April 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Mortal coil

By Cate Kennedy
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Rhys Gloury is checking through some large clip-lock plastic storage boxes in his shed. Except for the neatly symmetrical holes drilled in their lids, the stacks of boxes could just as well contain old tax returns.

“Here we go,” he says, lifting one up. Out on the lawn behind his house, he opens it and gently, easily, extracts two tiger snakes.

“See, people say they’re aggressive, but look at that,” he says, crouching attentively as the snakes stretch themselves on the grass in the sun. “And look at their beautiful markings.”

“What’s that one called?” I ask as one snake winds back to investigate his boot.

“Nutcase,” he answers and I take an involuntary step backwards. “But just look how docile she is. This year I’m hoping to breed from this pair.”

“How many babies will she have?”

“Well, the biggest litter recorded is 90, but I’m hoping for about 30.”

The snakes flow through his hands, their alert heads glistening. Rhys has a hook at the ready but he doesn’t use it. He lifts the tiger snakes carefully back into their box. “They’re one of the friendliest snakes you can keep in captivity,” he says, as his mum Leanne and their blue heeler watch respectfully from the verandah. “They’re not exactly pets – you can’t cuddle them, for example, and they don’t come when they’re called – but they’ve all got personalities.”

Rhys is the person you call when you find a snake in your living room or coiled up in the kids’ sandpit sunning itself. (“That happens all the time,” he says, “people pull back the tarp and ... whoa!”) He’s removed snakes from kindergartens, cars and kitchens. Once he was called to capture a huge python, which was found in someone’s lounge room in the middle of the night, trying to eat their pet Jack Russell terrier.

“If it had been just a little bigger, I reckon it would have managed it, too,” Rhys says. He releases the snakes a few kilometres from where they’re found, which isn’t difficult where he lives, outside Wangaratta, because there’s plenty of alternative habitat. “I’ve got a few good spots,” he says. “And sometimes I just go out walking in the bush, looking for snakes myself. I’ve always found reptiles fascinating.”

Rhys is studying to be a nurse, which I fear might come in handy any moment for me, though I soon realise he is also an expert at putting you at your ease. “Don’t worry about this one,” he reassures me as he lifts out a highly venomous Collett’s snake, about a metre and a half long. It flattens itself in a long flexing coil across the ground. “It gets handled a lot and it’s very quiet.” He pauses, gripping the snake’s striped tail. “Mind you, this type can flip themselves backwards at their full length to bite you, so I’ve got to be careful, obviously.”

He fastens his other hand across the snake’s back, exuding the calm confidence of someone reaching to pick up the TV remote. Leanne and I look at each other and laugh. “I have to live with it,” she says.

Her son, now 20, has loved reptiles since he was about four and has always owned them, ascending the scale of danger from turtles to lizards to snakes as he’s grown older. He got his wildlife controller’s licence a few days after his eighteenth birthday. “It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “I don’t really like the idea some people perpetuate that it’s an easy, high-thrill thing, handling snakes. Ultimately, they’re all wild animals. You just learn to understand them and handle them properly.”

He tells me he was bitten recently, removing a small tiger snake from a McDonald’s on the highway. “The problem is, the tiger snake’s fangs are so big they can penetrate the snake’s lower jaw and still protrude to give you a scratch. And there’ll be enough venom in that scratch to hurt you.” After securing the snake in a bag and storing it in his car, Rhys had to ask the restaurant staff to call him an ambulance. “I had shaking spasms up my arms and legs,” he says. “That’s the only time it’s ever happened, though. The public is terrified of snakes but in reality there are more children killed each year in Australia falling into eskies and drowning than there are from snake bites.”

Rhys is expecting to be busy this month. “There are lots of new litters around and snakes are on the move then,” he says. “The interesting thing is, most people never realise they’re living with a snake. There’ll be one right in the backyard of a house and the owner will go to work of a day and come home in the evening and never see it. There’s always going to be snakes near water, even by rivers in the city, because they love frogs.”

“But they must mostly live in the bush, right?” I’m standing well back as Rhys handles a restless, writhing woma python, a fat desert snake with spectacular orange markings. He shakes his head. “Oh, no. There are plenty of snakes in the city. Think of all those restaurants putting out bins of wasted food, which attract mice and rats. They’ll bring snakes.”

“What – even in the CBD?”

“Oh, sure. I know a snake handler who removed a big brown snake from near Bourke Street not long ago.”

Snakes, Rhys tells me, very rarely attack spontaneously, so the old adage about leaving them alone holds true. Sometimes they will give a warning bite that contains no venom, before biting a second time, more seriously. Venom works to clot the blood, so victims often die of heart attacks.

“I’d have a heart attack anyway if I was bitten,” Leanne says from the verandah.

“I want to show you these ones,” Rhys says, enthused. “I’m babysitting them for a friend. Inland taipans.”

He opens another box but doesn’t touch the two small snakes inside. They’re about 30 centimetres long and the most venomous land snakes on Earth. Rhys gazes at them in respectful awe. He is poised, straight-backed, utterly focused as he leans over their box.

“One drop of their venom,” he says softly, “would kill 3 million mice.”

Fighting the overwhelming desire to walk quickly away, I watch the taipans rearranging themselves in the box with precise, sinuous fluidity, their skin a fine mosaic of yellow and black.

“I don’t think I’ll come any closer,” I say. Rhys looks up and grins sympathetically.

“I know what you mean,” he says. “I feel the same way when I see a spider. I’m absolutely petrified of them.” And he shudders as he snaps back the lid on the taipans.

Cate Kennedy
Cate Kennedy is the author of Dark Roots and The World Beneath. She writes poetry, short stories and novels, and has written for the New Yorker.

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