Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/August 1888/Something About Snakes

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IN writing about snakes an apology must be offered for beginning with what may seem to be a boastful statement; but it is unavoidable, as it is my chief justification for putting pen to paper.

Therefore it must be avowed that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, the snakes have never had a worse enemy than they have found in me, and it came to pass in this way. In the year 1856-'57, being one of the secretaries to the Government of Bengal, I obtained the consent of the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Frederick Halliday, to the issue of an order authorizing the payment of a reward of sixpence for every poisonous snake whose dead body should be produced before a district magistrate in Bengal. This was the beginning of the campaign against snakes in India, and my hand was responsible for it. It was subsequently backed up by the influence of Sir Joseph Fayrer, the greatest living authority on snakes. From that day forth, with occasional intermissions, the system of giving rewards has spread from province to province, until the total number of venomous snakes killed throughout British India in 1886 exceeded four hundred thousand. If it be admitted that, during the last thirty years, the average number of poisonous snakes killed has amounted to only one hundred thousand per annum, a child can calculate how many million snakes have to denounce me as the originator of the mischief and crusade against them.

Why, it may be asked, was such wrath against snakes kindled in me? The explanation is peculiar, and may not be the true one, but it happened that when I was a very small child, my mother's brother, the Rev. Matthew Arnold,[1] was bitten on the ankle by a viper at Slatwood's, in the Isle of Wight, and the story went that his life was in great danger, the whole of his body turning black gradually from the feet upward, until the blackness came as high as his heart, when it stopped and began to abate, until it gradually disappeared as the virulence of the poison wore out. This story made a grave impression on the juvenile minds of myself and my brothers. Not long afterward we were taken to stay with an aunt at Eaglehurst, in Hampshire, and somewhere down on the beach, toward Calshot Castle, I found a snake lying on the grass, which, being an "animosus infans," I picked up and brought to our nurse. Luckily for me the snake was dead, but according to the fashion of those days I was afterward soundly flogged, to teach me not to play with snakes again. From either of these causes it may have come to pass that an antipathy to snakes was engendered in my heart.

My cousin Frank Buckland, with whom I was for some time at school as a boy, had a fondness for keeping snakes in his pockets, which was not shared by his schoolfellows, including me. However this may have been, I have little recollection of anything about snakes at that time, except that when I was a boy at Eton there was a large snake exhibited one year at Windsor fair, which pleased our juvenile fancy, as we were glad to see a snake as described by Virgil positis novus exuviis, and we were delighted to buy, for a very fancy price, a piece of the old skin that it had shed. The next time that I met a snake the meeting was bad for the snake. A friend was driving me in his buggy in the suburbs of Calcutta with a fast-trotting horse, when a large snake tried to cross the road in front of us. But the horse, not seeing or not heeding it, trotted on, and a wheel of the buggy cut the snake in half. We pulled up to examine the remains, and it turned out to be only a large but harmless water-snake.

It is hardly credible how long a time a man may live in India without seeing snakes in his house, unless he looks about diligently for them. Of course there is more chance of seeing them out of doors, and especially out snipe-shooting, as the snake is an amphibious sort of creature, with a special appetite for a juicy young frog, whose home, not always a very happy one, is in the rice-fields. What with the long-legged birds of the crane species that stalk through the water, and the snakes who glide about in the mud, or lie on the little earthen ridges which divide the rice-fields for irrigation purposes, the frogs have a bad time of it. One afternoon I was walking along one of the earthen ridges between the rice-fields, looking for snipe on either side of me, when a few yards in front of me there reared up three cobras, facing me with hoods erect, and evidently "meaning venom." I fired a charge of snipe-shot into them, and there was a great confusion of heads and tails and bits of bodies, so that it would have been hard to put a whole snake together again. This gave me a useful lesson to keep a good lookout. One day I was out shooting with a friend who trod on a snake, which promptly curled round his leg and tried to bite through his gaiter. His gaiter was perfectly snake-proof, but he did not think of that, and his efforts to shoot the snake without hitting his own leg were so ludicrous that it was hardly possible not to laugh, until we could hit the snake on the head with a loading-rod and make it quit my friend's leg.

Once we were spending a holiday at a little bungalow at the seaside, to which we used to go occasionally for change of air, and sea-bathing if the tide permitted it. We were walking along the sandy beach, when we saw a large cobra, about five feet long, with a bird in its mouth, making off through some light hushes, where it had probably seized the bird, though it had not had time to swallow it. We very soon disabled the snake by a blow on the back; but as it was by no means dead we secured it with a small rope, and dragged it into the portico of the bungalow for the sake of trying experiments with it. We sent for one of the numerous village dogs called pariahs, but the snake would not look at the dog. A fowl was then brought and placed with its legs tied, near the snake's head. The snake revived a little, and made a dart at the fowl, but the bird evaded it, and struggling to its feet it gave the cobra a fierce peck on the head, which quite decided the battle. The fact was that the snake was too much injured by the blow on the spine that had disabled it; and, moreover, it had probably spent its freshness and most deadly venom in killing the small bird which it had seized before we saw it. Many years afterward I saw a cobra bite a fowl, and turned to look at my watch to see how long it would be before the poison took effect. As I looked back again toward the fowl it fell down quite dead, within thirty seconds from the time it was bitten. This occurred in the house of a friend who had engaged an itinerant snake-charmer to exhibit snakes to a party of guests. Several cobras, deprived of their poisonous fangs, had been exhibited in the usual manner, when the snake-charmer stated that he had with him a snake of which the poisonous fangs were intact, and he offered to show it. He dealt with it very carefully with a forked stick in producing it from a basket, and he was equally cautious when he placed the fowl near enough to the snake to be bitten by it. What the result of the bite was to the fowl has been already told. There can be little doubt that if this cobra had managed to bite its keeper or any of the spectators, with its fangs fully charged with fresh venom, it would have been almost if not quite impossible to save their life.

It is always expedient in India to have a dog or a cat or a mungoose (a sort of ichneumon) about the house to keep away snakes, or to draw attention to them when they are crawling about. My wife's dog probably saved her life by barking at two snakes which had got into her dressing-room. A cat with kittens once drew my attention, by her extraordinary antics, to a large cobra, which she was trying to keep away from her young ones. The mungoose is the professional enemy of the snake, and goes for him at once to kill him, and perhaps to eat him. There is no valid foundation for the belief that the mungoose has recourse to an antidote to protect itself against a snake's venom. The mungoose relies on his own agility and sharp teeth, and on the coarse hair of his skin, which will avert most snake-bites. But if the snake gets well home, so as to lodge his poison in the mungoose's skin, that mungoose will surely die. It is not dissimilar to the case of the common village pigs in India, which are well known as scavengers and carrion-eaters. They will kill and eat any snake that comes in their way, and the hide of their hard and hairy bodies and legs is almost snake-proof. But if a cobra bites a pig on a soft place, so as to plant his poison under the skin, that pig will surely die.

The python, or boa constrictor, is comparatively common in Bengal, and sometimes grows to a great size. The first one that I saw was said to be twenty -four feet long, but it had been dead for several days, and the stench from it was longer than the street in which it was being exhibited to a crowd of admiring natives, and I could not venture to measure it. I saw another, which was said to be twenty-one feet long, being carried dead through the street of Dacca, but was unable to stop to measure it for myself. An officer, whose veracity I did not mistrust, told me he had found one in Cachar twenty-five feet long, which had committed suicide by swallowing a buck hog-deer, of which the horns injured and cut through the intestines of the snake before the gastric juices could soften the horns. There was a plentiful supply of pythons at the Zoölogical Gardens in Calcutta. One large one, which measured nearly eighteen feet, sat most patiently for more than a month over a batch of its eggs, and it was hoped that her perseverance and motherly affection would be rewarded by a young brood. But for some unknown reason the eggs were all addled. During her long incubation the mother snake was never seen to quit her eggs; and she would take no kind of food, although rats and chickens were offered to her from day to day.

It is not every one who has seen a python take a meal. It is usually averse to dead food; but it is very partial to a live rabbit or a chicken or a guinea-pig or by preference a rat. The python seems to know that the rat will try to escape, and he gives it no time or quarter. With a rapidity that can hardly be conceived, he seizes the rat with his mouth, and the fatal coil passes round the creature, squeezing all life out of it, and reducing the body to the form of an elongated sausage, which the snake lubricates with its own slime and swallows entire. If a fowl is put into a python's cage, the snake sometimes seems to take no notice, and the frightened bird, finding that no harm comes to it, begins to ruffle its feathers and to peck about, occasionally trying its beak on the snake's skin. But after a while the end of the python's tail may be seen to quiver with a strange emotion, while the small black beady eye is fixed upon the fowl. Suddenly there is a convulsion. The snake has moved and the fowl has disappeared, and can only be discovered by the end of a feather or two protruding from the coils in the python's neck which have crushed the bird's life out. In its natural state the python will catch a deer or a wild pig, and crush it in the powerful coils of its neck. There is a well-authenticated story of a large python having caught two wild sucking-pigs simultaneously, crushing both with the same coil of its neck. In the case of the python mentioned above, which was killed by the horns of the buck that it had swallowed, the snake must have been able to break all the bones of the body, but the stag's horns were probably too sharp and pointed to be easily crushed, and the snake rashly took the chance of digesting them in its stomach. No stories of a python killing a man ever came to my knowledge, but one of the keepers at the Calcutta Zoölogical Gardens had his arm much injured one morning by a python coiling itself on it and squeezing it severely before the man could be rescued.

It has been mentioned that large rewards are paid throughout India for killing venomous snakes. The actual number of snakes for which rewards were paid in 1886 was 417,596, and the sum paid was 25,360 rupees, which is a little more than a penny each in the depreciated silver currency. These rewards are almost invariably paid, or ought to be paid, by the English magistrates themselves, after examining the dead snakes. Numerous attempts are made to pass off harmless snakes as poisonous snakes; and a highly educated native official will rarely condescend to allow a dead snake to come too closely between the wind and his nobility, to enable him to distinguish between the poisonous and the nonpoisonous snakes. If the rewards were not paid by an English officer, a considerable portion of them would probably be intercepted by unscrupulous native subordinates before they reached the man who killed the snake.

When the Duke of Argyll was Secretary of State for India, he, as a student of natural history, took a special interest in the question of killing poisonous snakes. And there came to him one day at the India Office the cunning inventor of a machine called an asphyxiator, by which it was easily demonstrated that the snakes could be killed in large numbers in the holes in which they dwell in India. It was not difficult to show to his grace that when the asphyxiator was applied to a rabbit-hole the rabbit must either bolt or be suffocated. The snake would be treated in the same way as a rabbit. So the duke ordered some twenty asphyxiators, and sent them out to different parts of India. It happened that I was employed near Calcutta, and the Government of Bengal were pleased to order me to make a trial of the consignment of asphyxiators, which they regarded as so many white elephants. The asphyxiators were unpacked, and the instructions which accompanied them were read. There was a sort of fire-box in which a pestilently smelling paper was to be burned. There was a wheel to be turned, so as to send the smoke from the burning paper through a funnel into a long nozzle which was to be inserted into the snake's hole. This, it will be seen, required the services of two men, one to keep up the fire and turn the wheel, and the other to direct and hold the nozzle-pipe. It was also requisite that a third man should stand by with a stick, to kill the snake bolting from its hole. We turned out with the apparatus properly manned, lighted the fire to get up smoke, and applied the nozzle to a hole in a bank near the stable, which was supposed to hold a snake. The smoke was injected, and out there bolted a terrified rat. The man with the stick struck at the rat and broke the nozzle-pipe. The man at the nozzle-pipe jumped back against the man who was turning the wheel, and in their fright they both tumbled down. The rat escaped, but if it had been a snake instead of a rat it is very probable that one of the three operators might have been bitten. The men lost confidence in the machine, and declined to work it. It was taken indoors, and put into an anteroom, where the native night-watchman usually took up his quarters. One cold night the watchman closed the doors of the room and lit a quantity of the medicated paper to warm himself. In the morning a well-asphyxiated watchman was found, but luckily he was brought round with deluges of cold water. This, however, was the end of the official career of the Duke of Argyll's snake-asphyxiator in Bengal.

Although most people have a natural aversion to snakes, and would on no account touch them, there are some persons who are accustomed to handle snakes (tractare serpentes), and will pick up a wild poisonous snake from the ground with impunity. George Borrow, the author of "The Gypsies in Spain," had this faculty; and I knew two officers, one of whom was a captain in a Scotch regiment, while his brother was the doctor, who said that this faculty of handling snakes had been born in them. In a work published not long ago by Mr. F. B. Simson, a retired Indian civilian, he gives the following prescription for catching cobras: "When you come upon your cobra, make him rear up and expand his hood. He generally does this quickly enough; but should he delay, whistle to him, imitating the snake-charmers. He will then certainly raise his head. Then with a small cane or stick, or the ramrod of a gun, gently press his head to the ground. The snake will not object; he seems rather to like it. When you press his head lightly to the ground with the stick in your left hand, you should seize the snake firmly with your right, close behind the head, holding his neck rather tightly; then let go the stick and catch hold of the tail. The snake is powerless, and you can do what you like with it. You should have an earthen pot brought and let the snake pass into it, as snakes will always go into any dark place." On the whole this prescription does not seem inviting. I have never tried it, and should hardly care to see any one try it.

Mr. Simson says that he had an elephant-driver, or mahout, who was a great snake-catcher and very reckless. He writes thus: "I never saw him press down the snake with a rod such as I have described, but he caught numbers of snakes of all sorts, and sent them alive to his house. His movements were so rapid, and generally in jungle and with his back to me, that I never made out exactly why he did not get bit. He used to jump off his elephant, leaving the animal in my guidance; in a moment afterward he had the snake's neck in his hand. He said that he caught them by their tails, swung them under his arm, and held them there, while he slipped his hand up to the back of the head. He then gave the snake some of his clothing to amuse himself with, and on which to expend its venom. He then wrapped the reptiles up in a loose cloth and took very little trouble with them. I have seen him catch snakes scores of times, but I rather discouraged him, as I did not like the idea of having live venomous snakes at large, or even in earthen pots or boxes. At the same time he received good prices for his snakes."

Some people who are used to handle snakes seem to lose all feeling of apprehension regarding them. Sir Joseph Fayrer, whose work styled "Thanatophidia" contains the most perfect colored plates and descriptions of the principal venomous snakes, had no fear of them. But he was very nearly bitten one day. He and a friend were busy examining the peculiar anatomy of a portion of a cobra's tail. The cobra was in a box, and a native assistant was supposed to be holding down the lid of the box so as to allow only the tail to protrude. Somehow the native became careless, and he relaxed his hold on the lid, so that the cobra suddenly put out its head to see what Sir Joseph Fayrer was doing with its tail. Luckily it was more pleased than offended at the liberties which were being taken with its tail, but it was unpleasant for Sir Joseph Fayrer to find his face almost touching the cobra's mouth. Dr. Richards was another officer who assisted Sir Joseph Fayrer in his experiments with snakes. Dr. Richards came one day to see a lady patient at my house. He arrived in a palanquin which was put down in the portico. He went to the lady's room and paid her a brief visit; and when he came out of the room he went to the palanquin and brought out a large cobra which he had brought over to show me, in order to prove by experiments in my presence that a particular kind of wood, which a native fakir declared to be an antidote to snake-poison, was of no value. It is unnecessary to recapitulate the experiments, but his familiarity with the deadly snake was quite alarming. I could not help wondering what his lady patient would have said if she had known that he had brought a snake with him to the house, for she was terribly nervous about snakes.

The snake-house in the Zoölogical Gardens in the Regent's Park is a most perfectly designed building for keeping the snakes in health, and for exhibiting them to the public. The late King of Oude had built a snakery in the gardens of his palace at Garden Reach, near Calcutta. It was an oblong pit about thirty feet long by twenty feet broad, the walls being about twelve feet high, and perfectly smooth, so that a snake could not climb up. In the center of the pit there was a large block of rough masonry, perforated so that it was as full of holes as a sponge. In this honey-combed block the snakes dwelt; and when the sun shone brightly they came out to bask or to feed. His majesty used to have live frogs put into the pit, and amused himself by seeing the hungry snakes catch the frogs. When a large snake catches a small frog, it is all over in an instant; but if a smallish snake catches a largish frog, so that he can not swallow it at once, the frog's cries are piteous to hear. Again and again I have heard them while out shooting, and have gone to the bush or tuft of grass from which the piercing cries came—sometimes in time, sometimes too late to save poor froggy, though the snake generally got shot. As a final story let me tell how a frog has been seen to turn the tables on the snake. Two gentlemen in Cachar some years ago saw a small snake seize a small frog and attempt to swallow it. But suddenly a large frog jumped forward, seized the snake's tail, and began to swallow the snake. How the affair might have ended can not be told, because my friends imprudently drew near to watch the combat, when the frogs and the snake took alarm, and the big frog disgorged the snake's tail, and the snake released the little frog, and they all scuttled off. But the tale is perfectly true, and both the gentlemen who saw it are still alive; and I only regret that it was not my good luck to see the affair with my own eyes.—Longman’s Magazine.

  1. Brother of Dr. Arnold.