Mashudu Netsianda, Senior Reporter
FOR a majority of people, the mere sight of a snake freezes the blood and sets off panic bells in the brain.
The slithering serpentine movement, lidless eyes and flickering tongue can be enough to induce a heart attack.
Not for Mr Norman Crooks (67) of Bulawayo.
When others swiftly take any direction that leads away from the sometimes venomous reptiles, Mr Crooks is happiest going towards snakes.
Armed with skill and a inyanga’s concoction that was infused into his blood, he has survived dozens of snake bites.
What started as a childhood pastime 60 years ago has today turned into an income generating project for the Bulawayo-based self-trained snake handler.
Besides being an unusual and daring experience, snake handling is a passion, which Mr Crooks developed at a tender age. He has always gone out of his way to spread awareness about the importance of all animals in the ecosystem.
At the age of seven, Mr Crooks had his first experience of catching a snake. He later developed an interest in professionally handling snakes, which subsequently led to him studying their feeding habits and living conditions.
Mr Crooks caught his first dangerous snake at the tender age of 13 and it was a puff adder. It became the greatest moment for his life.
Over the years, he nurtured his passion and consummated his knowledge before deciding to go commercial 15 years ago.
He had realised there was a niche for turning his hobby into a money-making venture.
He has, however, been doing snake removal services in Bulawayo for many years free of charge.
Today, Mr Crooks is one of the country’s most experienced and sought-after snake handlers. He is believed to have the largest snake collection in Zimbabwe with 60 different species both local and exotic. Mr Crooks prides himself in being the only snake handler in Zimbabwe with a yellow anaconda in his collection, which he imported from the United States.
A yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus), which is also known as the Paraguayan anaconda is one of the largest snakes in the world found in South America. It is non-venomous and kills its prey by constriction.
Anacondas feature mostly in Western movies and National Geographic television channel documentaries.
Most of the snakes that he keeps at his house in Burnside suburb are exotic, with a few local ones such as the black mamba, python and mole snakes. Notably, species which form part of his collection include white lipped tree vipers, Mexican mountain king snake, Californian king snake, corn snakes and Uracoan rattlesnakes. Others are gaboon vipers, diamond back snakes, Pacific rattlesnakes and Dumeril’s boa, a non-venomous boa species found in Madagascar.
While in most African countries, a snake depicts evil practices with many people resenting snakes, for Mr Crooks it is, however, a different story.
“I had my first experience at the age of seven when I started catching snakes. When my parents realised that I was taking my hobby seriously, they took me to a local female inyanga and she applied some substance into one of the veins in my wrist,” he said.
“Snake handling does not necessarily require a special skill, but the trick is that the handler has to ensure that he or she does not get bitten as well as ensuring that the snake itself is not injured during the process of capturing it so that it can be safely released into its natural habitat.”
Although some snake handlers in the country charge between US$10 and US$20 for snake removal services, Mr Crook also does it for free as part of community service.
“There are many tactics when it comes to catching snakes such as tailing where you hold a hooked stick in your right hand, hook the neck and immediately catch the tail. I find it safe and also put protective shoes since snakes mostly bite the lower leg,” he said.
“I have been bitten many times by cobras, puff adders, night adders and a king brown snake from Australia. However, besides the infection, the bites have not affected me. Four months ago, part of my finger tip had to be cut off after I was bitten by a snake in the United States.”
Mr Crooks believes snake handling is actually one of the unique types of conservation work that often gets overlooked. He said snakes play important role in terms of preserving the delicate balance in the ecosystem.
“I have around 60 species both local and exotic. However, as an expert in this field of snake handling, I have always tried to educate fellow human beings to preserve reptiles in general, educating them that snakes like other animal species have a role to play in nature such as curbing rat and mice infestations,” he said.
Mr Crooks said snake handlers have a role to impart knowledge to communities on the importance of conserving snakes, particularly endangered species such as the gaboon vipers, which are highly venomous but docile. In India they are also being used in developing a cure for cancer. Anti-venom is also developed from them.
“As human encroachment on rural land increases, snake populations are decreasing. People kill them at will and some are killed regularly on the roads where they will be lying to get warmth at night and during the day. In fact, globally all snakes are becoming endangered,” he said.
He feeds his snakes with day-old chicks, rats, mice, lizards and frogs and spends about US$500 every month for their upkeep.
Mr Crooks also operates a Victoria Falls-based company called Snake Pit at Crocodile Farm, which he says used to generate about US$1 500 per month before the outbreak of Covid-19, which affected tourism due to global travel restrictions.
However, with Government having given the entire tourism sector green light to reopen, including airports for both domestic and international flights, Mr Crooks hopes his business will get back on track to growth. Every year, Mr Crooks takes schoolchildren on an educational tour of his facility in Bulawayo.
“My organisation is based on educating the public on snakes, identification of snakes and even handling of snakes. I also train people to handle and remove snakes from people’s houses in the cities and rural areas,” he said.
He warned that due to the environmental challenges which include deforestation, land degradation through mining activities, veld fires and random killing by human beings, there could be no snakes in the not-too-distant future.
“The population of snakes is on rapid decrease; some species are now rare such as pythons and black mambas. Cobras and puff adder populations are also on the decrease because they are close to human contact,” said Mr Crooks.
According to Mr Crooks, the deadliest snakes in Zimbabwe are the black mambas and their neurotoxic venom is extremely potent such that it paralyses the nervous system causing the lungs to shut down and eventual leading to death in less than an hour if untreated. Black mambas are big, agile and aggressive snakes.
He said while snakes are key players in the ecosystem, their bites can be dangerous and urged snake handlers not to be complacent when dealing with snakes.
“In some cases, people show worse symptoms to the venom after being bitten many times. About 20 percent of all humans will get a serious reaction to snake venom and this is called anaphylactic reaction, which can kill you in 15 minutes,” said Mr Crooks.
“So, yes, snake handlers must not be complacent when dealing with snakes because 90 percent of all snakebites, apart from India and Africa, are people handling or trying to kill them. There are also many friendly snakes, but they do not like to be picked up like most wild creatures.”
Mr Crooks said other deadly snakes in Zimbabwe include cobras and puff adders, which have got cytotoxic venom that destroys body cells.
“If one is bitten and is not treated immediately, the limb may be amputated. It is responsible for many snake bites in Africa. Cobras carry neurotoxic venom that affects the breathing system. These snakes bite the lower part of the leg. First aid must always be practised when one is bitten by any snake,” he said.
Mr Crooks said snakes are usually active during summer because it is their breeding time mostly and also food will be plenty such as frogs. In the forest, black mambas usually hide in rocks and pythons prefer a quiet environment. — @mashnets