"It's like heroin," my boss explained to me as he pushed a key into the lock, then motioned for me to step back. "The more you use, the bigger a dose it takes to give you that rush. The hotter the snake, the hotter the thrill."
I don't know how much he knew about heroin, but I knew that he knew a lot about hot snakes. Within seconds of finishing his little speech, my boss opened the cage in front of him. Five seconds later, the end of his snake-stick held a writhing snake, long and lean, charcoal grey above and ashy pale below. A black mamba, one of the most feared snakes on the planet, notorious for its speed, its generally bad temper, and its highly potent neurotoxin. Still green around the gills and new on the job, I wasn't allowed to mess around with venomous snakes yet, certainly not mambas. I was allowed, however, to watch and learn.
In this case, it was over too quick to watch. Before I could even register the snake's presence, my boss had extricated it from its enclosure and transfered it to a large plastic trash can, the lid of which he carefully secured. I was now clear to clean and service the exhibit.
I was to see repeat performances often during my time at that zoo. Cage for cage, it was probably the deadliest building in any zoo in the country, with the two species of mambas being joined by eight species of cobra, a dozen species of rattlesnake, bushmaster, Gaboon viper, and a host of other venomous snakes. Some were the only specimens of their kind in captivity... which was usually a sign that the antivenom for that species wasn't especially well-developed yet.
Venomous snakes are easily among the most terrifying of zoo animals to work with. A tiny bite, so small that you might not even feel it, can have lethal results. Sure, other zoo animals - lions and polar bears and what not - can kill you outright. Those animals we typically don't go in with. The concept of training reptiles is still fairly new and not widely practiced, with snakes being the least-often trained. Usually, if you need to take care of a snake exhibit, you either do it with the snake present or, as my supervisor demonstrated with the mamba, you take the snake out first and secure it somewhere safe.
It's possible to free-handle a venomous snake, what I call Steve Irwin Style - pick it up with your bare hands, maybe grasping it behind the back of the head to keep your fingers safe. That's generally what I call a "Very Bad Idea." The speed, agility, and strength of a snake can astonish - for such relatively small animals, they seem to be made of pure muscle. Besides, the most secure place to hold a snake is behind the head which, ipso facto, means that, prior to grabbing it, you have to have your hands very close to the head... which is, of course, the bitey-end.
More often, venomous snakes can be maneuvered using tools. The most common is the snake-stick, a long metal rod terminating in a hook. I've used snake-sticks as long as a pencil for managing baby snakes, and I've used ones as long as my body and with a shaft thicker than my wrist to move giant pythons. The tool is a versatile one - you can use it to scoop a snake up, to push it back, to pin the head down so you can grab it, or to lift up a piece of exhibit furniture under which a snake may be hiding. When I studied snakes on the savannah of East Africa, I took my trusty snake-stick with me. It went wherever my hands dared-not venture.
Other tools include tongs, operated by a trigger at the other end of a long metal handle, which can be used to grasp a snake, or plastic tubing, which snakes can be induced to crawl through, allowing themselves to be handled on the outside. Heavy duty gloves can add an extra layer of protection, but reduce your dexterity. Keepers working with spitting cobras often wear goggles or welding masks to protect their eyes. At any rate, if you work with venomous snakes, there is going to be a time when there is nothing but air between you and an animal like a king cobra, which is capable of killing an adult Asian elephant with one bite.
When the time came for me to work the hot species, I definitely understood what my boss meant about the feeling. When I first opened the pygmy rattlesnake cage and heard that faint buzzing sound, I immediately felt a charge that wasn't there when I worked with any other snakes in the zoo. The pygmies were short and fat and didn't sit well on the hook; I almost dropped one on the floor of the reptile house as I transitioned them from exhibit to holding cage. I got the same charged, tense feeling as I moved them back minutes later. It was worrying - and this for a species with such a small, weak venom-yield that it's not considered physically capable of killing an adult human. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to work a taipan.
In time, I got to be more comfortable working with venomous species, though I never did graduate to the especially deadly species. I'm okay with that, though I certainly do admire and applaud the skills that my supervisor and the senior keepers were able to demonstrate when they worked the hot snakes in the zoo. I enjoyed taking care of venomous snakes - it made me feel like a little bit of a hero whenever I closed the door behind them - but I never wanted to do it so often that I took it for granted or got cocky.
When you play with fire, you play carefully. Otherwise, you get burned.