A lesson in immobility: Be still, be fine

Working towards a peaceful co-existence with snakes

By Pat McKrill

A fellow lover of things that go “bump” in the bush, a zoologist who’s chosen to live somewhere up in the remote mountainous regions of the Eastern Cape, recently sent me a photograph of a puff adder curled up next to a rock that she had overturned in her search for scorpions.

She commented: “After turning over the rock, I saw this. I assumed it to be a puff adder, but I couldn’t see its head.”

She was somewhat taken aback when I told her that the snake’s head was clearly visible, mid-picture, staring straight back at her! I added that this was a graphic example of what I’m always telling people about snakes, in particular the puffie – in addition to any colour camouflage, they rely heavily on lack of movement as a strategy to avoid being spotted.

A case of coincidence

There was some coincidence here, because I received the message while I was up in a pine forest somewhere between here and there, during one of my many seasonal sessions, teaching workers how to come to terms with snakes – in their lives, workplaces, homes etc.

By the same author: they’ve got more idea of what’s potting with the weather than we do

In these now ostentatiously termed (not guilty) “snake-awareness” sessions, I make it my purpose to educate people about snakes – what they are, what they do, why we find them where we do and what to do when we encounter them.

Rule number one when encountering a snake, as you should all know by now, is to stand still so as not to present a visual threat to the snake! As you might imagine, getting buy-in from a group of lifelong ophidiophobes on compliance with this rule can be somewhat difficult, especially if I was to start by introducing guest artists such as 2.5m of feisty black mamba or 1.3m of rinkhals with spit to spare, both of which would head off in the other direction, never to be seen again.

A rinkhals might not be the best idea for a ‘test snake’. Picture: Wikimedia

Test rule no 1

I use mostly non-venomous indigenous species, together with a few non-indigenous snakes – escaped or discarded “pets” that have been handed in. No matter the country, a snake is a snake and species specifics are not entirely important.

During the basic lessons, people get to understand a lot more about the animal. When it comes to the part where we test Rule No 1, I use puff adders and night adders, which are more controllable when used to illustrate their tendency to react to movement. Without exception, snakes exhibit an almost total disregard for objects (in this case humans) that are immobile and, therefore, presenting no threat to them.

Snakes aren’t stupid and adapt to their environment

Although some species are more acutely aware than we are of such things as temperature differences and smells, they’re constantly taking in and analysing clues from their surroundings, and they react accordingly.

As long as you’re keeping still and don’t smell like a rat or a frog, you’ll make it to work in the morning – older and wiser.

Info: To contact Pat, cell 083 303 6958; email herpet@eastcoast.co.za

Main picture, top: Forestry workers getting up close and personal with a slithery friend.