Serpentine Mind

by Theodore Dalrymple (November 2013)

When I was young and taken to the zoo I always wanted to go straight to the reptile house. First, however, I had to see the boring old chimpanzees, lions, hippopotamuses, etc., because those were what my adult supervisors always wanted to see. (I remember the notice in the hippopotamus house, apologising for the smell but saying that we, that is to say the hippopotamuses, like it.)

I would pester the adults by asking constantly whether we could go to the reptiles soon, much as a child in a car asks ‘Are we there yet?’ Eventually the adults would say Yes, but reluctantly, for they did not really want to see the reptiles, in fact they wanted not to see them. They – the adults – had craftily waited until our time in the zoo was nearly up so that, frustratingly, the visit to the reptile house was no more than a quick walk through it. I was not allowed to linger as I should have liked.

Although I have had very little to do professionally with reptiles, except in the metaphorical sense, apart from the odd snakebite and injury caused by anthropophagous crocodiles, I have continued to be fascinated by them – in a desultory kind of way. And I also developed a fascination for those who are fascinated by them to the point of wanting to keep them as pets.

I had never really associated France with such an activity: the French are too warm-blooded. Rather it is in northern climes that snake-fancying is most popular, and even there a distinctly minority interest. Herpetophilia, if I may so call it, is the province of the peculiar; and I suppose, suffering from a mild form of it myself, if only at second hand, intellectual honesty compels me to admit that I must be, to an extent, peculiar myself.

Well, I happened to be driving through, or rather past, the city of Nîmes recently, principally famous for its perfectly-preserved Roman temple and magnificent amphitheatre, when I saw an advertisement for an exhibition of reptiles and amphibians to be held at the football stadium the following Saturday and Sunday, and so I returned.

There was a queue to get in. Children have to be amused on wet Sunday afternoons as this was, and I must say that the children were very eager. It is a cliché that French parents are very good with their children, but a cliché is a cliché because it is obviously true. But liberally admixed among those on a family outing were those who would have predominated among such an event in England and, I suspect, the United States, namely the shaven-headed, heavily tattooed and pierced community. France lags in such fashions, but is catching up fast: there are now tattoo parlours in practically all French towns, including those in which, a few years ago, you would never have seen a single tattooed person.

The vogue for reptiles and tattoos has developed more or less pari passu. Having gained entrance to the exhibition (and sale) of reptiles, my hand having been stamped in India ink with the eye of a crocodile to show that I had paid my admission ($6.70), I spoke to a stallholder whom I liked immediately. He and his wife had been breeding reptiles for 25 years, she having been a keeper of reptiles at Paris zoo for many years, and their aim was not to make a profit but to prevent the importation of species direct from the wild. Smuggling of rare species still went on, he told me, though with the increased vigilance of the customs authorities it took a different form. Importation from counties of origin was still permitted provided the animals had been bred in captivity there, so now false birth certificates were issued by alleged reptile farmers or breeding centres. In other words, the regulations had made smuggling easier, not more difficult.

The stallholder and his wife also kept their reptiles in environments that resembles their natural habitats as closely as possible; and though I came to sneer at his stand with its prominent slogans ‘To breed animals so as not to take any more from Nature’ and ‘All the animals presented on this stand were bred by us,’ I went away with respect and even, dare I say it, with affection, for it seemed to me that this couple had a passion in life and followed their own path while actually doing good. The stallholder was not a zoologist by training (he did not say what he was), but he had an air of erudition and distinction that had nothing to do with any diplomas he might or might not have had.

He told me that a show of reptiles and amphibians such as this could not have taken place in France 20 years ago: that an French reptile-fanciers would have had to go to Belgium or Germany for such an exhibition. (I believe that Germany is still the centre of the European live snake trade, and has the least restrictive regime on the keeping of venomous species.) There were aspects of snake-keeping and collecting that he could not approve of; for example, there were some collectors who sought snakes that were rare, the rarer the better, status in the small world of herpetology being associated with the possession of the rarest kinds. There was one snake on sale in the exhibition for about $3740, for example.

I found it. It was a specimen of Python regius, not a rare species in itself, but one whose price depended on the colouring and marking of the skin (and very little on the size, which surprised me). The different appearances had different names, obviously familiar to the keepers of pythons. An ordinary ‘Pastel’ python was only $100, but a Firefly was $600, an Ivory $1100 and an Albino pinstripe $1200. A Spinner Mojave was $1670, a Super-Enchi Butter $3200; but it was a Banana that was the one that exercised the stallholder’s ire, at $3740. It was indeed a handsome beast, in a reptilian way: cream-and-butterscotch striped.

The reason I had supposed (wrongly) that a python’s price would be proportionate to its size was that its size would be an indication of the investment in food the owner had put into it. But if the size had any effect at all on the price it must have been very small, and I discovered why in the section devoted to snake food. This ranged from blocks of frozen pink rat or mice embryos to cages full of live rats. These rats were busy about their business in their cages, oblivious to the fact that they owed their very existence to their future status as snake food. Unlike the snakes, the rats looked intelligent, curious, almost self-conscious; the snakes were sluggish and mostly immobile. I could not but adapt a line from Shakespeare in my mind:

As rats to wanton snakes, are we to the gods.

I have reached the age at which almost everything calls up memories, rather like the smell of Proust’s famous madeleine. In this case it was the chameleons, very much the interest of a minority of the minority. There were a few of them in the show, commanding high prices; they are not easy to keep, I believe. In their cage were grasshoppers, like the rats unaware of their purpose in life. 

Chameleons are among the most fascinating of creatures, with their swivelling turret eyes, their curled tails, their long swift tongues, their slow rocking movements like those of institutionalised children, their peculiar two-toed claws and, of course, their kaleidoscopic scaly skins. I can happily watch them for hours, my mind empty of everything except idle delight in their strange beauty. They themselves are never content, however; they seem always to have a disgruntled, even angry look, like old men lamenting the state of the world, and indeed they hiss when disturbed or picked up. I have never seen a happy chameleon.

I met them in the wild in East Africa. Once I was driving along a rutted laterite road through the kind of bush through which lions prowl and wild dogs, ugly beasts, hunt. Occasionally you would see a python crossing the road, but no python ever lasted long, being angrily chopped to pieces with machetes as an inveterate enemy of mankind. The vehicle in which I was driving was a somewhat rickety land rover – no vehicle could long survive undamaged the shaking given them in the dry season by those laterite roads – and, as was ever the case in Africa, it was carrying far more people than it had ever been designed to do. My passengers were soldiers: a captain and a few recruits, each with the kind of gun that was probably more useful in putting down civilian demonstrations than fighting another army, in other words weapons formidable only against the unarmed, but then very formidable.

In front of me I saw a bright green chameleon – at least it was bright green at that moment – crossing the road. It showed no road sense, of course, and indeed vehicles were very few there, so that even with high intelligence it would have had little opportunity to learn its danger. It moved very slowly, with that slight to-ing and fro-ing that psychiatrists call ambivalence, as for example when a schizophrenic puts out his hand to shake and then withdraws it.

I stopped the land rover and got out. The captain and his soldiers looked surprised. I took their surprise to be at my interest in what for them must have been an everyday sight since childhood. (We take for granted that other people will take for granted what we take for granted. Indeed, one could almost say: Tell me what you take for granted, and I will tell you where you are from.)

I approached the chameleon: it was, in my opinion, a fine specimen. I picked it up and heard a screech coming from the land rover. With the chameleon on the palm of my hand, delighted with my capture, I returned to the vehicle. To my surprise the captain and all his soldiers suddenly clambered out of it and ran helter-skelter into the bush. It was the chameleon that had terrified them, and they would not return until I had put it from me.

On their return to the vehicle, I asked them why they had been so affrighted; everyone knew, I said airily, that chameleons were not poisonous, indeed were perfectly harmless. They denied that they had been frightened, but it was obvious from their expression at the time that they had been not merely frightened but terrified. They were ashamed to admit their superstition which they knew would appear ridiculous in my eyes, but of whose truth they could not rid their minds.

Later I heard that there was a local legend about chameleons: that once they climbed into your hair they never let go and remained entangled there for the rest of your life. I doubted that this could be the whole of the reason for the extreme funk of the soldiers, but it occurred to me that one way to take over the country (if these soldiers were anything to go by) was for conspirators to arrive simultaneously at strategic posts with a number of chameleons to frighten off the defenders of those posts. The coup would be a peaceful one and the conspirators would be safe so long as they kept the chameleons with them at all times.

When we were sitting at dusk on the terrace of my house in France recently when a bat flew by. A visitor said that when she was young she heard of an aunt into whose chignon a bat had flown, and it was impossible to get it out – for how long she was unable to say.

That night, as it happened, six bats flew into my bedroom whose windows I had left wide open. I do not have enough hair left for the bats to have entangled themselves in, but in any case the bats, uninterested in my head, flew round and round in circles near the ceiling. It seemed that the room had trapped them, for even when encouraged with a broom they did not leave and gave the impression of not knowing how to do so, since they frequently bumped into walls and the ceiling. I had thought that bats were possessed of an infallible sonar system that guided them with perfect dexterity to tiny insects: surely they could find a wide-open window? 

Was this a technical defect or deficiency in their sonar system? The answer depends, of course, on what they were trying to do, that is if bats can be said to be trying to do anything. If they weren’t trying to leave the room, there was no such defect or deficiency. (They were all gone, incidentally, by morning.) Where behaviour has intention, more than one interpretation of it is always possible. We can never fully and finally know why people keep reptiles or tattoo themselves.



Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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