Our good friends, the snakes. Let them slither!
Wap! Wap! Swings from the cutlass. "Yuh miss it. It crawling away! Get it before it bite me or de family!" The neighbour has cornered a little horsewhip snake (pictured). "My lady is pregnant and it want to beat her!" The snake managed to escape this time, not without a couple of swings by the husband gallantly protecting his pregnant wife from a supposed beating from the snake. Snakes and humans are always in conflict. Most of the time the snake meets its untimely death at the hands of the cutlass (machete), a rock to its head, or by being purposely rolled over by a vehicle.
One of the common myths about horsewhip snakes is that they chase and whip pregnant women. The amount of lashes you get indicates how far along you are in your pregnancy. Hmmmmmm. For the record, snakes don't chase and beat pregnant women. They cannot tell if your wife is pregnant and even if the could, I doubt they would care very much. The dreaded horsewhip is non-venomous. They have no teeth (Leptophis sp.) and are an integral part of our ecoystem.
We refer to the dog as ‘man’s best friend’ but I would like to make a case that the snake is a pretty good friend as well. I will admit that I am very much a lover of creepy-crawlies, inclusive of spiders and bugs. I have been around snakes since childhood, keeping them as pets for more than ten years and later, as a medical professional, treating them. Certainly, some of them can give a nasty bite if cornered but their horrid reputation is very much undeserved. General consensus - a lot of us really despise these creatures and I've been told they make a person's skin crawl. I am not advocating that you turn into a snake lover, but understand they also have a very important role and are extremely beneficial to us. Give them the respect they deserve!
Trinidad and Tobago has 47 identified species of snakes, of which ONLY 4 are venomous. These are the Bushmaster or mapepire zanana (Lachesis muta muta), Fer-de-lance or mapepire balsain (Bothrops atrox) and two species of coral snake, large and small (Micrurus circinalis and Micrurus leminscatus diutius respectively) and none of these are found in Tobago. The likelihood of chancing upon any of these is low. They are rare and unless you decide to venture into their home, typically dense forest, or live in areas that have encroached into their habitat you are quite lucky if you spot one. Snakes found in gardens and lawns are unlikely to be one of the 4 listed.
We all are aware of the danger snakes pose to humans. However, venomous snake bites are rare and I am a bit tired of the obviously exaggerated stories of snakes attacking and trying to eat people. Most recent is a 20 ft yellow bellied puffing snake that supposedly ran one of our local CEPEP workers down. Everyone became cutlass crazy looking to chop this 20 ft beast into a million pieces. Just to clarify, the puffing snake (Pseustes sulphureus sluphureus) is not a venomous snake. Another exaggeration, it reaches maximum 3m (approx 9 ft) in length and it definitely does not run down people, as has been claimed in numerous stories.
Even if you are bitten, treatment is available and deaths are extremely uncomon. In my own experience treating hunting dogs bitten by venomous snakes, we have successfully treated the dogs with a great survival rate. In general snakes conserve venom for prey. When venomous snakes bite in self-defense, they will often deliver little or no venom (mild envenomation or a 'dry bite' respectively).
But I digress! What can snakes do for us?
In Trinidad and Tobago, everyone knows the Boa constrictor constrictor, locally called a macajuel. According to rough estimates, every macajuel killed saves the lives of about 3,000 rats. Thus, without snakes, these vermin are free to play. By the way, contrary to popular belief, they are non-venomous (i.e. no poison, as we say in Trinidad) and they don't eat humans!
Besides keeping the disease vermin under control (nature's biological weapon), we also benefit from medical wonders coming out of snake venom research. Snake venom is an exciting cocktail of enzymes and non-enzymatic compounds, proteins, carbohydrates and metals and continues to astound researchers with possibilities for treatment of various diseases. The medical possibilities of snake venom offer promising hope in dealing with diseases including cancer, tumour growth, Alzheimer’s, Lyme disease, hanta virus, leukaemia, clotting disorders and list goes on...
The next time you pick up your rock or cutlass (machete) to reign blows on these wonderful animals, please think twice. They make our lives better.
Live and let slither!
Healthy, Happy Animals - Healthy, Happy Communities