A SERPENT IN EDEN
I have never been a fan of spiders.
When I was about four years old, my mom was once fixing a light switch in an outbuilding at the house we then lived in. She left me there, (I think to go and switch off the power) warning me not to touch the switch (which was out of my reach anyway) as a big spider would bite me. (Remember, she was still a fairly new mom and had a touching belief that her children would be obedient.)
My curiosity aroused, I took my little wooden armchair (why it was at hand I cannot remember), climbed onto it and had a good look into the switch. It was clear that there was no spider in there so I stuck my finger into it.
Needless to say, that big spider bit me good!
The experience left me with a fear of even the smallest spider and a determination (only realised as an adult) never to mislead my own children, even with good intentions. I went to great lengths to teach my children about electricity by explaining that it was the power which makes our appliances work, and that if you touch it, it feels like a burn and a bite at the same time which is very, very, very sore.
I was also determined not to pass on my phobia to my children, and made strenuous efforts not to react to any chance-met spider. In this I was fairly successful.
Until we moved to Ngodwana and I met rain spiders.
Rain spiders are huge. A fully grown one has a thumb-sized body, and with its outspread legs, it is almost the size of a saucer.
One afternoon, Barry and the kids were outside and I came and joined them, sitting down next to Barry on the step of the stoep. I felt the elastic of my underwear give me a good pinch. I shifted and it pinched me sharply again. I got up to straighten my clothing and there, on the step, was this ginormous spider, the biggest I had ever seen!
I am not athletic by nature, but I tell you, my leap away from the spot was impressive. Hysterics would be a good word to describe the following few minutes.
I eventually sort of got used to them. Fortunately they are not dangerous, as the venom is no worse than a mosquito bite, but they are quite aggressive. If they are on a wall, and you walk past, they raise their front legs most menacingly. (My family assure me that describing them as having slavering jaws is going a bit far. However, I reserve the right to describe their gnashing teeth and drooling lips as I like. I’m the one writing this.)
When we moved to Swaziland, there they were too, in even greater numbers. Clearly, they just love the Great Escarpment, so it was no surprise to also find them in Iswepe.
Rural living also introduces you to snakes.
In Mhlambanyati (Swaziland), I was horrified to discover, after a whole year of having my children and poodles wander at will in the large garden, that two Mozambique cobras were living under a huge fallen log in one overgrown section of the garden. The current gardener, Steven, who found them, immediately dispatched them with a spade.
One Saturday morning, (also in Mhlambanyati) while I was still in bed (in quiet contemplation with my Bible), Barry came in from outside, where he had been weeding the overgrown vegetable garden, a large separately fenced-off area, adjoining the back garden.
Him (with big grin of boyish excitement): Look, what I found, Coll!
Me (with screech of horror): Are you @*&% mad???? That’s a puff adder! Get it out of my house!!!
He had heard hissing where he was digging, had parted the grass, found the lazy creature, trapped it behind the head with the rake, carefully picked it up behind the head, and then brought it in to show his wife, who, he was convinced, would be as fascinated as he was.
As puff adders are highly venomous, we decided to kill it, though really Barry should just have taken it out into the forest.
On another occasion, (also still in Mhlambanyati) I went into the pantry, and there I literally came face to face with a very long green snake wound around the window sash. Another impressive leap, and a scream for divine help (to calm my thudding heart), was followed by a frantic search in my book of snakes. (I didn’t want to repeat the mistake we had made with the puff adder by killing it unnecessarily, but I wanted to be sure it was not a green mamba, or a boomslang!)
It turned out to be a harmless green water snake and I left it alone to find its own way out.
Later, when the cats came into the kitchen for their supper, we discovered the route the snake had used as an exit, because the cats were instantly on the alert. With hackles raised and tails fluffed out like bottlebrushes, they cautiously sniffed every inch of the floor that the snake had slithered over on its way out!
Iswepe turned out to be a paradise for rinkhalses. (For the uninitiated, this is a kind of spitting cobra, which, when threatened, raises its head and spreads its hood. The name is derived from Dutch and describes the rings it has around its throat.
One Sunday, on our return from church in Piet Retief, the Rotties came to meet us at the gate between the front and back gardens. In the middle of the lawn at the back was a huge rinkhals, upright, hood outspread, striking downwards at Scampy, who was darting backwards and forwards, barking hysterically.
Hanging onto the gate, in terror for my dog, I screamed and screamed. (Obviously, this spurred Scampy on.)
Eventually, my apparently somnolent husband woke up and got out of the car to see why I was hanging onto the gate, screaming, instead of opening it. He fetched a spade and killed the snake, and Tasha and I grabbed Scampy to see if he had been bitten.
His face was covered with venom and one of his eyes was rapidly swelling. We rinsed it out with milk and then I hurriedly phoned the vet. He was not available so I had to leave a message. He got back to me some time later and was able to reassure me that if Scampy had been bitten he would by now be showing signs of unsteadiness, as the neurotoxin takes effect within thirty minutes.
The Rotties had left the snake well alone. I was always able to tell if a snake had been in the garden as Wolfie would leap a good metre into the air if he walked over any spot where a snake had crept. Dog’s noses are truly remarkable!
Lulu would generally leave them alone, but she was very protective of us. Once, when Barry came home from work, and opened the gate into the back garden, she rushed towards the garage, grabbed a young rinkhals, which Barry had not even noticed, shook it and threw it down. Barry dispatched the injured snake with a spade.
A week after the Scampy episode, we found another huge rinkhals in the front garden. This was not surprising as they are usually found in pairs. It slithered down into one of the several rabbit holes to be found around the garden. Later, Barry filled up all the holes he could find.
Fortunately, rinkhalses are shy. I have seen one carefully creep next to a pipe and lie very quietly hoping to escape notice. However, they are venomous, and because of the danger to our dogs, we killed any we found in the garden. In the nine years we lived in Iswepe we must have killed at least a dozen.
Puff adders are far more dangerous. They are lazy and don’t move out of the way like other snakes, so there is always the danger of stepping on one. But, up until then, we had never found one in our garden.
One Sunday in April 2005, we had friends from church visit us for a braai.
Barry and I sat chatting to the wife on the little stoep (now finally cleared of the dreaded cat litter tray as Ginger had gone the way of all flesh the month before) and their children were playing in the front garden. The husband was taking a call on his cell phone while walking up and down one side of the garden and when he had completed his call he called Barry to join him.
He wanted to show Barry the large snake he had almost stepped on.
Barry called me, but I was not able to identify it. It was just barely alive, having been severely injured. It had exposed ribs, probably caused by the tractor-drawn mower which regularly cut the grass in a wide strip around the outside of our property. It seemed to be shaped like a puff adder, but was mostly black with orange markings. I could not find it in my snake book. Anyway, it was an act of mercy to kill it, which Barry did.
We were just thankful that none of the children had been bitten.
After the family left, Barry prepared to leave on a business trip to Jo’burg. While packing his luggage into the car, he noticed that Lulu’s face seemed to be swollen. Immediately suspecting that she might have been bitten by the snake, he called me. I examined the swelling on her upper neck, but I could not see the double puncture wounds so typical of snake bite. Also, the snake had been in front and the dogs had been confined at the back the whole day. Lulu had also given no sign of being distressed in any way. But that, of course, was completely typical of her.
We decided it was possibly the start of a hot spot, which Lulu was very prone to suffer from. I gave her an antihistamine and decided to wait till the morning. Later that evening, the swelling seemed to me to have subsided a bit and I became quite hopeful.
The next morning I was horrified to find her face grotesquely swollen, and it was obvious that moving her head was very painful. There was a small wound to the side of the swelling which was oozing blood. I had to face the unpleasant fact that Lulu must have been bitten by that snake, whatever it was. Both vets were out on the farms all morning, so I took her in to Piet Retief in the afternoon.
The vet was convinced it was a puff adder bite, but without being sure, did not want to give anti-venom as it would be highly dangerous if it turned out not to be a puff adder. Besides which, the anti-venom was not freely available in Piet Retief and was extremely expensive. He gave her a number of injections and advised me to try and find the snake.
When I got home I went and looked for the remains of the snake and on examining it closely, I realised that it was indeed a puff adder. I had been unaware that, in Natal and the Cape, you find variants which are not the normal beige and brown, but have striking black and yellow or black and orange markings. This one was black and orange.
I immediately phoned the vet. He told me outright that that was bad news. My heart sank. He explained that a puff adder bite is very painful indeed and as the venom kills the tissue, the wound takes a very long time to heal. He told me to bring her in again the next day. Once again, however, we had to wait till the early afternoon as both vets would be out on the farms.
But by the following morning, now Tuesday, Lulu had become very unresponsive. She ignored Tessie and Wolfie, as well as the garden service team, who had come to mow the lawns.
Barry was still in Jo’burg and Tasha was also away for a few days.
I refused to accept that Lulu would die. It was just over eighteen months since we had lost Scampy. Surely this couldn’t be happening again? The vet did not say she was going to die. I clung to that thought with all my might.
When the time came to leave for Piet Retief, Lulu was not able to walk to the car. I had to drag her there on a blanket, and then hoist her onto the back seat. She was barely conscious.
As I drove into Piet Retief, she slid off the back seat and landed flat on her back on the floor with her feet up and there she lay.
The moment I arrived at the vet, a few minutes later, I leapt out of the car, and ran into the reception area.
“Help me, my dog is dying!” I practically screamed.
Both receptionists came running and helped me get her out of the car.
And then, right there, next to the car, in my arms, Lulu gave one last gasp and died.
She was just six years old.
They helped me carry her into one of the consulting rooms and we placed her on the floor. I sat down next to her, stroking her still warm head, and bawled my eyes out.
Some years later I read a very interesting book authored by the wife of a Kruger Park ranger. Her husband was once bitten by a little known snake and she gave him massive doses of vitamin C. He recovered very quickly. One of the Park vets, who had been with him and had also been bitten, did not have the vitamin C, and he became very ill.
How I regretted that I had not read that book before this happened. It might well have saved my dog.
Why Lulu had not left the snake alone was anyone’s guess. Being accustomed to rinkhalses, which rear up, she might not have realised that this one could strike upwards and backwards. With the snake so severely injured it was probably just lying under the hedge, and she possibly went to take a curious sniff.
We would never know.
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