Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Snakes on a Plain

Recently I went into my tent in the middle of the afternoon to check something quickly on my computer. As anyone who knows me is aware, my obsessive-compulsive nature makes me very diligent about closing the zipper to my tent, even when I'm only going in for a minute. I really don't like mosquitoes, and by being anal about keeping the zipper closed at all times, I've managed to go over three months without a single mosquito getting in (and I think it's safe to say I've now jinxed that track record...). The irony of this will soon be apparent.

So after taking my shoes off outside—another lovely aspect of my OCD-ness, I don't like tracking dirt in—I stepped in wearing my socks and closed the zipper behind me. For the next few minutes I stood at my desk, which is only about a foot from the zipped entrance, piddling around at my computer, happy as a clam and completely unaware of my own impending doom. Suddenly I heard the sound of something rustling on the straw mat I use as a rug, and simultaneously felt something touching my foot. I looked down, and lo and behold, what adorably fuzzy and cute creature was on my foot?


Yes, yes, you read that correctly. A poisonous snake was touching my body. Right there, a few feet under my nose, slithering across my foot and under the desk. By the time my brain processed what it was—black, four feet long, couple inches in diameter, has no legs—it had moved off my foot and was coiled under the desk, seemingly as petrified as I was (is that even possible???). Miraculously, I neither screamed nor jerked my foot while it was on me (well DONE evolution! a special shout-out to all the people before me who took one for the team and were naturally selected out by doing either of those things). Instead, after coming out of my paralytic trance, I jumped backwards and leapt onto my bed, a few feet away from the cobra. We eyed each other for a moment before I began hollering for my labmate, Audrey.
"AUDREY!!! THERE'S A SNAKE IN MY TENT! PLEASE COME HERE!" I shouted from my perch.
"Oooo!" she yelled back. "Is it tiny and green?"
"Oh. Coming!"

Now, one thing you should know about Audrey is that she grew up on a farm with loads of harmless snakes, claims to have been bitten by them "hundreds or thousands of times" (I believe it), and spent two years as a research assistant on a snake project. So snakes are just about Audrey's favorite things in the whole wide world. Well that's just lovely for Audrey, but sadly I have had none of those charming experiences, so I was freaking out. But I knew she wouldn't, which was why she was the perfect person to be my knight in shining armor.

Audrey came and stood outside as I apprised her of the situation. Me: on the bed. Tent opening: zipped shut. Cobra: under the desk, right next to the opening. "No problem," she informed me, "I'll just open the zipper and you can run out." Yes, yes, wonderful, I'll just DASH past the poisonous menace that is just waiting for me to commit such a blunder. But it was that or spend the next several years in a stand-off with something lacking arms or legs, so I decided to make a break for it. Audrey opened the zipper, held open the flaps, and I held my breath and took a flying leap off my bed, hurling myself out the opening and into the sunlight.

It was at that point that I became aware of a little thing called adrenaline. See, as many of you probably know, you're not aware of it at the time, because it usually only shows up in high quantities during times of extreme duress. So naturally, you're not thinking, "Wow, I feel so energized and all my senses are hyper-aware"—you're thinking, "Wow, I wish I could get this boulder off my leg," or "Wow, I wish I could save this drowning child," or "Wow, I hope I picked the right suitcase on Deal or No Deal." Or in my case, "Wow, I really need to not die right now." But the second the stressor is removed, you don't need all that adrenaline any more, so the levels of it come crashing down. [Editor's note: Leslie is by no means an endocrinologist. If you want real explanations of this, ask Robert Sapolsky.] So the second I got out of the tent and to safety, it felt like there were massive waves of energy all exiting my body at the same time (perhaps what Linda Blair felt like in The Exorcist, only my head didn't spin around and I didn't spit out pea soup). My muscles got very tingly and loose and I began sobbing and shaking uncontrollably—not because I was still scared, but because that was how my relief was manifesting itself. I hadn't cried or trembled when I was in the tent, but the second I was out, I couldn't stop either for about twenty minutes. Part of it was that I couldn't stop reliving that one moment where I looked down and the cobra was on my body, and that sensation of it moving against my foot.

So at that point, Audrey kept an eye on the snake while I went and fetched James, one of our staff who has been pictured in previous posts. In his own words, James "does NOT fear snakes," but he doesn't like them, either, so the next question became whether or not we should kill it. James and Audrey decided that they would leave it up to me, since it was in my tent and it was me that had been traumatized. Naturally, my first instinct was one of revenge, but then I stepped back a moment and thought: revenge for what? What had it done to me? It had gotten in my tent through a hole in the back that I didn't know about, probably looking for mice to eat. Upon realizing that this was not a mouse hole and where the heck was this crazy place and how could it get out again, the snake presumably got scared, which was why it was hiding in a corner. I had been standing less than a foot from it for several minutes before it moved at all, so if it had been interested in biting me, it certainly had had ample opportunity. But it didn't. It didn't bite me, it didn't spit in my eye (the signature move of the spitting cobra, shockingly), it didn't even flare out its hood and try to intimidate me. What it actually did was wait for me to leave, and when that didn't happen, it tried to get out of my way. Why, then, would I want to kill it? That just didn't seem to make much sense to me. Certainly not good karma for a biologist. So we opened the tent up as wide as possible and James poked at it with a stick from the outside until it recognized the exit and slithered away as quickly as it could manage. At the risk of anthropomorphizing any more than usual, it seemed like the cobra was about as glad to say goodbye to me as I was to it.

It's been a while since I've had any Life Lessons, so I think it's time for a couple:

Life Lesson #1: Most snakes aren't nasty jerks
First of all, most snakes aren't poisonous. Second of all, making venom is very energetically-expensive, so even poisonous snakes will often give what is called a "dry bite" (thanks to Audrey for all this information), into which they don't inject any venom. Given that humans don't at all resemble a snake's typical prey item, it's unlikely that poisonous snakes will see you and think, "Yum, lunch," so most aren't out to bite you at all unless they run out of other options. And even then, they'll usually warn you somehow that they're feeling agitated, whether it's with an open hood, or a rattle, or something else along those lines. They mostly just want to be left alone. Third of all, supposedly most poisonous snake bites don't result in death, so even if everything else goes wrong for you and you DO get bitten, your goose isn't necessarily coming out of the oven just yet. Key word there of course is "necessarily."

Life Lesson #2: You are not as tough as you think you are
If your reaction to this story was, "Wow, cool!" or "Awesome!" or "That's so exciting!" then you are severely delusional. Several people have responded to my story with those exclamations, and I'm sure many of you reading this are having the same thoughts. Well, I have one thing to say to all of you: WRONG. You are WRONG. It is not COOL, it is not AWESOME, and for crying out loud it is not EXCITING to have a potentially-deadly animal touching your body. It is SCARY, and I don't care HOW much wildlife experience you have, I don't care if you used to have a pet rat snake, I don't care if your favorite Harry Potter character is Nagini—unless your name is Audrey, when you have a black-necked spitting cobra slithering across your foot, your heart stops, even if just for a second. (And, for the record, if you're wondering what the appropriate reaction is, I can tell you, because many people did indeed give it: "Oh my god, that would have made me poop my pants right there on the spot.")

Sadly, I was too distraught to take any pictures of Stuart—I named the cobra Stuart, because what could be less scary than that? But I'm sure if you Google image search "black-necked spitting cobra," you can fill in those blanks for yourself.

And if you're wondering, yes, I still take an extra peek around to all the crevices of my tent when I step in, because fool me once....


Katy said...

Agreed, Les. I hope people do google it. While I am usually one of those to say, "Wow, cool!" to these stories, this is one I do not envy!

Dan said...

As GW once put it, "...fool me once, shame on... shame on you. It fool me - we can't get fooled again."

Leslie, I can't believe you sat on this story for a couple months.

Will said...

It's cool if it didn't happen to me. It sounds terrifying! Good thing neither you nor Stuart were hurt (beyond the inevitable trauma and therapy)!

Leslie said...

Well, I didn't want you to worry any more than I know you already do. :)

Anonymous said...

Well, it's about time that you wrote a piece. I've been bumming big time about the lack of Leslie posts. You should become a professional blogger.
I digress-- it's just good to "hear" your voice again.
Your story was good. However, it would have been better if there was a boy in camp ready to break up with you the day this snake slithered across your foot. That kind of drama really spruces up a story.

I'm glad that you came to terms with Stuart. I try to get people to walk around in mouse/rat "shoes," but they never come around.

PT Mollie M. said...

How crazy! Glad to hear you are ok. I hope Stuart leaves you alone for the rest of your stay.

Anonymous said...

Wow sweetie, that is intense. Joe and I once had an experience with a black mamba in his tent but luckily it didn't slither over any of our feet!

Anonymous said...

Personally, I might not have cared if you had clobbered Stuart. Of course, I'm not a biologist --- JUST YOUR FREAKED OUT MOTHER!

Anonymous said...

I might come to Kenya in a near future, and I REALLY appreciate your stories, especially because they end well :)
It's better to know!

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