We saw our first snake of the season a few days ago. The dogs had been barking at the bottom of the steps near the laundry where there’s a drainage hole in the wall.
I saw a skinny black tail disappearing.
Uh oh. Red bellied black. It wasn’t a big one, probably around half a metre long, one of last year’s babies. But even a little one could kill a small Jack Russell Terrier as they’re born with a big starter set of venom.
This is the moment where the love of wild animals struggles with being the protector of a tame animal. It doesn’t help that snakes raise an automatic shudder in me, something that has nothing at all to do with what I know about them. I assume it’s just something I’ve inherited from distant ancestors who survived by not messing with them.
I started yelling at the dogs and for Craig. “As usual, when you need a herpetologist he’s nowhere to be found,” I muttered to myself as I ran around, trying to get a good look at where it went.
Luckily, we have been doing some work on getting the dogs to leave our new chicks alone, by shouting “Leave it!” and flailing about with a piece of poly pipe, which has given the dogs a bit of a phobia about pipe-shaped things, and an instant understanding of the shouted phrase. So the puppy Calypso immediately backed off.
We lost our dog Copper a year and a half ago to a large eastern brown snake (pseudonaja textilis). They are much more aggressive than a red-bellied black (pseudechis porphyriatis), and that brown was quite large, at least two metres long to my horrified eyes. Brown snakes are more cranky than blacks, but even the most passive elapid will react when a terrier is biting its tail.
The traditional method for dealing with snakes that threaten your animals around here is a blow from a garden implement, a whack with a length of poly hose, or a shotgun blast. Strictly speaking, that’s illegal as all snakes are protected. On the other hand, I didn’t have the skill to relocate it by pinning and catching it and the resident herpetologist who did have those skills, was, again, out of town. The brown snake foiled us anyway by hiding in a drain hole where we couldn’t reach it. I attempted to flush it out with a hose and encourage it to leave, but that failed completely due to lack of water pressure.
Not everyone treats them violently. The first live snake I saw was shown to all us kids by Les Coulton, Mum’s stockman. It was a small brown snake that he found in the open paddock and picked up carefully. “It’s a wild animal, that’s all” he said as we shuddered. “It’ll try to get away from you if you let it, and it won’t harm you unless you tease it. Most times you won’t even see it. ” Which was good advice. I’ve seen plenty more snakes since then, including a tiny beautiful (non-venomous) ring-neck snake we had as a pet in California, but I still don’t like having wild snakes around the house.
The big brown in the stone wall had probably been there for years, eating the rats from the garage and generally having a peaceful time. Until the arrival of the terrier.
Most of our neighbours have stories of losing dogs to snake bite. Some of them survived, but those were large dogs like kelpies that could hold out long enough to make it to the vet.
So I was doubtful about getting another small dog, or any dog, if it was just going to be bitten.
Then I found out about the possibility of training dogs to avoid snakes. I’d heard in California that you could do training with rattlesnakes, but that didn’t seem very helpful for silent brown snakes in Australia.
I contacted dog trainer Heike Hahner, a recommendation from the RiotAct website. We had a hilarious day with rubber snakes, a rather slow-moving live python and our nervous new puppy. The main process involves a lot of acting, screaming and generally making the dog aware that a snake is something to stay away from. It’s tricky to get it right and not just freak out and confuse the dog. I’m still not sure it would have worked on Copper who tended to attack anything that made her nervous, but it worked a treat on Kalbi, who’s a much more gentle soul.
Last summer we saw a medium-sized red belly, or rather, my nephew Alexander almost stepped on it as he was helping lift up the canoe it was hiding under. After he screamed (in a manly way) and dropped the canoe, the snake calmly went off into the river where it proceeded to hunt in the shallow water for the next half hour, unconcerned about the audience of fascinated humans. It alternated between whisking about in circles stirring up the sand, and lying still, looking just like a floating stick. We couldn’t tell if it caught anything, but it eventually left. We went swimming fifty metres upstream.
Black snakes like water, as their diet includes things like frogs as well as other snakes. In the hills, you tend to see more brown snakes who will go further from the water. Around our house, river one side, hills the other, is a bit of a crossover zone for both types.
Calypso the puppy was too young for the training last summer. We’d been talking about it recently, but not doing it. To be truthful, the idea of of the training is almost as disturbing to me as really seeing a snake. Craig’s field team put a rubber snake in his suitcase on their last trip. He just laughed, but I kept coming across it and getting a jolt. Anyway, with the real snakes waking up, we brought out the rubber snakes for some more shrieking and racing around looking panicked. Calypso is a much more sanguine dog than Kalbi, but she got the idea pretty clearly. Both dogs had their tails down for the next twenty-four hours, obviously worried.
If the worst happens, I have a snakebite kit that might help the dogs get to the vet.
For the moment, I can go back to remembering that black snakes are great to have around, because they eat other snakes, including young tigers. Tiger snakes (Notechis scutatis) are not just venomous but very cranky, killing cattle and horses for stepping near them in a paddock. I’d much rather have the mellow black snake. I’m less fond of browns. They can be aggressive, but they also tend to travel more widely and are less likely to stay around for a long time. Except if their main hole is in the garden.
From a distance, I appreciate what an amazing animal a snake is. Closeup, I’m more bothered.
The Australian Museum has a good site for general information about red-bellied blacks and other snakes.
Peter Street has a fantastic post with lots of photos and information about their behaviour.
WIRES has contacts in some areas for people who can come and remove unwanted snakes. A lot of areas don’t have anyone, however.