Free From School
By Rahul Alvares
Public Domain Books
Chapter 6: Snakes Alive!
It took several letters and phone calls from my dad to establish contact with Mr Neelimkumar Khaire, Director of the Snake Park in Pune till finally the green signal was given and I was all set to visit the place. As the arrangements were not absolutely “pucca” my dad decided to come along with me to Pune, which is what we did on the 3rd of October, soon after he returned from Chennai.
We left Goa by bus and arrived at Pune early the next morning. Two of my parents’ very good friends, Sujit and Vidya Patwardhan, live in Pune. Our entire family, dad, mum, my two brothers and I, had holidayed at their place a year earlier. That was when I had my first glimpse of the Pune Snake Park and the idea of my one year sabbatical took root. (Later, I was surprised to learn from Bany, their daughter, who I became good friends with, that her elder sister Lara and her friend had taken a sabbatical several years ago on completing school and they had toured the countryside looking at alternative methods of education.) So it was to the Patwardhan residence at Ganeshkhind Road that we first went and after a wash and a brief rest we set off for the Park.
The Director Mr Khaire was not in, but the Assistant Director Mr Rajan Shirke was aware of my visit and assured my father that once Mr Khaire arrived he would make arrangements for my food and stay. Until then I could spend all day at the Park but would have to go back to Sujit’s house for the night. My father had no option but to leave it that way for Mr Khaire was expected to return only after three days. Dad then left me at the Park and proceeded to Mumbai. For the first few days therefore I journeyed back and forth from Sujit’s house.
Sujit’s home is at Ganeshkhind while the snake park is at Katraj, a good 20 kms away. I remember how I got lost on the first day. My Dad had shown me the bus stand in the morning and given me the bus number. In the evening, one of the staff dropped me off at the bus stand where I waited and waited for the bus, which never arrived. I asked the people around but their answers were either “it will come” or “the frequency of that bus may be low”.
Soon it started raining and since that bus-stand had no shelter in sight I had to stand in the rain and get wet. While I tried as much as possible to take shelter under the note book I carried, I was surprised to see a number of children, who didn’t seem to mind the rain, walking coolly past me as if there were no rain at all! By seven in the evening, I was soaked to the skin. My feet were numb and it was getting dark. My first day at the snake park and what an experience!
Anyway, I crossed the road and walked to a telephone booth. While I was phoning Sujit the electricity went off. Sujit kept trying to explain to me how to come home by another route. I took out my half wet note book and scribbled “Deccan Gymkhana” and “Simbla Office”. I managed to get a bus to Deccan Gymkhana (there are several buses which take you there) and from Simbla office I took a rickshaw and after going round in circles for sometime, I managed to find Sujit’s house. How I wished I had my trusty bicycle instead of having to depend on buses and rickshaws!
During the first two days at the park I only scribbled notes and watched the workers. I tried to make friends with the workers and as a result I was allowed to handle one trinket snake. On the third day Mr Khaire arrived and immediately made arrangements for me to stay at the Park in spite of the Park not having accommodation facilities. Several students came there now and then to work for short stretches of time but they all had their residences in Pune and went home in the evenings.
Mr. Khaire is very popular among the workers and is affectionately called “Anna” ("big brother” in Marathi) by one and all. He always wears a glove and long sleeved shirt as he lost his left hand to a Russell’s viper bite several years ago. Still, his love for the reptile world and his enthusiasm for snakes has not diminished one bit.
The Snake Park is quite large and has several snake pits housing various types of reptiles. In the centre is the administrative building which is a one storey cottage having on the ground floor a small office which doubles up as reception area, a room which holds the display exhibits like the king cobra, python etc., a store room and a toilet. On the first floor is a large room with two beds. It is here that I began to stay, with the watchman as company for the night. Anna installed a small T.V. in the room and also had a phone extension made to my room. He told me that I was welcome to come over to his place anytime, to eat or even to stay. However, I preferred being at the park.
In addition to Anna and Shirke there were about 8 to 10 staff at the park. Some of those I got to know very well included Mahesh, Milind, Bhushan and Baba, the watchman. Many of the boys were studying at night school and working here during the day. On Sundays and holidays there would sometimes be extra students to lend a hand. All of them lived in Pune and would go home for the night. However now and again some of them would stay the night with me and we would watch T.V. or they would tell me tales. I also wrote my daily diary every evening after dinner, and sometimes read a bit.
My work at the park was to help the workers with their jobs for that was the only way for me to learn about snakes. So everyday I would clean the starback tortoise pit, the turkey pit, the chicken pits and later on the ratsnake pit, the chequered keel back pit and the monitor lizard pit. I also assisted with feeding the snakes, which is usually done once a week. Most of the snakes are fed small rats-the white mice come from the laboratory-and frogs while the python gets a chicken every week.
I was also taught the proper way of holding and handling snakes. On the third day, I was bitten by a wolf snake. Now you must understand that this is a non-poisonous snake and it was deliberately allowed to bite me for my experience and to enable me to get over the irrational fear of snake bites that all of us have acquired as a result of grandmother’s tales being dinned into us from childhood. In my case even though I liked snakes, still, Anna explained, there will be a subconscious residual fear! This bite was not particularly painful and treatment was like any other wound one might receive.
During my stay at the snake park I was bitten on several occasions by a variety of non-poisonous (but hot-tempered) snakes and when I left after 3 weeks I had at least about 15-20 bites on my arms. Some of the bites were quite painful and one was so bad that my wrist had swelled up and I couldn’t wear my watch for quite sometime. However when you remember that the snake gets damaged much more than you-it loses quite a few of its teeth in the bite-then you don’t feel too bad. At any rate there was no question of using anti-venom as the snakes were all non-poisonous. And I learnt to think of the bites as injuries and wounds rather than the much feared `snake-bite’.
Besides snakes, the Park also has a number of other animals. Some had been rescued, others found injured and brought to the Park for rest and recuperation. At the time of my stay at the Park it housed a wild boar, a civet-cat, a leopard, a Shikra bird, a jackal, three mongooses and several owls and eagles with broken wings. The eagles and owls were in cages with the top end kept open.
Once they were able to fly again they could fly out if they wished. There were also many types of exotic fowls, guinea pigs, white mice, rabbits, monkeys and a pair of turkeys. And of course there were Ganges soft shell turtles, starback tortoises and melanac turtles. All these animals had to be fed daily and their cages cleaned regularly.
The snake park has a system through which people in Pune city can call up the park if they sight a snake. Someone from the park will then go to the site with the caller, after taking directions from him/her, and try to get the snake. This ensures that people do not unnecessarily kill snakes. It was on two such occasions that I went with the boys on “calls” and returned without a snake. You see when the distance that the rescue team has to travel is long, the snake may not necessarily remain in the same spot till it gets there.
The snake park has a lot of visitors daily and people are always looking for someone knowledgeable to answer questions. I used to feel quite proud to do this and would gladly answer all the queries like, “What is the name of the snake?” “What does it eat?” “Which is the male and the female?” and so on. At other times I would be pestering the staff to answer more complicated and detailed questions about the habits of snakes. Workers are a mine of information and all of it is knowledge gained from practical experience.
Some nights we went frog catching. We used to go after dinner on scooters to a river about 10 kms away. The method was simple. One person shone a torch on the wet banks of the riverbed, blinding the vision of the frog, which would stop dead in its tracks, while another nabbed it with his bare hands from behind. (Frogs must be taken alive or else the snakes won’t eat them.) It was easy to catch the frogs as they remain quite still for the few seconds it takes to catch them, the difficult part being only to ensure that once caught they do not slip out of your grasp, for frogs are quite wet and slippery. After two to three hours we would return with 25 to 30 frogs in our sack.
I used to have my food at a small shack where some poor people cooked meals mainly for the Snake Park staff. One of the popular items was something called `shample’ which was made of vegetables and had lots of oil floating over it. This was served with bread and it was deep red in colour and very spicy. After a couple of days of eating this delicious food, I had a very bad stomach and I had to go to the toilet seven times that day. That was the end of shample. I decided to stick to dal and chappaties, and cheap creamrolls.
The bathroom of the snake park looked very dirty and I usually avoided having a bath. I would wet my long hair and pretend that I had had a bath. When the Snake Park staff found out about this they decided to give me a bath. One day they caught me and stripped me of all my clothes, then they dragged me to the bathroom and, using detergent and a little bit of Harpic, they scrubbed me with the toilet brush.
Somehow these chaps also came to know that I was afraid of the dark and all night sounds. So they kept telling me ghost stories which despite my fears I liked to hear. Finally, on the last night I even met this “real” ghost. It happened this way. Three of us, together with the watchman were watching TV when Bhushan, one of the boys said he had to go on a “call”. Shortly thereafter the lights went off and a sound like a cat mewing was heard. Baba, the watchman didn’t seem to care but the other boy Popea and I were terrified. Next a light appeared at the window and the door started banging. A voice (in Marathi) thundered, “close the window”. All sorts of strange things kept happening one after another. A skull with bones was floating in the air outside the window and when we went out, cautiously, to see who was there we found no one. Returning to the room we found my bedding thrown around and my clothes and the whole room in a mess. The door frame shook, the windows rattled and I held on tight to the watchman’s hand. I remembered being told that if one makes the sign of the cross the “ghost” will disappear, and so I did that, but it didn’t work. This ghost apparently did not know the rules. Then suddenly we received a phone call from Bhushan saying that he was on his way back, and strangely, with Bhushan’s return, the ghost had done the disappearing act. Nothing more was heard from the ghost after that. The next day when I told Anna and the others about this night-time visitor they all had a good laugh.
During my stay at the park I learnt how to handle almost all the non-poisonous snakes except the pythons. I also learnt how to handle monitor lizards, catch geckos and eat earthworms. Eating earthworms was not part of my diet or training, but once I saw Mr Shirke toss one into his mouth after being challenged to do so by one of the boys. I thought of trying this out and though I felt nauseated the first time I took a bite. I was okay the second time, for earthworms taste crunchy, like raw cucumber, not slimy and wet as they look.
On my last day at the Park, I was allowed to handle a cobra. I held a stick under the neck of the cobra and then lifted it by its tail. I did this about 2-3 times after which the cobra was put back in its box. I was so excited and happy. It was a perfect ending to my stay at the Snake Park.
As I write this I think about my other previous experiences with snakes. Like the story my mum tells about the time when I was only a few months old, sleeping one afternoon in my cradle at our home in Valpoi. She had heard a soft thud and to her utter horror she saw a thin bluish green snake which had obviously dropped from the roof making loops all over and around the cradle. Snakes are not unusual in the countryside and RUSTIC Farm was no exception. Mum says she was terrified but dared not make a sound for I was sleeping soundly and the cradle was covered with a mosquito net, outside of which the snake leapt around. It was less than a minute before it bounded onto the chairs and was out of the window and she rushed to reassure herself that I was safe which I very much was. From her description I know now that it was a green whip snake, a very delicate and absolutely harmless snake.
Another time as a toddler, Mum says, I was playing with some old cartons and boxes at the farm when out leapt a snake from one of them. To my parents’ astonishment, instead of crying out in fear as one might expect a child to do, I promptly went on my hands and knees crawling towards it as fast as I could, reaching out and trying to catch it.
In fact, as mum tells it, I seem to have deliberately gone out of my way to befriend snakes as a child. I would be afraid of dogs, for, as I would say, they had teeth and could bite, but snakes didn’t appear to have any and for that reason perhaps remained my best friends.
Field Work Notes:
There are around 2500 species of snakes in the world. Of these, only about 15% are poisonous. The maximum number of species of poisonous snakes is found in Australia (90% of the snakes are poisonous).
238 species of snakes are found in India. Of these, 72 are poisonous. But only few can cause serious or fatal bites. For example, Pit Vipers are poisonous but rarely prove fatal to human beings. The poisonous Big Four are (1) the Cobra, (2) the Krait, (3) the Russel’s Viper, and (4) the Saw-Scaled Viper. Of these the most poisonous is the common Krait. Its venom is about four times more toxic than that of the Cobra.
All sea-snakes are poisonous. The most poisonous snakes in the world include some sea-snakes which have venom 5 times more toxic than the Cobra. But sea-snakes will bite only when severely provoked and are never known to attack swimmers in water.
Snakes are cold-blooded; their eyesight is very poorly developed and they have no eyelids. They are deaf and can only respond to vibrations. They taste, feel and smell with their forked tongue. These senses are very well developed and enable them to differentiate between living and dead creatures, prey or enemy.
Some poisonous snakes inject venom into their prey, release the prey and then track it down with their tongue after the venom has done its job of killing it. The venom contains digestive enzymes that start digesting the prey from the inside.
Snakes grow rapidly till they mature and then continue to grow very slowly till their death. As they grow, they outgrow their skin so they moult the old one after a new skin has formed under it. The snake splits the old skin at the nose and literally crawls out of the old skin. During moulting, the snake stops eating but becomes aggressive.
A bite from a poisonous snake affects either the nervous system (neurotoxic) or the blood vessels (hemotoxic) of human beings. The only cure against snake bite is snake anti-venom. It is made by injecting very small doses of raw venom (about one-tenth of the fatal dose) into a horse and then gradually increasing the dose, making the horse immune to snake venom. The blood of the horse is then drawn, frozen and processed after separating the antibodies and crystallized into a powder. This is anti-venom as we know it.
When a snake bite occurs, the following first aid measures should be taken. Panic should be avoided and the patient should be kept warm and reassured. The wound should be checked to see if it is a poisonous or non poisonous bite. A poisonous bite will have two big fang marks, a non poisonous bite will have many teeth marks.
If the bite is poisonous, the patient should first be immobilized. No alcohol, tea, coffee or other stimulants, nor even painkillers should be given.
The wound should not be washed or cut or the poison swabbed out as this could cause infection and loss of blood. A tight tourniquet can be tied a little above the wound, such that one finger should be able to pass under the tourniquet. The patient should be transported as quickly as possible to the nearest hospital. The tourniquet should be left in place until antivenom is given. But it should be released for 10 seconds every 90 seconds and should not be used for more than six hours. At the hospital antivenom will be given which rapidly subdues the effects of the venom.
To avoid snakes, the following precautions must be taken. Rubbish around the house should be cleared. Rat holes should be filled and rats should be prevented from breeding in and around the house. Long tree branches touching the houses and creepers trailing the porches and window panes should be cut. Good boots should be used while walking through forested area. Avoid stepping over any obstacle when the other side is not visible and use a torch while moving outside the house at night.