The Snakebuster: the trials of a licenced snake catcher in Melbourne.
'Who is more insane. The man who goes out and pays to have a snake for a pet, or the person who pays someone to take a snake away from their property?'
488 Park Road, Park Orchards, Victoria, 3114, Australia
Originally published in the Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society, 42(3):50-51, (March 2007).
I ask myself this question all the time.
My day job is writing books about corruption in government.
Now that's dangerous!
Anyway, when I get sick of this real-life danger, I do something far safer. That's go out and capture the supposedly dangerous Australian snakes like Taipans (Oxyuranus spp.), Death Adders (Acanthophis spp.), King Browns (Cannia spp.) and the like.
And guess what?
The local Victorian wildlife authority have made me one of their licenced snake catchers.
That means that when some agitated and desperate person with a snake on their property decides they want to get rid of it, they call me.
Yes, I'm in the phone book as "Snakebusters". The name's trademarked. It’s also on the world-wide web as "snakebusters.net", the lot, and as the only snake-catcher in the Melbourne phone book, I get lots of calls.
Yes we sued a WA Film company and their agents for misusing our trademark a couple of years ago and they paid us $39,500 in damages, plus they had to stop using the name “snakebuster”.
But here’s the local Melbourne scene in summary.
Melbourne's at the worst end of Australia. Way down south, it's far from all the pythons, death adders and most other really neat snakes one associates with Australia.
Melbourne is a cold, wet, and generally miserable muck-hole which is generally too cold for much else other than the hardiest of cold climate snakes.
But there are a few species tough enough to live here. Mainly Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus), Copperheads (Austrelaps superbus) and Eastern Brown Snakes (Pseudonaja textilis) and yes, in theory they can all deliver a potentially fatal bite.
Now although none of these snakes are particularly numerous here, the fact that Melbourne has three million people means that I still get a steady stream of people calling for me to come and get the odd wandering snake. In warmer spring weather, two or three calls a day is routine.
You never know when the calls are going to come in, but there are certain trends.
Most snakies will tell you that 'When the weather warms up, the snakes move...especially in spring', or whatever.
Sure there may be truth in this, but I find the following as a better indicator: 'Expect a snake call when you are either on the toilet, having sex, or out of town'.
When the calls come in, you've got to drop everything and get to the scene as fast as you can. You see you've got to get there before the snake either escapes or ends up being clobbered to death by some mad Rambo.
Which brings me to a few memorable recent calls.
The first one was a prank.
A lady from Whittlesea rang and said one of her sons had seen a snake in the shed and she wanted me to come and get it.
I don't like these calls at the best of times as unless the snake is being watched, it almost becomes like a wild goose chase trying to find a snake that showed itself some time back.
Anyway after telling her I charged for the service, I went to the property.
Standing in the shed was myself, her son and her daughter. The son told me 'Er, I think it may be under that hat on the ground'.
I lifted it, he screamed 'There it is', sending the daughter in a state of
screaming and deep panic.
The son was laughing of course.
He'd planted a rubber snake and the whole scene was a set-up at his sister's expense.
I get a couple of these every summer!
People glance at them, run away, phone me and then I "rescue them".
The next call of note after the one above was a South African woman in the inner suburb of Carlton.
This is concrete jungle stuff. Here you'd be lucky to find a lizard let alone a snake.
Anyway she was really agitated.
Her: 'You snakebusters?'
And later, 'I've seen it in my compost bin,… GET THIS THING OUT OF HERE!'
It sounded like a scene from the exorcist!
Now after you've been in the snakebusting job for a few years you soon realize that the general public have no idea about snakes and how to identify them, so what they tell you in this regard is generally ignored.
Here in Australia, if it's black, it's a 'black snake', if it's brown it's a 'brown snake', and if it's big, it's a 'king brown snake'. No one here seems to know anything else. And yes, it doesn't matter how much explaining you or anyone else does, this level of ignorance seems to remain.
The reality … most "Black Snakes" in Melbourne are Copperheads. Ditto for most of the "Brown Snakes" I get called for, although lots of these turn out to be Tiger Snakes as well.
And so, as you drive off to your next snake removal job, there's always that sense of anticipation as to what exactly you are going to find.
Sure, there are some species more common in some suburbs and so on, but there's always that element of the unknown. This is especially when you factor in such variables such as escaped pets which can be almost anything from any part of Australia.
And that's the general feeling I had as I raced off to this woman's house.
Being an inner suburb, I was betting my house on it being an escaped pet. Probably a Carpet Snake (Morelia sp.) or similar.
We get a couple of these every year.
I got to the house and found an attractive woman in a state of deep shock.
Why do so many normal rational people go ballistic at the sight of something with scales?
She said: 'It's in that compost bin, over there!
I lifted the lid, saw it, and then I slammed it shut and called you.'
So far so good. The compost bin seemed completely sealed so there was no way the snake could get out.
I lifted the lid and at a glance saw nothing and so I put it back. I turned to the woman and said 'Er, sorry, there's no snake in here'.
She was staring at me and the box and said 'There, on the left side, can't you see it?'
It turned out she was pointing at three large slugs that were all sitting in a line. She'd glanced at the slugs and in shock slammed the bin shut and called me thinking she'd seen a snake.
She apologized profusely and said 'Oh, you must think I'm a real idiot'.
I lied and said 'Oh, no, this happens all the time'.
What was I going to say?
'Jees, you are the most stupid cow of a woman I've ever met!'?
Sometimes honesty is not the best policy.
And that'd look really good on my wildlife record book that I have to keep for the local bureaucrats.
'Went to house in Carlton and found three unidentified slugs'.
'Earlier find, a rubber snake also unidentified ... only indicator of species was a "Made in China" on the belly', with the added note: 'Had a $2.95 price tag on it ... perhaps smuggled into Australia by a retard ... doubt it'd reproduce or kill native species.'
And then the very same week as this mad South African woman with the slugs, I got yet another call from yet another South African Woman in a similar state of shock.
'My husband and I have seen this one. It's h-u-g-e, got white markings and it's four feet'.
This call was in the outer suburb of Templestowe, not far from where I live and based on past records it seemed like the genuine article ... a snake.
I got to the house and was directed to where the reptile was hiding.
This one was under a concrete slab holding in place a drainpipe.
I looked under the structure with a torch and saw it.
The people hadn't lied to me. This one was as thick as my wrist.
The only problem it was a Bluetongued Skink (Tiliqua scincoides).
Okay, it also had four feet!
As it happens, nearly one in two 'snake jobs' I get here in Melbourne are these lizards.
People glance at these lizards and mistake them for snakes.
The next day, the phone rang again.
I recall the time exactly. I was in bed with my wife.
Putting on my clothes I staggered into the car and raced off to nearby Warrandyte.
This time I got to the house and got a real live snake!
It was a four feet long male Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus). It'd been swimming in the fishpond in search of food.
A damn nice specimen.
I've always had a soft spot for Copperheads, being a throw-back from when I bred numbers of them back in the 1970's.
The only problem with this particular snake was that before I got to the snake to catch it, some crazed gardener had clobbered it with a shovel and broken it's back.
Ever wondered why there aren't many snakes in Melbourne?
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