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A Close Call with a King Cobra, Ophiophagus hannah

Banded Phase King Cobra

Note: Please see my article on king cobra natural history for further information about this fascinating snake.

It is often difficult to determine what a snake will do in a particular situation, as their external cues are quite subtle. A great deal is going on behind those unblinking eyes, I can assure you, but most species give us little to go on. Not so, however, with the cobras – active, alert and intelligent, their behaviors are much more evident to us.

Among professional herpetologists, the king cobra has the reputation of having all the aforementioned cobra qualities in excess. This, combined with a length of up to 18 feet (it is the longest of the venomous snakes) renders the king cobra among the world’s most formidable animals.

Those I worked with at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos invariably watched and reacted to each of my movements instantly, in almost “mammalian” fashion. The doors to snake exhibits are equipped with metal panes that can be slid open to reveal a small window, thus allowing the keeper a look inside. Nearly always, king cobras respond to the pane’s movement immediately by rearing up and peering back through the window – quite unnerving the first time it happens to one! No other snake has responded in this way in all my many years of working in zoos.

So it was with some trepidation that I responded to a call from an airport official who claimed that a “giant” cobra (escaped snakes are always “giants”!) had escaped from its shipping crate (I have agreed not to reveal the identity of the airport). Fortunately, the animal was contained with a small, relatively bare room. Armed with a pair of tongs and a garbage can lid, I entered, thoughts of Frank Buck’s similar story, related in his classic book “Bring ‘Em Back Alive,” bouncing about in my mind.

The snake, about 9 feet long, reared up in typical cobra fashion and, its head at my waist level, advanced. I have been in my share of tussles with wild animals, but the phrase “Discretion is the better part of valor” never rang truer. I backed out and asked for a secure box with a hole cut in one side. I pushed this into the room and, as I had hoped, the cobra darted inside – for once the species’ alertness working in my favor. The lack of cover in the room had strengthened its will to fight – provided with a way out, the snake retreated. I was able to secure it without incident.

A group of NYC police officers had gathered outside the room. The younger ones were quite disappointed that I had not leapt upon the snake and subdued it with a grasp to the neck. The oldest officer, the sergeant in charge, simply said “Thanks for sparing me a wild ride to the hospital and a ton of paperwork”!

One of my fondest “reptilian” memories is of snake hunting with famed herpetologist Romulus Whitaker.


  1. avatar

    I totally agree with your words saying
    “Those I worked with at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos invariably watched and reacted to each of my movements instantly, in almost “mammalian” fashion.”

    I am a “Field Assistant” for “KIng Cobra Radio-Telemetry” project in Agumbe Radinforest Research Station, established by Rom Sir, till now, its been 3 months, and I got chance to study behavior of 7 snakes, 2 females and 5 males. The bigger males were so easy with humans all around them, they were never disturbed by human presence, this really fascinated me, never expected snakes to be like this.

  2. avatar
    Frank Indiviglio

    Hello Anju,

    Thank you so much for your comment – it is very nice to hear of your involvement in such a worthwhile project. Please update me when you have a chance, I have not worked with king cobras in the wild.

    Have you done any work around nests? I am very interested to hear your thoughts on whether or not males stay in the vicinity of the nest.

    Please give my regards to Rom if you happen to be in touch – I missed him his last few times in NYC.

    Good luck with your work, Frank

  3. avatar

    I want to thank you, Frank on behalf of my son and his research parter (both 8 years old..) for being so generous with your time and amazing depth of experience as they researched their project on King Cobras. For me, the best part of these blogs and the internet is the way we can reach out and connect with amazing people like you.

    • avatar

      It was my pleasure, Dave…thanks for taking the time to write. It was gratifying to me to see that both boys were extremely well-mannered and interested. I’m sure they will do well in the future. Please be in touch if I can be of any assistance in the future.

      Best regards, Frank

  4. avatar
    Melanie Felsher

    I was very pleased that you recorded the senior LEO’s reaction to your employing your God-given common sense and using the most sensible way to capture the snake. I declare, I don’t understand some young men, who would rather take unnecessary risks with lives than simply do the easier, safer, and less stressful thing for all involved! But I guess that’s the woman’s (and older man’s, apparently) point of view.

    • avatar

      Hi Melanie,

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ve responded to a dozen or so snakebite emergencies over the years (illegal pets in NYC;antivenin is stored at Bx Zoo and staff responds to ID snake, supply antivenin). All except one involved guys in their 20’s, usually drinking, and all had more or less the same “type” of personality. But trust me, the surface bravado faded as soon as they were bitten! Best, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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