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Sunday, October 25, 2015

My Scariest Moment

Above anything else, October is known, of course, as the month of Halloween, our annual celebration of fear.  In that spirit, I've decided to share on of the scariest animal stories which has ever happened to me, in or out of the zoo.  I've had a handful of pretty terrifying moments over the course of my zookeeping career.  I've found myself in a fairly small enclosure with a fairly large bear who had figured out how to open his shift door while I was cleaning his exhibit.  I've had a careless colleague drop a rinkhals cobra directly on my feet.  I've already told the story of how a condor that I (foolishly) considered my friend tried to carve my forearm up like a Jack-o-lantern.

But the scariest animal encounter I've had, the one that left me most certain that , "Yep, this is it" didn't come from a zoo animal.  It came in a lonely patch of East African bush several years ago when I was still in college, studying abroad.

By noon of my first full day out in the bush, I was already getting plenty discouraged.  My field survey of East African reptiles and amphibians was off to a poor start; I’d scoured the bush surrounding the river for hours without finding anything more rewarding then a few agamas, and I was exhausted.  It was the hottest part of the day and I figured that most animals, at risk of overheating in the midday sun, would be retreating to someplace cooler.  They were doubtlessly smarter than I was.  Still, I was reluctant to go back to camp already with so little to show for myself.  I decided to cross a small river and search the opposite bank for a few minutes; then, I’d go back to camp, rest through the hottest part of the day, and then return to the field when it got cooler.

  With some difficulty, I climbed across the river on a narrow fallen log, and then staggered up the steep clay embankment on the opposite side.  I was just on the level ground again, not even having had time to straighten up, when I looked in front of me.  There, not ten feet ahead of me in the trail, was a snake, the single biggest I’d seen since coming to Africa.  Its skin was a drab olive gray, fading to pale white on the underside.  Its eyes were cold and black, like twin marbles set inside its coffin-shaped head.    My field guide was in my pocket, but I didn’t need to reach for it.  After all, you don’t spend any amount of time in the African wilderness without learning what a black mamba looks like.

The mamba lay half-coiled in the middle of the trail, its head raised slightly, looking straight at me.  It was a massive animal, probably ten feet from the tip of its snout to its tail, but in that moment it far bigger than that, approaching the size of a python.  It took me a moment to register the snake’s presence, and then I instantly backed up as far as I could without tumbling back down the embankment into the river.  I remembered hearing one of the old bush guides tell me, “Everyone thinks they’ve seen a mamba, but most of the time, they’re cracked.”  So I stared hard, expecting to suddenly see a branch or a vine, or maybe an abandoned garden hose that someone had hauled out into the middle of the bush – but it was still a snake… and that snake was still a black mamba. 

It would be hard to over-exaggerate the role that the black mamba has in the psychology of the African bush.  It inspires fear in people that no other dangerous animal – neither lion nor leopard nor buffalo – can match.  Some tribes said that mambas were the returned spirits of mighty kings of old.  Other tribes would abandon a village if a mamba took up residence in it.  One of the most venomous snakes on earth, the mamba’s potent neurotoxin can cause paralysis and death with just a drop or two.  Combined with its lightening speed – often considered the fastest snake on earth -, great size, and nervous, irritable nature, it’s a very formidable creature.  Ever since coming to Africa and expressing interest in snakes, I’d been flooded with stories of mambas.  I’d heard of them slipping down chimneys at night and systematically killing everyone inside.  I’d heard of them racing down motor cars and attacking the drivers.  All of these stories I’d dismissed (and still do) as legends.  I wasn’t too sure at this particular moment, though.  I was easily within striking distance of what many considered the most dangerous snake in the world.  He had me dead to rights.  It was downright terrifying… but also thrilling.

After assuring myself that the snake wasn’t preparing itself for a sudden rush, I decided that one of us needed to get out of the other’s way.  I wasn’t about to impose upon the good will of snake any more than I already had, so I walked off into the grass, cutting a wide arc around the mamba.  I’d gone maybe thirty feet before I felt the urge – I couldn’t be so close to such an amazing animal without going back for a picture.  So I turned around and walked back to where the snake had been, but it was already gone, having slithered into the tall grass.  I sat down on a log near the river and thought of all of the tall tales that everyone had told me the fearsome black mamba - about vengeful snakes hunting down innocent, unsuspecting humans.  I decided that everyone was full of crap.  As close as we’d been just a few seconds before, I reasoned that if the snake had wanted me dead, I’d have died already.

After college I went on to become a zookeeper, working with all sorts of animals but taking a special interest in reptiles.  I’ve taken it as an opportunity to introduce people to animals that they might otherwise hate or fear – snakes most of all – and shown them that they aren’t evil monsters, hungry for human blood… they’re just animals, just like us, doing their best to survive.  Some people are willing to be convinced, others can’t make room in their hearts and minds for snakes as anything other than legless killing machines.  

To them, I can tell one simple truth – from the age of twenty onward, every day of my life has been a gift to me from one benevolent mamba.

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