In the sweltering heat of June in Mysore, Karnataka, Simon Keys and Siouxsie Gillett are busy attending to calls to rescue snakes that may have entered a yard or a home. The duo, who are co-hosts of the popular reality show Snakes in the City on National Geographic channel, were in India recently to shoot for season 9.
Keys and Gillett, whose show has largely been based in Durban, South Africa, believe that Mysore and Durban have nearly similar landscape in terms of greenery and open fields. No wonder Keys was looking forward to encountering the ‘King Cobra’ in the wild.
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Incidentally, Season 8 of the show was released earlier this week, where Keys, who describes himself has ‘snake wrangler extraordinaire’ and Gillett, a professional herpetologist and snake handler, are training an apprentice to catch venomous snakes safely. While the format continues to be the same, Keys says: “Every day is different. That’s what makes the show so well. It’s not about ‘oh we caught 10 black Mambas’. We are catching them in a truck or school or a ceiling. Snakes end us up in very bizarre places.”
In an interview with Lounge, the Durban-based Keys and Gillett, who have a snake sanctuary of 84 snakes in their home, talk about how similar and different snakes in Mysore and Durban are, how they are trying to throw a positive light on snakes and what to keep in mind if one plans to bring home a snake as a pet.
How was your experience of dealing with Indian snakes? Why Mysore?
Gillett: We did a lot of research and to be honest, we could have filmed the show anywhere else in India. However, we found there were lot of snake situations here (Mysore), and some great snake catchers as well. So, we ended up here, and we are very pleased.
Mysore is similar to Durban in terms of snakes entering homes and schools. There is a need for snake catchers and rescuers, and there are people doing the same thing that we do in Durban. Also, you have got incredible species of beautiful snakes, not just venomous, here. We thought it would be nice to show them to the world.
What are the similarities and difference you found between rescuing snakes in Durban and Mysore?
Keys: The weather is similar to Durban – in that it’s humid, hot and that’s what reptiles love. The environment is almost identical but Mysore has more abundance of snakes, I think. There are pockets of bush, parks and open fields and then there’s the dense city. But what’s refreshing to find is that, most of the times, people are way more chilled when they find snakes here. They don’t harm the snake; they watch the snake and wait for the snake catcher to arrive to take it away.
Gillett: Also, after we catch snakes we get lots of refreshments. I am vegetarian so, it’s amazing. (laughing)
What are some of the essential equipment you carry along always?
Gillett: Like any other profession, we too have our tools like hooks and tongs, pillowcases, snake bags, torches very important.
Keys: I always carry a knife because snakes get stuck in things where I might have to cut the snake loose. Sometimes, if the snake has done something really bizarre, you may need a shovel, screw driver, hammer or chisel.
Gillett: Interestingly though, we didn’t use snake tongs much here unlike Durban. We mostly used the hook-and-tail method to capture the cobras. That was enough. Also, our filming crew is first aid trained for snake bites and how to deal with different venoms.
A snake breed you have been looking forward to encountering in India?
Keys: It has to be the King Cobra. They don’t get any bigger or impressive than that. I have worked with them in the past but never in the wild. So, it’s definitely one of my top 10 list.
What can possibly done to reduce the fear and misconceptions around snakes. What will help further at the grassroots level?
Gillett: The volume of people here and volume of snakes are pretty similar to other (developing) countries. And so, the key thing here is how to avoid snake encounters and getting bitten. We keep telling people that there are lot of things they can do to prevent snakes from coming. For instance, don’t throw litter or rubbish around your home as that attracts rodents, which in turn attract snakes. Don’t have wood piles or tyres in your garden as these are places for snakes to hide.
Ensure trees don’t touch the house as it can provide easy access to tree-dwelling snakes. You can also put a mosquito net on your door, and wear shoes instead of walking barefoot. Not that these things can always protect you but you can do certain things to prevent bites.
Tell us about your most challenging rescues?
Keys: The one that stands out is when I crawled into a tunnel to rescue a quite a big Python. It was in a private land and was eating the chickens and as there were small children too, the locals didn’t really want it there. So, my cameraman and I decided to look into this tunnel.
We reached a point where the tunnel got very narrow and the place was crumbling. I am not claustrophobic but I did think if this was worth my life. If it had come down, I wouldn’t have made it out of there. But I pushed myself and rescued the snake.
What impact has the show made in changing the perception towards snakes?
Gillett: There is a huge difference in people’s reaction to snakes starting out in Season 1 through to now. The reason I can say that we are saving the snakes around the world is because of the fan mails we get. We have people who have said how their husband would normally shoot a snake if one appeared in their yard. However, after watching the show, they realised to leave it be, and it will slither out without causing any harm. That’s such a personal achievement for both of us.
What’s your advice to people who want to keep snakes as pet?
Keys: We don’t have problem with people keeping exotic pets as long as the animal is cared for in the right manner. For instance, if someone wants to keep a Python, as long as the person looks after it and able to give it the correct habitat, it’s not an issue. Sometimes, the animal is better off in captivity then they would be in the wild in certain places around the world.
However, do your research before getting an exotic pet and ask yourself whether you can look after that animal, how long is that animal going to live, and so on.
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