I grew up in a farming community on the outskirts of a village in Yorkshire, England and spent a great deal of my childhood wandering off to catch spiders, newts, tadpoles, etc. I also had a pet tortoise called Freddo, who, like myself, often escaped to travel far and wide in search of exciting adventures. We were kindred spirits! I was fascinated by all animals, but particularly those that everyone else seemed to loathe and be terrified of. Snakes were no exception, although sadly at that stage my encounters with them were limited to peering through glass cages in zoos. For a number of years, I enjoyed a career as a florist, but somehow, I felt like a fish out of water. I knew that I wasn’t where I truly belonged, but I didn’t know where on Earth that actually was nor what I wanted to do with my life.
All that changed in my mid 20s when I first travelled to Australia, a diverse continent of arid deserts, tropical rainforests and beautiful beaches fringed with coral reefs, all teeming with weird, wonderful and often venomous creatures. I was no longer a fish out of water, I’d found my ideal habitat! It was here that I met Dr. David Williams, known then as ‘the Snake Man.’ He told me that I had a ‘natural talent’ for handling venomous snakes. Within a few weeks I was performing venom extractions under his tuition and subsequently I discovered my vocation. Some 25 years later he and I are still working together.
A spinal injury which I sustained (not work related) about 10 years ago forced me to re-evaluate what my body could cope with and I had to make some drastic and unwelcome changes. It was a devastating turning point in my life physically, mentally and career wise. Fortunately, as legend has it, ‘they breed us lasses (girls) tough in Yorkshire,’ and so I adapted and soldiered on. My work for the Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU) and the Global Snakebite Initiative (GSI) requires me to ‘wear many hats.’ Danger, deadlines and draining travel schedules are crammed into most days.
New challenges are constantly being thrown at me, but that’s probably one of the reasons why I love my job. It’s certainly never boring and it’s always rewarding knowing that you are helping to save the lives of people whilst contributing to the welfare and conservation of the snakes too. A typical day could involve anything from driving an ambulance to retrieve critically envenomed snakebite patients in Papua New Guinea, to performing venom extractions, conducting research and participating in training courses and seminars in countries right around the world.
Developing and implementing community education programmes is a very important aspect of my work. These cover snakebite awareness and prevention strategies, correct first aid treatments and mitigation, particularly in tropical countries where snakebite has a huge impact, especially on the poorer rural members of the population. We collect and study snakebite data from all around the world, which enables us to better understand the circumstance surrounding snakebite and to figure out how we might improve its prevention and treatment. We then develop and design policies and protocols to bring about positive change.
It’s refreshing and encouraging to see that the number of women who work with venomous snakes is actually on the increase. Women have a lot to offer and their snake handling skills and safety records can often give men something to think about. We are nimble fingered, are great at paying attention to detail and we don’t suffer from testosterone-inspired bravado! Incidentally, I have never been bitten, for which I must give credit and thanks to Dr. Williams who instilled in me a strict work ethic based on safety and protocol. I have, nevertheless, had several hair-raising near-misses. It’s essential that you learn from your mistakes in this profession and learn quickly, because you might not live to regret them a second time around.
This brings me to the topic of the alarming number of unnecessary snakebite deaths in India which occur as a result of reckless snake handling. This is a growing problem amongst self-proclaimed snake catchers and rescuers, street performers and traditional healers (most of whom are men, incidentally). These people are not professionals. They don’t hold licences or permits to perform their antics, nor do their methods, rituals or ‘healing powers’ have any scientific basis or proof. They might perhaps fool themselves, together with a dedicated crowd of naive followers, but to the modern world and scientific community they are no more than attention seekers, con-men, and animal abusers touting phony accolades. Whilst they might bamboozle people who innocently don’t know any better, they are in fact generating condemnation, particularly amongst professional snake handlers and conservationists, and those of us who are striving to reduce the global toll of deaths due to snakebites.
Unfortunately, social media has fuelled this problem by giving these people a wider audience who foolheartedly admire the fraudulent ‘bravery’ and ‘skill’ of these charlatans and inadvertently bolster their egos. A cult following can quickly escalate and this elicits even more reckless behaviour by these individuals who crave the limelight and the euphoria that the attention and praise bestows upon them. It is easy to see why youths in particular are attracted to this type of activity and are ultimately lured to an early grave. There is a seemingly endless supply of victims. These people literally are ‘accidents waiting to happen.’ Not only do they put their own lives at risk, but also the lives of family members and innocent bystanders, not to mention the snakes themselves who are often kept in appalling conditions until they die or are dumped and subsequently perish.
On the flip side, we too are watching! Social media enables us to monitor this trend and to take steps to bring about much needed intervention, because without it, eventually these people end up becoming another fatal snakebite statistic. Sadly, it is their families and friends who are left behind to deal with the aftermath and the cold reality that they were, in fact, not the snake experts that they had claimed to be. There is the argument that these people, who are often some of the poorest members of the community, are simply trying to make a living to support their families. I would argue that their death as a result of snakebite will only serve to push their loved ones further into debt and despair. We are seeing these deaths occur on a monthly or even weekly basis in India and the problem could be far more reaching than our data shows and is likely to be increasing in momentum.
A small percentage of these individuals are probably genuinely trying to help their community and perhaps believe that by catching and re-locating snakes or collecting venom, they are contributing to science or conservation. Contrary to this belief, they are often breaking the law by interfering with protected wildlife without a permit or licence, and are mishandling the snakes, causing unnecessary stress, injury and even death to these valuable members of the eco system who serve to control rat populations. Also, venom must be collected in sterile conditions following strict protocol for it to be of any use for research or antivenom production.
We need all the help we can get with snakebite mitigation and snake conservation. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. One man who sets a fine example is Ajay Giri who is based at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in the Western Ghats. His minimal handling techniques, low key persona, community education presentations and meticulous data-recording habits set the gold standard for snake handling techniques, research and conservation. Look up Agumbe Rainforest Research Station on Facebook to see their posts of Ajay’s work, including photos and videos.
Please note that non-professional snake handlers should not attempt to copy snake handling techniques seen in photos and videos.
Diana Barr is the Technical Support Officer for Snakebite Projects at
the Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU) at Melbourne University, Australia
She is also project co-ordinator for the Global Snakebite Initiative (GSI)
For more information on safe rescue & handling, do visit: