Snake ‘hissperer’ slithers his way into Obs

Cape Snake Conservationist, Grant Smith, handling a rinkhals snake.

From the first book in the Bible to some of the latest Hollywood schlockbusters, snakes have battled with a bit of an image problem, but “snake hissperer” Grant Smith hopes to change that.

Grant says snakes are a vital part of our ecosystem and they have more reason to fear us than we do them. Indeed, he says, it’s our irrational fear of snakes that is often to blame for their demise.

Grant has set up Cape Snake Conservation in Observatory, to educate the public about indigenous snakes. Knowledge, he hopes, will conquer fear.

Grant removes about 10 snakes a week from homes and public spaces. Rondebosch Common, Kenilworth, Kirstenbosch and Newlands are spots he visits regularly.

“We especially find snakes in houses and properties that border the Table Mountain National park. But they can be found anywhere where there are open parks or natural areas,” says Grant.

“We collect and map call-out data, which visually tells us where the hot spot areas are. The residents from a particular street in Newlands have gotten to know my colleague, Vard Aman, quiet well.

“Sometimes we get a lot of the same species in an area, like mole snakes around the Rondebosch Common, for example.”

Most of the snakes Grant and Vard catch are non-venomous, but venomous species are also common throughout the southern suburbs and Cape Peninsula, and Grant says that’s to be expected.

“We have a national park on our doorstep, so it’s something that we should respect and learn to live with. I do snake awareness courses for companies and at schools, and I also offer first-aid courses because I believe that preparedness and making the unknown known lays the foundation for overcoming a fear of snakes.”

On his website and Facebook page, Grant shares video footage of snakes he captures. He also demonstrates snake behaviour during his awareness courses by using live snakes in front of groups to show how the snake’s natural instinct is to take flight, rather than fight.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of what I do is seeing the change in someone’s expression when they finally take the plunge to hold their first snake. It’s as if a weight is lifted and, with that burden gone, the fear often turns to excitement.

“A lot of people get upset when someone kills a snake, but I’ve come to understand that most people don’t actually like having to do this, but they feel that they have no other option – this is where I come in. It’s a perception thing, often through exposure, they can break down that fear. The option is to call one of us; we safely remove and relocate the snake for them. And, if the snake is injured, we rehabilitate it.”

Grant traces his love for snakes back to an experience he had as a six-year-old when he found a snake in his backyard. His mother identified it as a harmless brown house snake, remained calm and allowed him to pick it up before releasing it in nature. The three common venomous snakes in Cape Town are the puff adder, the Cape cobra and the boomslang. The vast majority of our snakes, such as the slug eater, mole snake, brown water snake, egg eater and house snakes among others, are non-venomous. However, snake identification is not easy and one should never handle any snake without the go-ahead from an expert.

To learn more about snakes in the Western Cape or if you want to contact the Cape Snake Conservation team, call Grant at 084 328 1001.

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