A Keeper's Tale, Part 4 of 5:: Hot Herps

Cantil--a hot herp. Photo by Hodari Nundu

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

Salvador took us on a private “tour” of the reptile house, to show us how to feed and handle the different snake species he kept.

Most of them were harmless, but some were extremely dangerous. The most intimidating was without a doubt, the Green Rattlesnake, also known as the West Coast Rattlesnake. Found only in Western Mexico, it is easily the largest rattlesnake in the country, sometimes rivaling even the Eastern Diamondback in size. It is a particularly ill tempered snake, and because of its large size, the amount of venom it can inject into its victim is impressive. Even though, being “hot herps,” the rattlesnakes were off limits for beginners, Salvador allowed us to join him in the enclosure to show us how to feed them, as long as we stayed behind him.

The snakes weren´t happy to see us. There were several of them in the enclosure, and every single one of them adopted an attack posture and started rattling its tail. The sound was amazingly loud, and incredibly intimidating.

A couple years later, I would read that the effect of a rattlesnake’s warning sound may be more powerful than we suspected. People who had never heard it before, and even people who didn´t know what a rattlesnake was, would become equally alarmed the moment they heard it.

But as intimidating as the rattlers were to my friend and me, they were not particularly scary to Salvador, who had worked with some of the deadliest species in the world.

He particularly remembered King Cobras. “They were very scary” he said “even to an experienced snake handler. Some of them would rise their heads vertically and look right at our eyes. And they can growl. They growl like a turbine when they’re mad”.

He also had close calls with mambas and Gaboon vipers. The zoo where he worked had both species together in the same enclosure. The keepers refered to that enclosure as “the terrarium of death.”

But although a mamba once slithered up his back and into his shoulder, forcing him to remain completely motionless for over half an hour before the snake decided to climb down, he was never bitten by any of those African species.

When I asked him what was the snake he feared the most, he didn´t hesitate.

“I have kept all kinds of snakes, and I can tell you something” he said “I would prefer to work with cobras or mambas anyday rather than with lanceheads”.


The Spanish name for the lancehead snake is nauyaca real, which can be roughly translated as “royal pitviper”. Its scientific name, infamous among herpetologists, is Bothrops asper.

It is the most dangerous snake in Latin America, and kills more people in Mexico than any other species. It has every trait that makes a snake dangerous: an aggressive, nervous temperament, a potent venom, the habit of approaching human settlements in search of rodents, and a proclivity to bite many times in a single attack, thus injecting huge amounts of venom. In rural areas where medical attention is difficult to get, most people bitten by this snake die, and those who survive are left horribly scarred or lose entire limbs to the creature’s highly necrotic venom.

There’s a legend, often repeated among snake enthusiasts around here, about a gigantic venomous snake (according to some versions, it was eight meters long), that was kept in the Guadalajara zoo and managed to injure or kill three keepers in a matter of seconds.

When my friend and I asked Salvador about this, he smiled.

“It was a lancehead, actually” he said “and it is true that it bit three handlers within seconds. They were trying to force-feed it, but they forgot that these snakes can bite even with their mouths closed. The fangs are very long and retractable, so they can stick them out of the mouth. That’s what this lancehead did; it used one of its fangs to scratch the handler that was grabbing its neck. The man released it in alarm, and the snake immediately turned in the air at the man grabbing the middle section of its body and bit his hand. When he let go, the snake fell to the ground and bit the third man who had been holding its tail. It was all over in seconds. All of the handlers lived, but one lost his hand. So in a way, the legend is true. The only part that was added was the bit about the snake being gigantic”.

After this conversation, Salvador showed us how to kill a rat to feed it to a snake. Live rodents are rarely given to snakes in zoos; rodents are more than capable of biting snakes and causing them serious injury. This rarely happens in the wild, where the rodent has the much preferable option of running away. In a small enclosure, however, rodents are no wimps. They will fight to the death to save themselves.

Before continuing I should probably mention that I don´t enjoy killing animals at all. I used to, though, when I was a kid. Me and my cat Pinky (in my defense, it was my sister who named him) would often team up to hunt insects in the house. I would swat the insects and Pinky would eat the corpses. Whenever we encountered a dangerous specimen, like a scorpion (scorpions kill hundreds of people in Mexico every year), Pinky would replace me as the main hunter and deal with the creature himself. Somehow, he always managed to avoid being stung. Together, we were the perfect pest-management team during those rainy months when insects of all sorts wandered into the house.

I would also capture insects for a collection I had. I would take the hapless insect and dip it into a jar with alcohol, alive. The insect would struggle for a few moments before going still. Eventually, I had a small museum of pickled cicadas, earwigs, scorpions and other arthropods, and would proudly show it to all my friends until my cat decided that it would be fun to smash all the jars and spill the foul-smelling contents all over my bed.

This all changed when I was 13, and a mouse wandered into our house. I immediately went after it, along with the cats. I don´t know how, but I got to the mouse before the cats did, and then, I used a dustpan to beat the unfortunate rodent to death.

Once it was death, I just sat there, staring at the motionless body. Before that moment, all the lives I had taken had belonged to insects. It is relatively easy to kill insects. They are small, they don´t have facial expressions and they usually don´t make a sound when you squish them to death. Yet the mouse, despite being small, was much more similar to a human. It bled profusely, and it squeaked in fear and in pain when I struck it with the dustpan.

It made me feel terrible about myself. Had my cats caught the mouse, its fate wouldn´t have been much better; Pinky, in particular, enjoyed playing with live mice before eating them. But at least he was meant to kill mice. He was a cat after all. I had no need to kill the mouse. Not in such a brutal manner, anyways.

That episode got me thinking about death a lot. Even insect collecting seemed wrong now. Insects, I figured, had naturally short lifespans, and it didn´t seem right to make them even shorter just so I could show their pickled corpses to people who really didn´t enjoy the sight anyways.

That was the end of my insect-collecting days. Nowadays, whenever I go hunting for bugs, it is with a camera. I must say, getting a good picture of a fantastic looking insect and then letting it fly away is much more rewarding than putting it into alcohol.

As for mice, whenever one gets into my house, well, that’s what cats are for. I just hope they don´t start feeling remorse too one day. 

 Next: Hope


  1. Wicked cobra pic :D

  2. I got that from an old book by the herpetologitst Raymond Ditmars. I assume it's staged. . . .

  3. I assumed the same :D

  4. I had to make a hard choice for The Book of Deadly Animals: this one, or the crow perched on a human skull? It seemed as if I should limit myself to one staged skull photo per volume.


Post a Comment


Show more