Snakes as pets…

My father collected poisonous snakes for the Perth museums stuffed animal collection — this was back in the 1960’s when it was a preeminent thing to do. At that time most people didn’t think about extinction and animal rights. It was a time where there was still plenty of wildlife around.

There were oysters growing on the back islands at Jurien Bay that I loved to pick off with a screwdriver and eat.

There were plagues of emus piling up on the rabbit proof fence during times of drought.

Snakes were commonly seen both on our farm and at our Jurien Bay holiday home. As a child I felt connected to all that is— to all of nature and all that was natural—the human world seemed strange to me less pure, less honest.

I lived on a wheat and sheep farm that had its own petrol pump so that we had over sixty forty four gallon drums all stacked neatly up on a high platform.

On slow summer evenings the 44 gallon drums would “boing” and herald the cool evening air with deep drum like sounds as they cooled down — that was one of those sounds of my childhood…

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When they grew old some of the drums were used for BBQ’s others for foundations filled with concrete and others were used for snake “homes”.

When my father caught a snake he would remove the top from a drum and that would become the snakes home until it was time for the trip to Perth for the “freeze alive” position they would maintain in death with the help of taxidermy at the Perth Museum.

These snake homes were housed in our old garage where we fed the snakes and gazed down at them as they waited their fate.

My father didn’t only collect snakes he also collected marsupial mice, and other strange animals.

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His passion for animals exposed us to wild goats, a wild horse called Zany who was tamed and trained to be Polo cross player, mountain devils, echidnas and I remember once climbing a tree with my father, brother and the Barnes family to peer into a Wedge tale eagles nest. It was huge — all thick sticks — and a small area in the middle where the chicks would have lived.

At Jurien Bay we children would shake out seaweed rolls and collect the tiny blue ringed octopi and put them in a bucket and watch the blue become iridescent when they became overly stimulated.

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We had been told by our parents that they were deadly so were very careful. In retrospect it must have been risky to pick up a seaweed roll to shake out.

I can only remember my parents saying that we had to put them back in the sea because they didn’t deserve to live in a bucket as we didn’t know what to feed them.

My parents expected us to do as they told us — this was to respect wild life and respect out own lives.

My father was the animal person and my mother was a wildflower person — that is whole other story.

However, my father really had an attraction to snakes. He had learnt how to handle them and I remember that when he was catching a snake he would give us a running commentary.

First he would run after a great poisonous snake deftly lay a stick over the back of the snake’s head so that he could reach the tail without the snake striking.

He would be saying to us as though instructing us on “snake catching:”—“Put the stick close to the head then you have no chance of being bitten, now grab the tail like this!” — he would reach down to the squirming tail and adroitly grab it.

He would then release the head while saying “you have to be quick” and he would swing the snake around in a slow circle so that the momentum prevented it from reaching up to bite him.

Sometimes he would stop the swing and show us how the snake would start to bend upwards to try and strike his hand.

He would then calmly instruct us “Grab that wheat bag and open it”. Then he would bring the swinging snake over and somehow stop the swing and for a very quick moment hold it still over the opening of the sack — then drop it in the bag. The snake’s head was really close to us as we held the bag open — it was scary for us!

Quickly closing the bag the job would be done — another snake captured.

Other times he would lay the stick against the back of a snake’s head and then simply grasp the snake there. The snake would then wrap itself around his arm so that he had a sort of tourniquet around his lower arm. This was no problem with smaller snakes as they weren’t strong enough to be a problem.

One day at Wubin Rocks he caught a huge black tiger snake and did the grab behind the head thing. The snake started to wrap around his arm and he realised that the snake was too strong so he squeezed the “throat” of the snake so hard that it died. I remember the limp and flaccid snake after this had occurred and thinking how quickly life could be completely ceased.

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I have been around snakes since I was really young, and I remember an incident at home when I was a very young child.

Our farmhouse had a well-watered bright green lawn enclosed with a brick fence and this was a “safe” place for us to play. When I was about three years old and my brother Kim was about one a big black tiger snake came thought the opening in the fence onto the lawn we were playing on. I remember that we were both dressed the same — simply in a pair of underpants — Kim was curious and started to toddle over to the snake. I remember calmly leading him away. I called and my mother came out from the kitchen. She asked us to go inside and stay there. We went inside but could see her and the snake from the windows.

Mum got an axe and a stick and tried to whip it with the stick to break its back and then axe the head off.

I was really disappointed that I couldn’t be out there with her having all that action and excitement. She was balancing on top of the low verandah wall with her axe and stick as she tried to kill it.

We were calling out “Please can we come out now—we can’t see!” She was screaming “No!” I felt incensed that she would not let us out — it seems so unfair at the time.

Once she had killed it and removed the head we were allowed to play with the body to feel what a snake felt like, it was cool and smooth beyond imagining. When we asked my parents if we could play with its head my father did the commentary thing.; “Never play with a dead snakehead. The teeth could still release poison or have poison on them even although it is dead.

 When I was in Grade one at Wubin primary school I took a whip snake in for show and tell. I had caught the whip snake on the verandah and put it in a glass jar with holes in the lid.

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A whip snake I had been informed by my father was poisonous but not enough to kill a child. This obviously made the snake “safe” enough to catch and I know that my parents would have helped me with the holes in the lid of the jar so they must have supported my show and tell snake.

A fellow school student reminded me of my show and tell snake in my adulthood and until that moment I had not realized how unusual it was for a five-year-old child to take a poisonous snake in a glass jar on the school bus and to school.

My parents simply trusted their children to follow their strict rules for the handling of snakes, guns and cars and we did.

After show and tell the objects were placed on a shelf in the classroom until the end of the day when they were taken home (again on the school bus).

The whip snake sat there on the shelf until a curious class mate opened the jar and it got out and started to slither around the classroom of thirty-two young students aged between five and seven.

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I remember being a tad confused about what to do. This was because there was an adult in the room and adults usually did the “catch the snake” thing. I had only caught the whip snake when the adults weren’t present. I then noticed that my teacher — Miss Irvine — a 22-year-old Perth girl didn’t know what to do!

I caught it and put it back in the jar. I thought nothing of it until I was reminded of this much later in my life.

This story is actually about a special snake called George and a teacher and the feeling of unrequited revenge.

When I was about eight years old we were off on one of our yearly Christmas school holiday trips to Jurien Bay.

We had the second house ever built in Jurien Bay and went there for the whole of the Christmas holidays, Easter and often at other times. It was our second home away from the farm.

The drive was long because the roads were gravel and on the last couple of sand hills the road was a sandy track and we sometimes got bogged.

On a gravel road somewhere out from Eneabba where the trees and bushes were crowding in on the road a large snake slithered across in front of our car leaving that sinusoidal track behind it. Dad came to a quick halt jumped out of the car and chased it — grabbing a stick on the way. This was a “normal” occurrence when we spotted a snake or unusual animal.

He did the “trap head thing” then the “grab tail thing” and then the “swinging snake thing” and then came to a complete conundrum, as we didn’t have a wheat bag in which to put the snake.

My parents loved holidays — the longer the better — so they had picked us up directly from school. My plastic school bag was the next best thing to a hessian wheat bag.

We emptied out the uneaten rotting school lunches, schoolbooks, used tissues and other detritus that I had kept in it for the whole year.

Dad then dropped the six-foot long snake into the bag. Zipping it up was a tad tricky but it was managed.

So, the school bag with snake was on my lap for the rest of the long trip.

By the time we got to Jurien Bay we had named the snake George, and he needed a much better home than my school bag.

A very large glass jar was found and he was coiled into that and that is where he lived for the time he was “on holidays” with us. The metal lid had breathing holes punched in it.

He had been carsick in my school bag. I remember being a really upset because my school bag already had a disgusting smell — this was why I couldn’t eat my school lunches and now it was even worse. Maybe he was car sick because of the smell?

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George lived in his jar in the middle of the dining room table of our beach house for the whole of the school holidays. My father informed us that snakes respond to vibration so to keep him happy we talked and sang to him and we figured the more thumping of cards the better. “Snap”, “Galloping demons” and “Whist” were his daily entertainment. This was a time when playing cards, reading books and cooking we the things to do when not at the beach or riding our bikes.

We had an ancient dancing doll music box from my mother’s mother and we would wind it up and play it him endlessly.

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My father didn’t know what sort of snake he was so when we did the yearly Perth trip, George came along to be identified.

The Perth museum staff let us know that he was a non-poisonous Children’s Python. They didn’t need another specimen so George’s life was saved. With that information my father decided that he would become our new pet. While in Perth he purchased a breeding pair of mice and a home for them so that we could feed him. We then all went back from Perth to Jurien Bay.

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George displayed supreme patience in his glass jar. He really had no choice — for the rest of the holidays he continued to be entertained with our card, music, talking “vibrations”.

My father would take him out and play with him. He was tame by this time and would slither around my father and easily go back into the jar.

At the end of the holidays we all went home with George and he was given a beautiful snake home — a large box and the front glass was one half of a windscreen from a 1950’s car from our prolific rubbish dump that had many ancient harvesters, trucks and cars.

George became a part of our normal life.

On one occasion George slithered up a chair and then balanced on his tail up the side of a doorframe. He then poked around at the top of the door slowly manipulating it until it opened. He went over the top and dropped himself into the next room. If I hadn’t seen this with my own eyes I would have thought it impossible. I became to believe that snakes are very intelligent and able to sneak into the most difficult places.

Once a year in the August school holidays we would go to Carnarvon to visit our family from the Quan Sing clan. On the way home we would drop in to friends in places like Geraldton and Northampton. One family we visited had photographs of a little girl of about four all over the walls. We were later told that the farmhouse had a sleep-out where the four children slept. One night the young daughter had a temperature and was crying — she started to be really ill so they rushed her to the Doctor. She died without them knowing why. When they came back home they stripped the bed and there was a poisonous snake still in the bed. Only then did they find the tiny bite marks on her legs. The snake had managed to get into the sleep-out.

Infrequently we fed George baby mice and watched as he swallowed them alive and whole. We played with him and daily enjoyed his company—he was our pet.

One time when my father and we three children playing with him on the lawn a cat came close. Cats kill snakes so George had every reason to be scared and he was acting jumpy. I touched his tail and he must have thought that I was a cat — he flipped most of his body around and stuck at me. I did a summersault backwards and luckily missed a bite.

George had been scared before and had bitten my father. While my father was prizing George off this arm he did the commentary thing to educate us. He explained calmly that a snakes teeth angle backwards so that in order to get George off this arm he had to push his head towards his arm and then lift him off taking the angle of the teeth into account. I am guessing that he told us this just incase we ever needed to do that when he was not there.

George and my father became great friends to the point where George would slither into my father’s shirt and fall asleep around his waist and my father would forget that he was there.

I have come to believe that a kind and caring bond between people and animals is part of the evolution of the both parties. It seems to me that when animals are bonded to people who are loving both parties are uplifted and this is what I believe happened with George and my father.

Wubin at the time had this schoolteacher called Mr. Flynn. He had red hair and a famous temper.

He caned both the boys and the girls and even caned the child called Gordon who we had been told was spastic (Cerebral Palsy). Of course the cane would stimulate Gordon into a frenzy of spasm — such cruelty. Humans in the “good old days” were often not kind — it was the culture to not mention abuse or not act when abuse was noticed.

I remember the huge purple welts I would get when he caned my lower legs for being too loud when emptying the bins…

I was helping and I got the cane!

My parents dismissed my welts by saying I must have deserved it.

These were parents who didn’t hit their children, and yet they allowed this teacher to cane me. Like I said; abuse was not acknowledged for what it was.

I could never figure out adults when I was a child. Although my parents were intelligent and stimulating they seemed so devoid of joy and understanding. I still can’t figure most of them out — most seem to just be like robots doing what everyone is brainwashed to do, on their march towards the grave.

Mr. Flynn was a cruel man; yet it seemed to me that my parents were oblivious to his cruelty. I am guessing that when he first arrived he was OK but his cruelty built up over time?

When he went over to the teacher’s house for lunch we would often hear him shouting at his children and wife.

My parents would invite him and his poor bullied family out for dinner a couple of times a year and on one of these occasions the men needed more beer.

My father got into our Studebaker car and Mr. Flynn got into the passenger seat. I was in the back seat.

George was asleep inside my father’s shirt and as my father leaned back in the seat George woke up — by this stage the car was doing 60 miles per hour that is 110 kilometres per hour in today’s language.

George popped his head with his flickering tongue out between the button- holes of my father’s shirt and then started to look left and right as more of him came out.

The fantastic bit of this story for my nine-year-old self was that Mr. Flynn was petrified!

He opened the door to jump out of the car — it was a gravel road and the noise when a car door is opened at that speed was really something!

Dust; gravel, loud rattling noise; teacher panicking; me delighted!  Inside my head I was praying that he would jump!

Such is the mind of a child.

Unfortunately that was not to be because my father casually grabbed George and moved him away from Mr. Flynn and drove on.

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