SERPENTS IN THE SKY, SNAKES IN THE STORM WATER DRAINS A REAL LIFE HERPETOLOGICAL STORY FROM MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

 

By Raymond Hoser, 488 Park Road, Park Orchards, Victoria, 3114, Australia.

Phone: (03) 9812 3322 Fax: (03) 9812 3355 Mobile: 0412 777 211

E-mail: adder@smuggled.com

Originally Published in the Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society 42(9)(September 2007):141-147.

INTRODUCTION

The following is adapted from a report I had to make to a psychiatric hospital in relation to a "snake problem" they had.

So that readers may get an insight into the sort of reports made to companies and entities by "snake consultants" here in Australia, the report that follows is only slightly altered to suit the readers of this journal.

However readers should be mindful that what follows is written with the lay person in mind and in terms of people who do not want to cohabit an area with deadly venomous snakes.

The commencement of the story was when I got a call from a woman who had been alerted to a snake that had fallen from the sky into a courtyard at a sealed psychiatric hospital/prison.

It was later ascertained that the snake from the sky, had actually fallen from the roof of a building in the hospital compound.

This is sealed from the outside world, by a smooth prison style wall, security monitoring and the like.

Entry to the complex is via several locked doors, security checks, metal detectors and biometric scanning.

In other words, it seemed impossible for a snake to get inside.

But that was the beginning of the story of the snake from the sky and the others in the drainage system.

The report to the State government follows and gives a full perspective on the situation.

Readers should be made aware of the fact that the hospital is located in an inner Melbourne suburb about 5 km in a straight line from the Melbourne city centre.

Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, is a large densely populated metropolis of over 3 million people.

Snakes are not usually associated with inner suburbs by most people, but are in fact common in inner parts of Melbourne that have remnant bushland and are in proximity to the Yarra River and tributaries that flow through various parts of the city, including the CBD.

"Snakebusters" is the trademarked snake removal service owned by myself which is by far the best known snake removal service in Australia, having been in existence for some years and reported in all types of media including evening news bulletins.

During summer months, I field calls on a daily basis from persons wanting deadly venomous snakes removed from properties, usually within the city environs.

People pay for the snakes to be removed, which by law must be released in suitable habitat away from houses as close as possible to where the snake was found.

While calls are taken on a 24 hour basis and snakes removed as the calls come in, the vast majority of calls are during the day and statistics show that the majority of these are between 3 and 6 PM, which coincides with the warmest part of the day.

Unlike most other parts of Australia, Melbourne's climate is relatively cool (mid winter average maximum of 13 degrees Celsius and a mid summer average maximum of 25 degrees Celsius), and hence the activity of the mianly diurnal snakes reflects the limited options given by the generally cool and erratic weather.

THE REPORT'S INTRODUCTION

At about 5.30 PM on 18 January 2004 I (Raymond Hoser) received a phone call (at "Snakebusters") to remove a small (about 60 cm) snake seen within the grounds of the Thomas Embling Psychiatric Hospital at Yarra Bend Road, Fairfield, in inner suburban Melbourne.

The snake had been seen about 45 minutes earlier, having "fallen from the sky", later ascertained to have come off a nearby roof.

I arrived at about 6 PM and inspected the area for about an hour without seeing the snake. It had apparently made off into a thick bed of vegetation that included Ivy and other creeping plants. From here the snake could have gone in several directions, including to inaccessible places.

The following week I was phoned by Kate Boylan at the hospital to come in and survey the grounds with a view to establishing the means of entry for this snake and look into three other snake sightings in the recent past.

On the morning of 23 January 2004 I returned to the hospital and was shown by staff around the grounds in order to establish the likely means of entry by two of the snakes and ways and means to:

1/ Stop snakes entering.

2/ Deal with snakes upon entry to the grounds.

3/ Other aspects of the snake problem at the hospital, including:

         problems outside the perimeter of the hospital

         liability issues

         the viability of reducing snake habitat outside the hospital grounds, but adjacent to them.

THE SIGHTINGS TO DATE

Within previous weeks (?) four sightings had been made and reported, including two inside the walls of the hospital and two in the carpark area immediately outside and on the general grounds of the hospital. In no cases were the snakes identified by species and any such identification by lay persons would under normal circumstance be doubted anyway.

This is due to the fact that lay people usually identify snakes on the basis of colour, which is not a reliable indicator.

Notwithstanding this, it was certain beyond reasonable doubt that the snakes in question were all Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus) (see later in this report).

It was stated that the snakes were of different size classes and hence included more than one specimen.

The most recent sighting (to which I was called) was of a snake that had fallen from the roof of a building and onto a grassed area. Clearly that snake did not have an obvious means by which to return to where it had come from. This led to the initial view that snakes may be entering the hospital grounds and then were unable to escape.

Other sightings were generally within the vicinity of drainage grates or pipes (see later), leading to the (probably correct) assertion that snakes were entering the grounds via the underground drainage system.

TIGER SNAKES

That the snakes in question were Tiger Snakes is not doubted. In the Fairfield area, they are the only species known to occur and are one of three deadly species common to many parts of Melbourne.

Snakebusters receives numerous calls each year from Fairfield, and adjacent suburbs, including Kew, Ivanhoe, Heidelberg and Abbotsford to remove snakes and all have been Tiger Snakes.

The only other species of snake seen in the general area was a large Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) seen in 2000 in a jar at a public park in Abbotsford, mislabeled as "Large Brown Snake".

That snake may not even have been caught in the Abbotsford area, although this species does occur further up the Yarra Valley including in Warrandyte, where they are still less common than Tiger Snakes.

However Copperheads do not climb onto house roofs and hence probably could not have been the species seen on 18 January 2004.

The third deadly species common to Melbourne, the Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) is most common on the basalt plains north of the city and while it may travel across suburban areas, there is no evidence to suggest the species is present in Fairfield.

Furthermore this species does not climb onto roofs, or use drainage systems to get around. Instead it moves along fence-lines and similar and hence could not have gained entry to the inside of the grounds of the hospital.

Tiger Snakes are common along the Yarra Valley and by far the most common species of snake in Melbourne. Snakebusters receives more calls for these snakes (based on statistics of what we actually catch) than for all other reptiles put together (snakes and lizards misidentified as snakes).

In the season 2003-4, we have had calls for this species from the following suburbs: Laverton, Newport, Abbotsford, Kew, Fairfield, Alphington, Ivanhoe, Eaglemont, Heidelberg, Preston, Greensborough, Templestowe and numerous other suburbs in Melbourne.

The snake is a true generalist in that it is somewhat non-specific in habits. It has literally conquered Melbourne, being adapted to it's harsh (for snakes) climate in terms of the cool and erratic weather.

While these snakes prefer rocky and overgrown habitats, preferably near water, as they like to have a regular drink, they will wander across areas of seemingly inhospitable habitat, particularly during hot weather. This is particularly true for subadult snakes and males in search of mates.

Born at about 17 cm (average 23 a litter) in January to May and growing at about 1-1.5 cm a month until mature (in the wild state), most take about 3 years to mature and 4 years to reach their maximum size. Non-growing adult males average just over a metre and females just under a metre.

These snakes tend to live on the ground and rarely stray from the ground to climb.

The two circumstances where the snakes will climb are as follows:

To catch birds in a nest in a tree or other high structure.

To climb out of a pipe or drainage hole, in which case the snake simply heads towards to light at the end.

The snakes are generalists in that they feed on any vertebrate and even in the wild state will eat pieces of discarded meat and chicken as dropped by a human.

They do not need a supply of food where they live as when they are not fed, their body merely shuts down and stops growing. Hence these snakes can go for long periods (many months) without food and survive in apparently sterile areas like the hospital grounds.

Tiger Snakes are a deadly species and their venom attacks the nervous system.

While they are slightly slower moving than the average snake, they can still move fast when warm and agitated. Bites commonly occur when people try to catch and kill them.

Decapitated snakes may still bite the person attacking them.

As a rule, Tiger Snakes will attempt to bite if cornered or an attempt is made to kill them. In this regard they are one of the more aggressive species, hence the advice to lay people not to deal with them.

It is worth noting that as captives these snakes become quite placid and inoffensive and hence when seen at shows and exhibits are not the same aggressive animals that are seen in the wild state. Lay people should not be fooled by the different faces presented by the same species.

Also some captives may have had their venom glands surgically removed, allowing the handler to take liberties with the snake, knowing that should a bite occur, then no serious consequences will result.

ADVICE IF A SNAKE IS SEEN

Hence the general advice to people who see snakes is to leave them alone, or if in a situation where they may pose a risk (such as within the hospital grounds) a licenced snake catcher should be called in to remove and relocate the snake.

If a snake is seen and a snake catcher is called, the snake should be watched continuously (as best as possible) until the snake catcher arrives. This includes viewing potential escape routes.

Do not leave the area unattended as the snake may move off in an unknown direction and then not be found by the snake catcher.

Because most snakes have little if any scent, they are not suited to being found by sniffer dogs.

Stand at a safe distance from the snake (more than four metres) and if the snake does move towards you, then simply run off. If you are cornered, then stand dead still and wait for the snake to move off (even if it crawls over you). Snakes do not generally bite still objects. It is the movement the snake will strike at.

IF BITTEN

Put a broad constrictive bandage from the bite site, along the limb to the trunk of the body.

Stay as still as possible and get to hospital as quick as possible. It's best to call an ambulance and/or have a person drive you there. Do not drive yourself to hospital as you may pass out while driving.

There is no need to kill or attempt to identify the snake as hospitals have so-called polyvalent anti-venom which works against all locally occurring snake species.

If these procedures are followed, then the risk of death from snakebite is remote.

Notwithstanding this, it is worth noting that even small (newborn) snakes carry deadly venom and their bite may make a victim very ill. This is especially so if the recipient has any form of allergy to the poison, which will not be known until after a bite has happened.

Symptoms of bite may be almost immediate (within seconds) or take hours to manifest, depending on a range of factors and hence if in doubt one should go to a hospital for monitoring for 24 hours (or more) after the bite.

IDENTIFICATION OF TIGER SNAKES

This is not particularly relevant here as we know this is the species in question.

However for completeness a summary of the snake is given in terms of identification.

Colour is not a reliable indicator. Tiger snakes are known to range from white to black and be with or without bands.

Most in Melbourne are however yellowish or greyish brown with somewhat indistinct bands.

To separate Tiger Snakes from the other two deadly species in Melbourne is quite easy.

They have a broad thickset head, while Copperheads, also a thickset snake have a distinctly smaller and narrower head. Brown Snakes are a generally thinner snake with a smaller and narrower head.

Brown Snakes have distinct eye-brow ridges that the other two species lack, while Copperheads have white etchings on the lip scales. The other two species have single (one colour) heads. These latter (head) characteristics are a reliable means to separate the three species.

Snake experts familiar with the three snakes can usually glance a part of the body of one of these snakes and immediately know which they are dealing with due to the suite of other characters that separate them.

All grow to around a metre as adults, but range from as little as 15 cm total for newborns to two metres for large adults.

THE ESSENTIALS OF TIGER SNAKE BIOLOGY

In terms of what snakes need to live, most species Including Tiger Snakes, have the same basic body plan. Hence in the captive situation, zoos and keepers can keep widely differing species in identical cages and feed them the same foods.

Translated to the wild state, the essential requirements remain the same.

In order of importance they are as follows:

1.       Thermal requirements

2.       Habitat

3.       Food and water

THERMAL REQUIREMENTS

As reptiles, snakes cannot regulate their body temperature. They are controlled by their environment. Tiger Snakes can therefore survive in good health anywhere between about 4 and 38 degrees Celsius.

Notwithstanding this, these snakes must have a temperature of about 30 degrees Celcius to best digest their food and below 20 degrees cannot do such basic functions.

Hence, this species is pre-adapted to seek a temperature of about 30 degrees at all times if they can (which in the wild state is obviously an impossible and rarely attained dream).

That is the primary pre-occupation of almost all snakes almost all of the time.

Most of the time this means that the snakes are seeking heat, and/or avoiding cold, except in the warm days in the warm months when the reverse applies.

On hot sunny days when the air temperature is 30 degrees or higher, the ground temperature may well be ten to fifteen degrees hotter.

As snakes crawl over the ground or rest on it, this is the temperature that counts.

40-45 degrees is fatal to the snakes (even for just minutes) and hence must be avoided.

It is at these times that snakes will seek out cooler and shaded southerly (and east facing) slopes for refuge.

When the weather cools, the snakes will again seek sunny spots so as to continue feeding and digestion processes.

If an area's thermal requirements are unsuitable for snakes, they will either move away (at least as long as the area remains unsuitable) or if unable to do, simply die.

HABITAT

Habitat is the second most important requirement of snakes and the feature most readily identified by lay people.

In the world of wild animals, snakes are somewhat constrained. They have no arms, no legs, are deaf to airborne sounds and almost blind.

Put another way, they are the slowest animal on the block.

To get over these disadvantages snakes rely on their cryptic colouration to hide and blend in with their surroundings.

They will prefer areas of dense vegetation at ground level, hide in cracks that are too small for predators such as birds and foxes and when they move will tend to secrete themselves along edges of buildings where birds cannot readily swoop on them.

If snakes cannot find areas of suitable habitat they will tend to move on.

In the context of a hospital, removal of densely vegetated flower beds will remove incentive for snakes to reside in a single spot within the hospital grounds.

FOOD AND WATER

While a snake deprived of food and water will obviously die, these are nowhere near as essential for the wellbeing of snakes as the other two factors covered.

Snakes can sometimes go for weeks without water and months without food.

Hence the absence of either does not mean an absence of snakes.

Notwithstanding this, areas with plenty of food and water and the essential requirements of thermal needs and habitat will support large numbers of snakes.

This is why the Yarra River valley supports a large number of snakes.

Notwithstanding the above, snakes such as Tiger Snakes overproduce young each year and hence there is a general movement of subadult snakes to new areas adjoining the optimal habitat, hence a general flow to areas such as the Thomas Embling Hospital and the nearby suburbs.

When habitat is suitable in these new areas, (particularly in the form of overgrown gardens, fish ponds and so on), snakes are able to live and breed and so the cycle goes on.

While water is not an essential requirement for snakes due to their preadaptation to store water and pass dry urine, the fact is that snakes have a weakness for water and love to take a regular drink.

In the captive situation snakes will on most days take a drink from their water bowl, especially after eating. In the wild state, this means that a snake will frequent watering points and properties that have such watering points are favored places for snakes.

In the context of the Thomas Embling Hospital, this was an important factor enabling snakes to survive indefinitely within the hospital grounds.

Water accumulations were seen at the bottom of one of the drainage grates (just outside the walls, but linked to inside) and may have been present elsewhere as well.

MEANS OF ENTRY TO THE HOSPITAL

An inspection showed that the hospital was literally sealed at the walls. The high security walls surrounding the complex are sealed at ground level and due to their smooth surface could not possibly be climbed by any snake.

To get into the building requires biometric scanning and entry through several locked and sealing doors. No snake could conceivably enter via this means without being detected and none have been. Freight is brought in via a large door that also seals at ground level, including at the edges (ends), meaning entry from here is also probably impossible and/or hasn't occurred.

The only other means by which snakes could enter the complex was via the drainage system.

In fact this was effectively custom made to give the snakes unfettered access to the hospital.

At ground level there were drains criss-crossing the grounds of the complex. These were interconnected by pipes with frequent points where a grate presented at ground level. The drop from the grill to the bottom was usually only a short distance (under a metre) enabling the snakes within to either bask in the midday sun (while remaining protected by the grill) or to climb out of the drains (at the corners of the square holes) and through the grill if desired.

These pipes ran under the hospital walls and to outside.

To the east of the hospital was bushland adjacent to the Yarra River, which is known Tiger Snake habitat. To the south was a football oval, lined on the south side by the Eastern Freeway. However between this (effectively unpassable for snakes) oval and the south wall of the Hospital was a densely vegetated ditch with water holes.

This linear reserve formed a perfect conduit and funnel for snakes moving east from the Yarra River towards Merri Creek, which in turn was sited on the west side of the hospital.

Noting the smooth face of the Hospital wall on the East side and the similarly impenetrable open ground of the oval and freeway to the other side of this ditch, it is clear that snakes would be naturally funneled into the ditch or any pipe running under the hospital wall.

The ditch itself provided excellent habitat for the Tiger Snakes in terms of vegetation and water.

Notwithstanding this, the ditch itself had fundamental limitations in terms of it's long-term utility as Tiger Snake habitat and this no doubt contributed to the entry of snakes into the hospital grounds and the timing as well.

Snake movements are seasonal and also in direct response to prevailing weather.

In cooler months they tend to remain on north and west facing slopes, where they can take advantage of the maximum sunlight to warm themselves.

Snakes do not need the sun itself, but rather the heat and while the two are commonly confused by lay people, snakes usually "bask" in the safety of dense ground level vegetation such as Ivy and other creeping plants or debris, where sunlight is either dappled, or when a snake may be able to "bask" completely concealed under the warming leaves of the vegetation.

While snakes may actively search for food, many species, including Tiger Snakes are also ambush predators in that they may instead choose to site themselves on so-called "runs" where they lie in wait and merely strike at food that passes within range.

So-called "runs" also tend to be along building edges, where rodents and lizards travel so as to avoid predation from large birds that patrol the open spaces.

As weather warms up, the need to bask is reduced, enabling the snakes means to travel to new areas in search of food and habitat from where safety from summer heat can also be obtained.

The east facing slope to the east of the hospital would therefore be colonized by snakes in the summer months.

In hot weather as seen in much of December 2003, the snakes would in turn seek densely vegetated areas, including the ditch to the south of the wall of the hospital. As the weather cooled in January 2004, this south facing ditch would become suboptimal and hence snakes would seek warmer places.

As a rule, snakes move to higher more exposed (to sun) ground and west facing slopes when weather cools and hence it'd be safe to assume a continued movement by the snakes along the south aspect ditch in a westerly direction and towards the carpark of the hospital.

The swamp and overgrown vegetation there provided optimal habitat for the snakes.

If and when the weather warmed up, the movement would be more-or-less reversed with the snakes heading back in an easterly direction.

In other words, the movement of the snakes would be either up and down the ditch parallel to the south wall of the hospital, or even through the hospital itself, noting the east/west exits of pipes from within the hospital.

I was unable to ascertain the location of the outfalls of the pipes inside the hospital in terms of where they ran out of the grounds. But so long as they ran either east, west or south of the hospital, snakes could gain entry.

Notwithstanding this and based on the pattern of sightings in the hospital grounds, it'd be fair to assume that the snakes were gaining entry to the grounds from the car park side of the hospital.

This also means that if the weather warms up again in late January and February 2004, more snake sightings in the hospital are likely, and regardless of what cleaning up of plant beds within the hospital grounds is done.

It's also worth noting that the Merri Creek to the west of the hospital is also Tiger Snake habitat and that snakes may be coming from there.

Without knowledge of the drainage outfalls in terms of this area, any firm conclusions are not possible.

However, there are open grassed areas between the hospital and the gully and movement across here at ground level is effectively impossible. Hence the suspected original source of the snakes is more likely to be the east side of the hospital, rather than the west side and that's notwithstanding the fact that sightings haven't been in this part of the complex.

There is another important consideration in terms of movements of snakes.

In the wild state, snakes choose to move in a given direction.

They will tend to move in a straight line to where they choose to go. Variation in the straight line movement is mainly due to physical impediments such as rocks, logs, patches of open ground and the like.

In terms of open ground, this will be avoided and snakes will try to move around it.

In terms of roads, snakes will commonly move along the edges for some time before ascertaining that they have no choice but to run the gauntlet across open ground (and cross).

In terms of a site like the Thomas Embling hospital, snakes would encounter the wall and the clear ground around the perimeter and seek an alternative means to cover the distance and remain concealed.

Hence the importance of the drainage pipes and/or the ditch on the south side.

SNAKE ON THE ROOF

The snake reported on 18 January was first seen falling off a roof of a building.

Tiger snakes will climb buildings in order to get birds from nests and similar. The building roof from which the snake fell was connected to the ground via a vine growing up. The snake could have climbed this. Tiger snakes have a weakness for young birds and snakes on roof's in these situations are seen most years by snakebusters.

Alternatively in the case of the hospital, it is likely that the snake may have climbed up a pipe starting at ground level or lower, to emerge at the end, which happened to be on the roof.

When moving through drainage pipes or other sealed environments, snakes will tend to head towards the light and emerge wherever the pipe ends, or the exit is.

The pipes were relatively narrow and could be easily climbed by the snakes, even if their surfaces were smooth.

If in a sealed environment such as under a house, the snake will as a matter of course move towards the light and attempt to escape via the hole through which the light shines.

In terms of "falling off the roof", snakes literally jump.

They tend to stretch their body outwards as much as they can before falling and then as they fall, they land in a so-called break fall, much like a person does when doing judo.

The snake is not injured in any way and due to their relatively light weight, it's maximum velocity is not terribly fast, enabling them to fall/jump and survive from any height (the only exception being very large pythons).

OTHER SITES WHERE MOVEMENT IN DRAINAGE PIPES OCCURS

It is probably quite common for snakes to use drainage pipes as movement conduits, although there are few if any cases in the literature.

Snakebusters have received a number of calls for snakes in suburbs far removed from likely habitat. While movement along fencelines and the like cannot be discounted, the crossing of major roads, including freeways is most likely to be through pipes on some occasions.

In 2002, we removed a Tiger Snake from the Hill of Content Bookshop in Bourke Street, Melbourne city. The snake had been seen the previous night emerging from a drain in the street before it crawled under the shop's door.

A Sydney-based snake catcher Charles Acheson does regular removals of Red-bellied Black Snakes (Pseudechis porphyriacus) from the Homebush Bay, Sydney Olympics site.

The snakes at the Homebush Bay Complex tend to be found emerging from the drainage grates that are scattered across the complex and include open areas where the only source of entry is the drainage grate.

In other words the snakes are moving around the complex via the drainage system.

In 1983 I retrieved a Red-bellied Black Snake that had emerged from a drainage grate in Lawson Street, Redfern, in inner city Sydney.

Red-bellied Black Snakes are similar to Tiger Snakes in most respects and tend to replace them in warmer more humid areas, such as wetter parts of the East coast.

THE SWAMP IN THE CARPARK AREA

This was optimal Tiger Snake habitat for several reasons.

The area had a generally neutral or westerly aspect, which is preferred by snakes. Vegetation was overgrown and at ground level ran over dark basalt boulders with honeycomb underneath. In Melbourne this is optimal. Snakes can bask on the dark heat gathering rock and hide amongst the vegetation and rocks themselves without being detected.

While there were some pathways running through the swamp, most of it was effectively unused by people and hence the sort of place that snakes would like.

Besides the thermal and habitat attributes, the water bodies were permanent as evidenced by the mature Limnodynastes tasmaniensis (frogs) tadpoles seen in the water. These frogs are one of the preferred foods of the snakes.

Finally, the swamp formed a so-called "habitat end point", in that it represented an area at the end of a line of potential habitat. To the immediate west end of the swamp was road and then mowed grassed field. As snakes funneled here in an east-west direction, they would find they could not go further and hence accumulate at this point.

Hence it'd be reasonably expected that the number of snakes here would be large.

These situations occur in the wild state as well (for example as in a rock outcrop at the end of a long ridge, or the end of an island, or end of a sand dune) and snake catchers know that these are the best places to look to find the snakes.

A further point of note is that as a generalization snakes don't like their own kind. Other than when mating (and sometimes overwintering), snakes are solitary animals that will avoid one another if given the chance. That's why when they are seen, they are usually seen on their own.

In the wild state, when two snakes see one another, they will usually have a sort of stand off, evidenced by raised heads and excess tongue flicker with the dominant (larger) snake getting right of way and the smaller one moving elsewhere.

This also explains the movement of snakes away from the swamp area (itself the end of a funnel) and why snakes have been seen in suboptimal parts of the carpark.

It also means that sightings in the carpark may occur again in future.

The idea that snakes and other reptiles can be funneled in directions is not new.

Field workers use so called drift fences and pit traps to capture reptiles in bushland and desert areas with a high degree of success.

HABITAT FOR SNAKES WITHIN THE HOSPITAL GROUNDS

The grounds of the hospital were generally sterile and not good for snakes.

Buildings tended to run flush to the ground and vegetation in garden beds was sparse. Lawns were mowed short. It was evident that a significant number of people utilized the area which runs against the preference of snakes for areas that humans don't frequent.

However not all was bad for the snakes.

Several garden beds consisted of little more than densely matted ivy and other vegetation that formed an impenetrable shield for snakes that may reside within.

Some buildings, including the horticulture building also had walls that didn't run flush to the ground and then wooden floorboards that formed a crack between it and the ground underneath. While such a building was not a good site for a snake to live, it did provide a good short term refuge for snakes passing within the grounds and a means of escape if seen.

Part of the general habitat for the snakes included the fact that the Ivy beds did in some cases run to the drainage holes and hence it formed a complete habitat package for the snakes.

By selecting sunny or shady sides of buildings as desired to suit thermal requirements and drainage holes as a source of water, snakes could survive within the hospital grounds indefinitely and perhaps undetected.

WHERE THE SNAKES WOULD HIDE

While snakes would use drainage pipes as conduits, it's unlikely that these would be the preferred resting place in the grounds of the hospital. Instead the snakes would more likely be found resting at or near ground level under the matted vegetation in the garden beds, or more preferably under cover such as rock or rubbish, itself in the garden beds.

ELIMINATING ENTRY OF SNAKES FROM WITHIN THE HOSPITAL WALLS

The only means by which this could be done was by blocking and sealing the drainage grates with fly wire or similar.

This was at first deemed not viable as the result would be drain blockage and flooding.

Hence it seemed that entry of snakes to the hospital grounds cannot be stopped.

However as a second best solution it was decided to block all drains with wire that would be kept clear and cleaned regularly.

ELIMINATING SNAKES INSIDE THE HOSPITAL GROUNDS

Noting that entry cannot be blocked, the next matter of note is dealing with snakes already in the hospital grounds and those likely to enter.

The thermal attributes of the grounds effectively cannot be altered and dealt with, leaving habitat as the important consideration.

First and foremost the overgrown creeping vegetation at ground level should be removed.

This will both remove habitat for the snakes and also make sighting of specimens easier.

Snakes entering the grounds will thus be encouraged to move on and in any event be more easily detected as they move about in search of suitable habitat.

As discussed, it'd be wise to have a snake catcher such as myself present at the time the creeping Ivy and similar vegetation is removed. This could be done within a day.

Notwithstanding this, regrowing shoots of ivy would have to be poisoned and it could take a year or two to remove all the offending vegetation.

Along the south wall of the hospital (on the inside) was a ditch with thick bulrushes. This also constituted optimal habitat for Tiger Snakes.

Discussion in terms of removing the bulrushes indicated problems removing this vegetation.

The best option would be it's complete removal, but failing this, staff should be made aware of the snake risks posed by it's retention.

Cracks and holes in buildings and walls at ground level should be eliminated. This will in turn eliminate impenetrable hiding spots for mobile snakes. This may be difficult in terms of the horticulture building, but should be possible elsewhere.

ELIMINATING SNAKES IN THE CARPARK AREA

This is also problematic and involves a decision by management as to whether or not it wants a sterile wildlife free area, or to retain an area of natural beauty, which will as a matter of course also have snakes.

Overgrown and dense ground cover should be removed and regularly trimmed to remove hiding places for snakes as best as possible.

This includes the dense bulrushes and other vegetation in the water proper and at the water's edge.

In terms of the rocks in the area, these should be filled in underneath as best as possible to remove optimal hiding spots for snakes.

The best means to do this is to dig under them, fill in the gaps with cement and then cover with dirt (thinly) so that the cement isn't noticeable.

Even a complete razing of the swamp area will not remove the likelihood of snakes in the area and so perhaps the best option is to make the area snake unfriendly (within reason) and then to deal with the problem as it arises.

DEALING WITH THE SNAKE PROBLEM

In essence, no amount of work and preparation will eliminate Tiger Snakes from the Thomas Embling Hospital and immediate environs.

Staff should be made aware of the problem and in areas where the public (and patients) are likely to go and encounter snakes, warning signs should be erected.

Staff should be trained in terms of dealing with snakes, including first aid and to that extent snakebusters will be happy to come to the hospital and do a full lecture on this at a pre-arranged time.

Management should also be aware of the likely seasonal snake occurrences (in that sightings each year tend to fit a well-defined pattern) and should have a management plan to reduce the snake friendliness of the habitat and garden beds within the hospital grounds and immediate surrounds.

In terms of the ditch on the south side of the hospital wall, management should seriously consider removing the sitting bodies of water and dense ground level vegetation, even though it was obviously planted to obscure the unsightly wall of the hospital from the people who would use the adjacent field.

Perhaps trees and other plants on stems could be planted and the ditch itself flattened to present a flat ground surface.

In terms of snake sightings, "snakebusters" should be called to remove them as and when they are seen.

Covering the ditch on the inside of the south wall, while expensive, may reduce the snake risk further, but still not eliminate it and frankly is probably not worthwhile.

LIABILITY ISSUES

Not being lawyers, snakebusters cannot give good legal advice on this.

However the following points are noted.

Vicroads were said to be liable in terms of two recent snake incidents in Melbourne. At Deer Park, they were alleged to be liable for a snakebite that occurred as a result of their failure to clear land that led to a person being bitten by a snake that was present on the land.

The ultimate outcome of that case, which got media reports on it, isn't known.

However following this incident, a man at Epping (Mr. Ken McDonald at 10 Lauren Court, Epping, Victoria) approached Vicroads to fix a fence and adjoining reservation where snakes had been seen and Vicroads paid up immediately. No questions were asked and they sim[ply paid up, which is contrary to the way that department usually operates.

This was in January 2004.

Snakes are a tricky area in terms of the law in that they are regulated ("protected") and therefore it is illegal to kill and interfere with them in any way, unless licenced.

Other than licenced snake removers like "snakebusters", persons with scientific or photographic permits and authorized wildlife officers, no one is allowed to catch, kill or interfere with reptiles in this state, probably meaning less than 100 out of the 4 million odd Victorians can legally interfere with (wild) snakes in any way.

In other words snakes and snakebite are a potential goldmine for lawyers and persons who may be bitten.

Hence, avoiding snakebite is the best option and thus the recommendation to post warning signs and to warn relevant people who may enter or use the hospital.

Noting the legal situation in terms of snakes, the general recommendation to have sighted snakes removed by snakebusters also seems the most sensible option as well, as and when needed.

FINAL (MAIN) RECOMMENDATIONS

         Remove Ivy and creeping vegetation within hospital grounds and replace plant beds with plants on stems as opposed to creeping varieties.

         Block holes at ground level on buildings as practicable and put wire over all drainage routes and seal in as much as to prevent snake movement via the drainage system into the hospital.

         Clear and modify as practical the swamp area near the carpark to reduce snake habitat, including reducing vegetation in and adjacent to the water bodies and on a regular basis to counter regrowth. Fill in gaps under rocks if possible.

         Consider removal of bulrushes within the hospital grounds.

         Have staff formally briefed by "snakebusters" in terms of snakes, snakebite and what to do when snakes are seen.

         Call "snakebusters" to remove snakes from grounds as and when seen. This is a 24 hour service.

 

REPORT DATED 26 JANUARY 2004

 

 

Snakebusters

PO Box 599 Doncaster, Victoria, 3108.

Phone: 0412 777 211

E-mail: go to:http://www.snakebusters.com.au/sbsboo1.htm">

http://www.snakebusters.com.au

 

END NOTES:

In the two year period since the completion of the report (to March 2007), three more snakes have been removed from the hospital complex, but all outside the walled area, indicating that the measures indicated in the recommendations have had at least some measure of success. The major recommendations had been adopted by the hospital management.

Non-urgent email inquiries via
the Snakebusters bookings page at:
http://www.snakebusters.com.au/sbsboo1.htm

Urgent inquiries phone:
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia:
(03) 9812 3322 or 0412 777 211

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