Monday, 4 November 2013 by Charlie Carter
Face Your Fears, Learn From The Pro's!
Whenever we go out and decide to take something up, we do it with a view to being the best we can at it. We aspire to be like someone. Learning the guitar I'd want to be as good as Justin Hawkins, Slash, Brian May, Eddie Van Halen and many more. With cricket, I want to be coached by professional players and be
around the best coaches and players I can. So it was by luck rather than judgement that I came to be in the presence of 3 of the top snake handlers in the whole of Australia.
Through previous blog entries, my Facebook page and me talking about it constantly you will be aware that I have been a volunteer at the Australian Reptile Park and love every minute of it. Before I made the permanent move to Sydney I had a growing interest in reptiles, snakes in particular. As this interest grew I wanted to learn how to deal with venomous snakes, especially those found in Australia. It's common knowledge that there are dangerous animals everywhere in this country, from spiders to crocodiles to sharks to snakes. If you want to be killed by an animal, Australia is the place to do it(!) But for all the people who are put off visiting this country because of the threat of these animals, don't be. I had spent a total of 13 months in Australia before I saw my first snake, first deadly spider, and to date I have never seen a crocodile or (confirmed) shark in the wild. I have to add that I went looking for snakes a lot during my first two visits, and that's how long it took. Probably because I had no clue what I was doing or even looking for.
Through volunteering at the Australian Reptile Park I had learnt that if you were unlucky enough to require anti-venom for a snakebite then it was more than likely the anti-venom would have been produced at the park by John Mostyn, head of venom. My first encounter with John was as a customer, as he showed the crowd a King Cobra and how he milked a Tiger Snake during the venom show alongside Ranger Mick. After a few months of volunteering I approached John and asked about his venomous handling courses, which had been highly recommended.
I had been told previously that John didn't suffer fools gladly. There are plenty of people out there who would be described as cowboys, who are extremely blasé about handling these kinds of animals. Let's put this into perspective. These animals can kill. IN MINUTES! You don't mess around with these animals, it's the equivalent to fighting fire with petrol; it will explode in your face sooner or later. With these animals it is imperative you go to someone who knows what they are doing. John is a calm character, not over the top, not in your face, not a cowboy. To use another analogy, when I was doing my flight training I was invited
several times to fly with private pilots. To say I felt safer with the cool, calm and collected pilots than the over-confident bravado types is an understatement. The same applies to handling dangerous animals. You are more likely to feel safe with an experienced and calm instructor than one who will make you as nervous as the snake does! Every animal I have handled at the Reptile Park has made me nervous in it's own way, but the calm instruction techniques of Julie Mendezona helped me to confidently handle Burmese Pythons, American Alligators and others. Although I still need a bit of work on the faster moving animals like Lace Monitor Lizards!
Perhaps as a hangover from my flying days, I have always been able to remain calm under pressure. However knowing that John was not likely to panic me in any way was a massive sedative in itself going into the course I undertook during the first weekend of November 2013. To drag me away from playing a cricket match any time in the last decade would have been a challenge in itself but in order to attend this course I had to miss two weekends of it. Do I regret it? Not in any way whatsoever. In the space of two incredibly informative days I went from having never handled anything venomous to feeling confident enough to pick up a cornered Eastern Brown Snake on the grass in a circle of people. This is the world's second most venomous snake, to give you some perspective. In England there are just two species of snake; the Grass Snake, and the Adder. Yes the Adder is venomous, but while there have been deaths as a result of an Adder bite it is unlikely to cause you too much harm and wouldn't hold a candle to any of the Australian venomous species we were being taught to handle.
Before we got near the snakes we had some theory to learn. Perhaps it was John's way of making sure we didn't get complacent during the course, but the images of the injuries people had suffered as a result of envenomation will be burned in my mind forever. That in itself should be a good enough reason to leave these snakes alone, and it is. A lot of comments I have received when people have learnt I was doing this course were along the lines of:
"Why the hell would you want to? You must be mad!"
My response? I did the course in order to learn about these animals. If you learn and understand things, you will not be scared of them. Why the hell does that make me or anyone else on the course "Mad"? The truth is, it doesn't. I am not going to actively go out and seek venomous snakes to pick up. The fact of the matter is that living in this country there is the smallest chance our paths will cross. In the future Jess and I will have children, we already have a niece and 2 more niece/nephews on the way. Should they be playing in a garden or in a park and a venomous snake is nearby, I would rather know how to safely remove the snake from the area than take the attitude of some ignorant fools that think the only good snake is a dead one.
There was a lady called Lisa on the course with her husband Darrin, and they keep pythons. Lisa told me it took long enough to get used to handling non-venomous "placid" species of snakes such as pythons. I think she showed an absolute ton of courage to do this course as she had an obvious fear of the creatures, especially those containing venom. Every step of the way she was supported by her fellow students and surely the calming influence of a composed instructor in John Mostyn helped her get through her fears, handling all the species on the day. To me the only "Mad" people out there are the ones who simultaneously refuse to face their fears while accusing the people that do of having a screw loose.
Day 1 of the course focused on theory, the techniques required for removing snakes from a bag, how to pick the snake up and how to secure the snake safely into the bag again. This was my first experience handling venomous snakes and I was the first of the students to go into the pit. There was a certain amount of trepidation as I poured the Red Bellied Black Snake onto the floor and picked it up and indeed I think I took a fair amount of time to do so. However through watching the other students handle the Red Belly and remembering the various steps, my confidence grew and grew as each different species was brought. Having had the privilege on numerous occasions of being inside the show pit at the Reptile Park while Ranger Mick does the Sunday Venom show, when the Death Adder came out I was already fairly confident I knew what to do with this animal. However as is natural with the first attempt at anything, there were still some nerves. The difference between the Death Adder and the others that we handled was that at no time did we touch the snake with anything other than a snake hook. Death Adders are far too quick at striking onto their own tails for beginners like us to even attempt it.
Gradually we progressed through different Red Bellied Black snakes, Tiger Snakes, Death Adders, King Brown snakes (actually a member of the Black snake family) and onto what I considered to be the most dangerous snake I am likely to come across; the Eastern Brown Snake. This snake is as I mentioned number two in the world in terms of venom toxicity. The idea of getting near a Brown snake filled me with nerves and I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little apprehensive when my turn came. Eastern Browns move quickly, they react to movement and are naturally nervous and defensive. John showed us their behaviour and how to handle them quickly. I made sure there were cameras on hand to capture my first hands on encounter with one, and it raced out of the bag towards a corner. Thankfully for me it was a painless and quick pick-up and placement into the bag, and my exhalation once it was safely bagged told enough of the story.
Day 2 focused on different restraint techniques and building our confidence in handling venomous snakes. John had a special surprise for us though, he had brought two of his friends along; Peter Buckley and Neville Burns. This meant we had 3 of the best and most experienced venomous snake handlers in the whole of Australia teaching us how to do this properly, which boosted my confidence straight away. But even the most experienced have their moments, Neville lost an index finger to the venom from a Red Bellied Black Snake when he was younger.
Tubing, probing and general husbandry was covered and the correct techniques to identify the sex of a snake were demonstrated. I had held onto my cousin's pet pythons before when she had sexed them but I hadn't actually done it myself before now. The first snake I ever probed was a Tiger Snake, the world's 4th most venomous snake. It was a male, in case you wondered.
Then it was the final piece of our course; handling these snakes in their natural habitat. Out onto the grass, create a circle and put a snake in the middle, taking it in turns to pick it up. All species returned but of course the biggest challenge was that brown snake again! They really are quick movers and I got charged by one, struck at by another but because of the professional and high quality nature of our instruction, no-one came close to getting bitten. Everyone was able to pick up the snakes like a pro and still show the respect these animals deserve.
John's Venomous Snake Handling course was truly an amazing experience, perhaps even more so for me having come from a country where there are only 2 species of snake to a country that hosts 8 of the top ten deadliest snakes in the world. The biggest thing that I took away from this experience is that provided you show the respect that is necessary and then some, then you can face and overcome your fears.
A huge thank you to Peter Buckley, Neville Burns, Fran, Gary, all the staff at the Australian Reptile Park and of course John Mostyn for giving me the chance to work with these animals and overcome my childhood fears.
Venomous Snake Handling 101!
Class of November 2013!
Posted by Charlie W Carter