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.