Relocators help out in slithery situations

Danika Foster holds Amber, an albino brown house snake.

When a Strandfontein man spotted a snake in his garden, he identified it as a harmless “veldsnake” and adopted it as a family pet, showing it to his young kids and keeping it in a hamster cage.

Chuffed with his find, he bragged about it on a reptile fanatics’ page on Facebook and posted a picture.

Very soon after that he had a visit from a snake handler who relocated the snake, as it was, in fact, a highly-venomous Cape cobra. The fact that it was a baby one made it no less lethal.

Ashley Foster holds his head in his hands, his mood alternating between nervous laughter and horror, as he tells of one of the more unusual encounters a friend, and fellow snake handler, had during the course of his work.

“We don’t know how he got it into that small hamster cage without being bitten,” says Ashley’s wife, Danika.

With a chuckle, Ashley says that knowing his friend “he would have given the guy a very stern talking to”.

Ashley, a 28-year-old snake relocator from Southfield, says the Strandfontein man had a very lucky escape, considering he made three big mistakes.

His first mistake was deciding to adopt a wild snake as a pet.

“You can’t keep wild snakes,” says Ashley. Trained professionals only keep wild snakes in captivity for rehabilitation from injuries.

“It’s very traumatic for a wild snake to be kept in captivity. They can die of the stress.”.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t keep any snakes as pets. The Fosters have nine pet snakes, but they also have the right permits for this. Their varied bunch of local and exotic snakes – such as Annie the anaconda – are fed on a steady diet of frozen rodents.

“It’s against the law to feed snakes live prey,” says Danika.

They have names such as Moley, Stumpy, Bally and Amber and are very much a part of the family. The Fosters are familiar with their eating habits, personalities and quirks, and the Bulletin was warned that pictures with Annie were not allowed because she bites.

“That one’s not venomous but she likes to bite,” says Ashley.

“If we let her out now then there’s a blood bath,” adds Danika.

Ashley’s fascination with snakes started in his childhood, and, over time, he met other like-minded reptile-lovers and slowly learned the legalities of snake capture and release. He and Danika have both completed snake handling courses and are members of the Cape Reptile Club.

“That’s my other family,” Ashley says of the club, which has partnerships with Cape Nature, the SPCA and Cape Snake Conservation because they have the same goal.

“We try to save as many snakes as we can,” says Ashley, explaining that many people don’t realise the reptiles need protecting. Some snake species are threatened, and the rinkhals, a venomous snake that bites and spits, is rarely seen in the Western Cape anymore.

“It used to by plentiful but the numbers have gone right down in the Western Cape,” says Ashley.

People kill snakes out of fear, which is ironic because even poisonous snakes don’t bite willy-nilly.

“A lot of the time, it the non-venomous snakes that are being killed and they keep the rats and mice away. A snake won’t attack you unless it is provoked.”

This is why the Strandfontein man’s escape was such a close one. His second mistake was picking the snake up and putting it in a cage.

“It’s best to just leave a snake alone,” Ashley says.

“As long as you leave the snake alone, it will leave you alone. People will call and say, ‘There’s a snake in the garden.’ And we’ll say, ‘Okay, leave it alone, we’re coming.’ By the time we get there, the snake is long gone.”

According to the Cape Snake Conservation’s website, a snake will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation, even playing possum, in some cases. So it is best to leave all snakes well alone – even if it looks like it is dead.

“A snake will only bite to defend itself,” says Ashley.

The third mistake the Strandfontein man made was to presume to know what kind of snake he had found. According to the Cape Snake Conservation website, mistaking one species of snake for another happens easily. A Cape cobra, which is venomous, looks remarkably similar to a mole snake, which is harmless.

So, if you find a snake lurking in your personal spaces: “Go to the Cape Reptile Club’s website and look up the number for your area,” says Ashley. The contacts on the site are trained to identify and handle snakes.

“We have a WhatsApp group, so if someone gets a message that a snake was spotted in Constantia, the guy who is closest will respond,” he says.

The relocators don’t take fees but do take donations. “It’s more for the sake of the snake,” says Ashley. “Someone can turn around and say I didn’t ask for the snake to come here, so why must I pay to have it taken away. I’ll just kill it.”

The job though is not without its rewards, and the Fosters have had some strange adventures. Four years ago they got a call-out the night before Danika was due to give birth. A cobra had made itself comfortable atop the petrol tank of a Toyota Conquest outside Victoria Hospital.

“The car guard saw the snake slither from a Jeep into the Conquest,” Ashley recalls.

When the Fosters and another relocator, Elroy Arendse, arrived they were met by police with R4 rifles.

“They said, ‘If that thing comes out, we’re shooting it’.”

It took more than an hour to retrieve the snake, and all the while a heavily pregnant Danika stood to one side, watching the whole affair while nursing a heavy craving for McDonalds.

For more information on snakes and how to contact a relocator visit www.capesnakeconservation.com or www.capereptileclub.co.za