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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.

The King Cobra or Hamadryad, Ophiophagus hannah – natural history and zoological park husbandry – Part 2

To read the first part of this article, click here.
Field Research on Nesting King Cobras
Famed herpetologist Romulus Whitaker took on the “quite invigorating” as he put it, task of disturbing nesting king cobras to determine just how far their protective instincts extended. He was early on in the research when last we spoke, but found that most retreated after an extended threat display – I imagine that the display of an angry king cobra serves well-enough to dissuade adversaries less-determined than the unshakable Mr. Whitaker!

Captive Breeding – my experience
The king cobra’s taste for other snakes complicates breeding efforts in zoos. During my years as a zoo keeper I experienced several successes and failures. I once housed a pair in adjoining exhibits, separated by a screen panel, for 3 months in order to gauge their reactions to each other. They seemed to get along well and, indeed, co-habited peacefully for several weeks. Always well fed, there were no signs of aggression. Unfortunately, however, there was also no sign of the female one morning – the 12 foot long male had swallowed all 8 feet of her – quite a feat even for a snake!

Working With King Cobras
Although rumored to be aggressive in nature, king cobras often (but not always!) flee when confronted by humans if given the opportunity. Captives are, however, extremely alert and seem, at least upon casual observation, to evince learning abilities not possessed by other snakes. I have always preferred to house them in exhibits equipped with shift cages, into which the snake may be secured before I entered the exhibit – they are just too fast to work with close at hand (my predecessors at the Bronx Zoo seemed to feel likewise – in an old storage area I came across an old wooden “cobra shield” – I like to think it may have been used by the eminent Raymond Ditmars, first reptile curator at the Bronx Zoo). When shifts are not available, I exercise extreme caution and, as with all venomous snakes, alert co-workers of my whereabouts.

King cobras are notorious escape artists, even for snakes, and the cause of much lost sleep in the zoo world. Some years ago a major zoo was closed down for 3 days while an escaped specimen was at large (it was, luckily, re-captured without incident). I’ll relate my own experience with 3 escaped spitting cobras in a future article.

Cobra Classification and Venom
King cobras and the 300 or so other members of the family Elapidae are known as “Proteroglyphous Snakes” – a term referring to the fact that their hollow, venom conducting teeth (fangs) are fixed in position and cannot be erected as can those of the vipers and their relatives (the Solenoglyphus Snakes).

Cobras inject venom by biting and employing a chewing motion, and cannot utilize the stab and release action of the vipers. The venom of most species is highly effective, and large specimens can deliver huge quantities of venom in a single bite. It is often said that an adult king cobra may carry enough venom to “kill a small elephant” – while that is difficult to quantify, a cobra of any species is a most dangerous animal.

Other Cobras and Their Relatives
Elapids reach their greatest diversity in Australia, dominating the snake fauna there. There are over 50 species in the Americas, with coral snakes being the only representatives found in the USA. Arboreal, aquatic and burrowing forms occur in Africa and Asia. Several African cobras can eject venom at the eyes of enemies (they hunt in usual cobra fashion), an adaptation to life in grasslands populated by large hoofed mammals. Sea snakes, kraits and mambas are related to cobras and also classified as Elapids.

The Cobras’ Hood
The defensive display of cobras involves rearing up and flaring out a wide hood of skin about the head and upper body. This is accomplished by raising a series of elongated ribs, which in turn stretch the skin between them to form the hood. A large king cobra may raise over 4 feet of its body from the ground when agitated – a most impressive (and convincing!) display.

Information concerning king cobras in India is posted at:

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