. Having done this, place food into the snake's mouth urging it to swallow and consume it. Should this not work you must go for a slightly more drastic action.

 

Begin to push a spoon down its throat while opening its mouth with a hand and forefinger. Once the spoon has entered the mouth, you may release very gently some food into it. If food is unable to carry on downwards, you must lubricate the food by dipping it in egg yolk. Another way is to feed the snake through a nozzle down its throat. This diet is fortified with mouse and other required vitamins.

 

What a snake is trying to say

 

Here's what a snake is trying to say when they do certain things:

 

Tongue darting back and forth ‑ It has found something interesting­.

 

Closemouthed striking, followed by flattening of the body ‑ Do not bother the snake and just go away.

 

Openmouthed breathing ‑ There is a problem in its respiratory system.

 

Constantly soaking in its water bowl The snake is feeling very hot.

 

Basking in the sunThe snake is trying to raise its body temperature.

 

MuskingThe snake is not happy and when it's not happy it will make things difficult for you as well.

 

Giving Birth

 

Sometimes when you rescue a snake, you may come across one which is gravid or pregnant or sometimes a snake rescued from a snake charmer may lay eggs while you are taking care of it. In this case it would be better if you took care of the eggs till they hatch. You should release the young ones in a thickly forested area where they will find lot of food.

 

All snake eggs are contained in a semi permeable flexible shell and absorb water throughout their development. Therefore, females seek out a damp substrate to lie. This may consist of a pile of decomposed vegetation. For captive snakes, vermiculite or similar substratum are reasonably sterile materials that can be used. Slight moistening may be provided if there is need for the same. This  is placed in a container such as a plastic box of the appropriate size and placed inside the enclosure. Give the female a bit of seclusion by cutting a hole in the lid and letting her enter through this rather than leaving the box open and this also prevents the substrate from drying out too quickly. Once she lays the eggs, remove them for artificial incubation. An exception to this rule is the python species where in the female python herself incubates her eggs by coiling over them.

 

Incubation periods vary between species but normally it can be estimated between 60‑90 days. When the young are fully formed, the eggshell begins to shrink and wrap itself around the body of the snake beneath. Shortly the young ones make one or more slits in the shell using what is called their egg tooths. Many times snakes wait for up to 2 days before emerging from the cracked shell. There is no point trying to feed these young ones, as they will not eat anything until they have sloughed for their first time. All young ones need to be kept together in spite of their cannibalistic traits.

 

What to expect when your snake is expecting:

 

 

Snake Pits

 

Snake pits are large enclosures with high walls used to keep a large number of snakes in snake parks. The floor of the pit should be concrete, over which you should have mud as a substrate. The reason why you have a concrete bottom is because when you are dealing with wild snakes, they sometimes do not eat dead mice whereas live mice, when thrown in the pit, might burrow and come out. Over the concrete subsubstrate you add soil or mud.

 

Such snake pits are also useful for education and exhibition, though nowadays snake pits are out of fashion. The approximate size of the snake pit is 20 feet by 20 feet and the depth of the pit is 19 feet. You can keep a variety of snakes. They don't require much space. If you intermix species, some may eat the smaller snakes. But if you keep same species, they usually do not eat each other. Sometimes you find cobras and vipers eating other snakes just for a change in diet. Cobras normally eat rats and mice; when they grow bigger, they even eat  big rats. They might eat other snakes for a change and also eat frogs as they have a varied diet.

 

Most snakes prefer a humidity of 50 to 80 percent and a temperature of about 30 degrees Celcius. You can have a water pond inside the pit.

 

Snakes and other reptiles do not have sweat glands as we have, so they change their skin. They outgrow their old skin and come up with a new skin every once in two months or three months depending on the age and species. To be able to remove its skin, provide humidity for molting. You can leave wet bricks for the snake to start rubbing against to come out of its old skin. If you are going to keep tree snakes, then make sure you have some branches for the snakes to rest. Ensure that the surface is completely smooth so that they remain in their pits. This is one kind of housing where you can have many kind of snakes together.

 

Another habit of these snakes is basking in the sun in the early hours of the day or in the late hours of the evening. They never bask in the afternoon heat. Therefore the pit should be constructed in such a way that it only receives the sun's rays in the early hours of the day. Cover it from the top to disallow the afternoon heat. And when the sun sets allow the last rays of the setting sun. Keep a small collection of stones or a part of the tree on the substrate where the snakes can hide whenever they want to. Some snakes like to burrow under the soil for resting.

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Area of Release

 

It is best to release any snake caught within 24 hours in a cool jungle place away from human habitation, preferably in the evening, so that it can quickly hide from predators.

 

Depending on the species of snakes, the area of release should be chosen with care. Forest areas with minimal human interference, and plenty of ground cover like wild grass and small bushes, is the best bet for most snakes. Tree snakes would need plenty of trees close to each other so that the branches of the trees touch each other, and the snakes don't have to come to the ground, where they would be more susceptible to predators.

 

Water snakes should be of course released close to water like a lake, pond, or any other water body that is not likely to get dry.

 

Pythons and boas, prefer rocky areas, so a place with plenty of rocks and good ground cover is best for them. Almost all snakes need water to drink, so it is advisable to have a few permanent water holes around the area of release. With all these factors like wild grass, trees and plenty of bushes, the availability of prey is automatically taken care of, since these conditions favor a varied variety of prey animals.

 

Defanged snakes and even injured snakes are probably more likely to survive if released in a safe place than looked after. They generally won't feed in captivity whereas in the wild they can at least catch small prey like toads and frogs even without fangs.

 

Timing of Release

 

Release snakes in their natural habitat and much before the hibernating period. Most snakes prefer to move around at night, so sun set would be the best time to release them. It also gives them time to look for a place to settle down.

 

However in the case of diurnal snakes like the rat snakes and tree snakes an hour before sunrise would be the best time since the snakes will have enough time to settle down before the day becomes too hot.

 

Non-venomous snakes may be released in habited areas but choose a time when not many people are around. Poisonous snakes may be handed over to the government snake park or zoo if any  or released in the nearest wilds.

 

Personal Hygiene

 

Anytime you handle a snake you must wash your hands thoroughly with a good antibacterial soap like Dettol. Even if you use regular hand soap, the physical act of washing will in itself remove any potential pathogenic organisms.

 

Never eat, drink or smoke anything after handling a snake without first washing your hands. If you use pens/pencils or books around snakes, they also get infected including the doorknob of the snake room or cage. Do not rub your eyes after handling a snake or when handling snakes' food items without first washing your hands. Do not use the kitchen sink where dishes are washed or food is prepared for cleaning or washing snake enclosures or their accessories including water bowls. Use household bleach diluted to a solution of three to ten percent as a disinfectant that is easily available and inexpensive.

 

 

What to do when a snake escapes from under your care

 

If a snake does escape from the enclosure in which it was kept there is a good chance that it is still somewhere in your house. Put on a pair of good boots and gloves and search the entire house. Start with the room in which it was kept and move thereafter to all the rooms. Look behind doors and windows, inside shelves, drawers and cupboards which are generally kept open, under furniture, under mattresses, washing machine, fridge etc. Make a thorough search. There are no special or likely places the snake could hide. It could be anywhere. Remember it is in unfamiliar territory and probably wants to find a way to get out but doesn’t know how.

 

A thorough search needs to be made as soon as you discover the snake is missing because you cannot take this matter lightly and hope the snake will get hungry and return for food. So putting any bait to try and entice the snake to come out of hiding is of little or no use. Instead search thoroughly in every possible place in your house till you find the snake or are confident that it is not in the house at all.

 

If it is no longer in your house you can give a quick search in the compound. However you need not worry about the snake anymore since it is unlikely to remain for long in the compound and will probably have made its getaway already. 

 

How to travel with a dangerous snake

 

 

Snake Charmers:

 

Snake charmers these days are the people who are most cruel to snakes. All the snakes that you see with them meet their end a few months later. They do not feed them; instead, the few weeks or months the snakes are with them, are spent torturing them and abusing them. Cobras have their fangs pulled out and some snakes (particularly pythons) may have their mouths stitched. The snake charmers roam with their snakes in the hot sun.

 

Snakes have no ears. The only reason a cobra raises its hood is not because it is charmed by the music from the bheen, but because it is paranoid of the huge snake charmer moving the bheen in front of its face. Everybody likes to see a cobra with its hood up. Therefore the snake charmer keeps torturing it or hitting it till it raises its hood (a purely defensive action).

 

Snakes can live without food for long periods of time so they suffer a long time before they die of exhaustion and injuries. Without their fangs, and with their venom glands and mouths slashed beyond repair, they have no chance of survival. A human being under one of these snake charmers would not survive more than two days.

 

Often, you will see a snake charmer with a mongoose. The mongoose is used for the snake shows where it is made to fight with a cobra every ˝ an hour depending on the show time. The cobra is defanged and the mongoose also has its teeth broken so that it may not kill the snake. Both animals are under a lot of pain. People have fun watching the show.

 

The following myths about snake charmers are best exposed:

 

Snakes dance to the snake charmer's rhythmic movement: False. They follow the flute out of terror as they apprehend danger. The snake responds not to auditory but to visual cues. It does not follow these cues because it is ‘charmed’ but because it wants to attack.

 

Snake charmers venerate their snakes: False. The only thing they venerate is the money they get. They abuse the snakes, pull out their fangs, starve them and eventually kill them. The ones with pythons will without hesitation sell his snakes for their skin.

 

Snake charmers release their snakes back to the wild: True. But the reasons are far from altruistic. Snakes captured and defanged will not eat and will die in 5‑6 weeks. The snake charmer does not release his snake so that it may live, but so it may die. Released snakes usually have broken spines or are unable to catch and digest food. Many times, their broken backs or induced weaknesses render them immobile. They are consumed alive within 1‑2 weeks by red ants. Since they have large fatty deposits, they will not die very soon in such situations, and in fact die very slow and painful deaths.

 

Snakes drink milk: False. Snakes lack the necessary enzymes to digest milk and thus the milk passes out uselessly. Sometimes snakes are force-fed milk by snake charmers. The milk gets down their lungs and causes pneumonia.

 

Laws

 

Snakes are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Anyone violating the law by capturing, exhibiting, killing a snake protected under the Schedule to the Act, or even making an attempt to do so, is liable to be punished with a fine of Rs.5000 and imprisonment of up to 6 years in jail.

 

The street entertainers or madaris and snake-charmers do not have a license to exhibit snakes so you can challenge them easily and confiscate the snakes from them. You can threaten them with the police, tell them the laws, and they will agree to hand over the snake, since they know that what they are doing is illegal.

 

Sometimes, a snake-charmer may try to scare you by threatening to throw the snake at you, so you should have the capacity to handle snakes on your own.

 

Madaris defang their snakes. This results in complications and even death for the snake. Even if the snake survives, it won't eat afterwards and will slowly starve to death. It is wholly inhumane and unnatural to deprive an animal of its means of defense and its ability to hunt. Yes, it will not serve the purpose of the madari if the snake dies, but he will definitely sell it to the leather export merchants for its skin.

 

Do not be taken in by their stories about family traditions or business, poverty etc as excuses for getting away from their crimes. Every society throws up its own alternatives that need to be followed within the framework of the law itself.

 

If the snake charmer does not hand over the snake, then take him to the nearest police station and insist on lodging an FIR against him under the Wildlife Act. Get his name and address so that one can keep a check to see if he is indulging in the same crime again.

 

Release the snake in a jungle or a green belt area, if possible near a water body. A snake rescued from a snake charmer will be totally dehydrated and suffering from malnutrition as it has not been fed adequate food and water. The condition of the snake is very bad, so such snakes cannot be revived immediately. The metabolic rate of the snake is very slow, so give medication regularly for three days. Contact the nearest wildlife forest department or an animal welfare organization for help.

 

Snake rescue club

 

Young boys and girls (two volunteers at least from each area or village) not less than 18 years of age, and adults, can easily develop skills to enable themselves to handle snakes in a proper and gentle manner for educative purposes. Catching or rescuing snakes from domestic or industrial areas should be done by the trained members of the club only. There should be proper equipment to communicate promptly, transport availability and a first aid kit for the snake and the rescuer. Club members should be well informed about the identification of snakes, precautions, first aid and medical treatment of antivenom.

 

Each member of the club should be well informed about the ecological and scientific importance of snakes.

 

The End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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