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Don’t drink and fondle a snake, mate
Darwin’s snake catcher handles the most venomous serpents on the planet. And, he tells Chris Haslam, trying to impress the birds with one can be fatal.
I’m standing somewhat warily on the front porch of a wooden shack in Darwin, capital of Australia’s torrid Northern Territory. Before me is 23-year-old Chris Peberdy, Darwin’s official snake catcher, and he’s not alone.
The 7ft king brown snake he’s holding up is writhing like a fireman’s hose, doubling back on itself in medusan contortions as it tries with all its might to bite its way out of trouble. Although a single nip from this creature contains enough venom to kill about 125,000 mice, 20 horses and any number of overconfident herpetologists, Chris seems unperturbed.
“Nineteen of the last 26 people to die from snakebite in Oz were bitten by these fellas,” he notes, and steps smartly backwards as the snake lunges for his throat. “Steve Irwin was a great man — really loved his snakes — but he taught a generation of Aussies a lot of bad habits.”
He kicks the lid from a plastic dustbin and lowers the serpent inside, then turns as though to pass on a gem of inside information. “You know what? After a night on the piss I leave the snakes alone, mate.”
Like looking for a gas leak with a lighter, drinking and snake handling would appear to be a rather obviously lethal combination. Chris’s former business partner narrowly escaped death after being nailed on the chest by a taipan — the second most venomous snake in the world. “Trying to impress a bird again,” shrugs Chris. “He had a bottle of Jim Beam in one hand and the snake around his neck.” Antivenin, made by injecting poison into horses and extracting the resulting mix, saved his life, but not — apparently — his sanity.
“The mad bastard went off and joined the Foreign Legion after the bite,” says Chris. “He thought it’d be safer. Mate, wrapping a taipan around your neck is like putting your nuts in a blender and flicking the switch on the off-chance you won’t get nailed. Mess with snakes and it’s not a matter of if you’re going to get bitten, it’s simply a matter of when.”
Such was the fate of Chris’s teacher and former city snake catcher, the late Graham Gow. The painted signs for his snake park are still out on the highway, but Graham is long gone. He was bitten over 200 times in his career and “was looking pretty ropey towards the end”, according to Chris. “It was the antivenin that finally got him: he had so much horse blood in him we were going to enter him for the Melbourne Cup.”
Has Chris ever been bitten? “Not yet, mate.” He shrugs. “But today’s a brand new day.” Then his mobile rings. “Chris Peberdy speaking . . . g’day Sharon, what’s the problem?” He glances at me. “Snake in the bathroom. Sheila in distress; no worries darling, I’ll be right there.”
The property is in what Darwinians amusingly refer to as the suburbs. I’d call it the wilderness with a road going through it. Houses round here stand typically in five or 10 acres of critter-infested bushland, but the saying goes that if you’ve got snakes, you don’t have rats.
And — no doubt about it — Sharon’s got snake: 6ft long and comfortably fat, it’s digesting a rodent in the lee of her toilet. The flash of my camera wakes it from its repose and it flicks a black tongue at me. . .
A bashful silence descends on Sharon’s bathroom as Chris grabs toilet paper to staunch the wound. The snakebite contains an anticoagulant so claret is splashing all over the tiled floor. Luckily, the snake was a carpet python and the most he needs is a tetanus jab, but he has clearly had a glimpse of his own mortality. If it had been any other species native to the territory he would now be in serious trouble.
As it turns out, he is merely embarrassed, but Sharon is clearly impressed. As we leave she insists on getting his home phone number . . . just in case. Chris grins as we drive away. “Told you, mate — the Sheilas love a snake catcher.”