The uncooperative spider

11 05 2018

Nope, just not a good photo

The spiders are back in the nursery after a 2 year break. I’d noticed the decline for a few years prior to this and I’d put it down to erratic and decreasing rainfall over the past 5 years. So last year after an unusually heavy rainy season, I was expecting to see at least a few. Nothing. I was disappointed. In a normal year they festoon the nursery with their golden and incredibly sticky webs. I like to think that they catch all manner of pests that are eating the seedlings but I never really see much in their webs. They must eat something as they do grow. I don’t really mind what they do or don’t eat as I just like seeing them there; I guess I have to admit that I just like spiders. Maybe it’s an underdog thing – lots of people don’t like spiders but they can have my support.

Maybe it’s the same thing with snakes as I also quite like them. Friends at school kept harmless snakes and I admit they are fascinating creatures to handle – cool and silky to the touch. In the bush I am a bit wary of them. So long as we meet on my terms, i.e. I see them first and am not surprised by them, then we can be friends.

The first job I had back in Zimbabwe after I’d finished my backpacking travels was with a flower growing company in Lion’s Den, the other side of Chinhoyi from Harare about an hour and half north-west of the capital. It did not go well and after 2 years I threw the towel in and we parted best of enemies but I did get to live in the bush and that aspect I really enjoyed. On several occasions I saw a herd of kudu (a type of antelope) by the road, there were lots of birds on the local dams and lots of snakes to watch out for and they were not necessarily harmless.

One morning I walked out of my office in the flower pack-shed to use the toilet. I opened the door to see a lizard like head watching me from behind the water pipes. I paused as it moved and revealed itself as a snake. I couldn’t make out what type so moved a little closer. It opened it’s mouth and spat but nothing hit me and there was no typical cobra hood. I wasn’t going to take a chance so went back into the office to get some safety glasses kept for when using an angle grinder. Calling a foreman to bring a sack and a broom I went back to the toilet whilst the women packers vacated the pack-shed with shrieks of excitement. By now the snake had decided to make a break for the door but being a smooth cement floor it couldn’t get any traction and did not so much slither as writhe. It even made an effort to strike at me but I easily side stepped it. Brushing the snake into a clear area of the pack-shed, I trapped its head with the back of the broom and picked it up by the tail. In this part of the world the only snake that can climb back up its tail is a boomslang (tree snake) and this was most certainly not one of those. Snakes will try to lift their heads up from this position but all one needs to do is jerk it up by the tail and the head will drop down again (this is not the recommended way of handling snakes!).

Now I had to get the snake into the sack. The foreman was holding the sack at arm’s length and wouldn’t come close enough. I shouted at him for being daft whilst the rest of the labour force giggled nervously from the safety of the shed door. Finally he came close enough, I dropped the snake into the sack, grabbed the top and tied it off with some string. I could just see the snake waving around inside. Nobody could tell me what it was and I had no other means of identifying it – it was just a metre long, brownish snake. I did know it wasn’t a black mamba which were common in the area and certainly not a snake I’d have tried to pick up. They are also quite nondescript in colour but aggressive and highly venomous.

Later that day I showed it to a local farmer.

“Sounds like a cobra” he said. “Let’s have a look”.

“But it didn’t put it’s hood up” I countered.

“Maybe, but now it has” he said, pointing at the distinct silhouette of a cobra in the bag.

Despite several brushes with snakes in the area that included nearly standing on a puff adder walking out in the bush, one of my dogs being bitten by a puff adder (she survived and lived another 13 years) and getting repeatedly bitten by a mildly venomous grass snake that didn’t appreciate that I was trying to heal the cut on it’s back (it too survived and was released) I’ve never lost my appreciation for snakes. I won’t handle them like I did as I am not nearly as agile as I used to be but I’ll let them be and defend their right to exist if I can.

So where was I? Yes spiders, that’s what started all this. The golden orb spiders that weave their webs in the nursery are completely harmless to humans and have fascinating blue and yellow patterns on the base of their abdomen. I’ve been trying to get a decent photo of one for years so when I saw this one on an aloe in the nursery car park I thought I was in luck. The light was good and the spider was in a good position but all I had was my cellphone. The camera is not bad as cellphone cameras go but it’s not a patch on my SLR. So I snapped the photo at the start of this post and thought “I’ll be back to get you”.

So today I was back with SLR camera and tripod but would the spider cooperate. Oh no. It sat contentedly in the middle of its web and would not be coaxed back onto the aloe. The light was also wrong; I’d been distracted by my landlord and missed the 5 minute window of sun on the aloe leaf that I’d seen yesterday. This evening I checked up on it again. Its magnificent coloured abdomen was perfectly lit by the late afternoon sun and it was nowhere near the aloe but no matter. Just as I got up to grab my SLR the sun slipped behind a bank of cloud. I’ll be back.

Who’s a pretty girl then?

Snakes and rabies

6 12 2012

In the 7 years that I have been in this house¬† I have only ever seen a live snake in the garden once and that was a very small boomslang (a timid but venomous tree snake) that did not wait around to be examined. So at lunch time when my domestic servant pointed out a largish charcoal-coloured snake in the rockery I was intrigued. My first priority was to get Kharma out of the way as I had no intention of finding out if she was snake-savvy or not. Dogs often are snake aware and Gary, whose farm I visited last weekend, has a ridgeback that is adept at killing snakes. My mother had a Jack Russell that thought it was a snake killer but on two encounters with cobras came off second best with venom in its eyes. My mother washed the dog’s eyes with water and gave it antibiotic eye drops and it recovered just fine. Cassie, my first dog (see Canine Chronicles on the right) was bitten on her face by what could only have been a puff-adder when I was living in the Chinhoyi area. After a couple of hours she looked more like a Shar Pei than a labrador but she recovered fine after I took her to a helpful farmer who gave her a big shot of penicillin (all the vets in the area were at a party). The next day she had cortisone injected into the bite area and after 5 days I couldn’t tell she’d been bitten. She lived another 13 glorious years without incident.

I told Kharma to get inside the house. She thought she was being scolded and sulked off down the verandah. I asked her nicely and she obeyed. I called the farm manager who said he didn’t have a shotgun handy but would come and have a look. I phoned Dave who knows about snakes but he didn’t answer. Gary seemed to think it could be a cobra or a black mamba but I was almost, but not quite, certain the latter don’t occur around here. The difference is important; cobras are not particularly quick or aggressive and mambas are both quick and aggressive. A bite from either can be fatal.

I caught a cobra by the tail once but I did have a major advantage on it. It was on a smooth concrete floor in a flower packhouse and couldn’t get any grip. I wasn’t sure what it was but knew that very few snakes can climb up their tail so just picked it up by the tail and put it in a fertilizer bag. I do know people who will catch black mamabas but they are fleet of foot and quick of reflex which I am most certainly not.

The farm manager arrived and was none-the-wiser as to what snake it was (it was uncooperatively hiding its head behind a rock). Some more farm workers arrived and looked dubiously  at the snake and one went off to find a stick with which to dispatch it. I offered to go and get my shotgun which is kept at work as required by the licence. Dave phoned back as I got to the pickup and said it was almost certainly an Egyptian/snouted cobra. I was called back to the front of the house and the snake had been killed; it was a cobra. Not a big one and I felt a bit sad that it had come to this. They have been around a lot longer than us so have a right to be here but I could not risk Kharma being bitten.

Kharma of course did not understand what all the fuss was about but was ecstatic to be let out and go for a drive in the pickup. She was less than ecstatic to arrive at the vet for her annual injections and rabies booster. Rabies vaccines are not normally required to be administered annually but while at Gary’s last weekend he recounted the recent incident he’d experienced with a rabid horse. Ignorant of the symptoms he’d initially thought it might be the equine equivalent of biliary, a blood parasite that in dogs is frequently fatal. It was only when the horse started attacking his dogs that he realized it was likely rabies. They have had a number of incidents this year with rabid stray dogs and one of his cows caught the virus and had to be destroyed. The carcase was buried in an old alluvial gold mining pit near the Hunyani River and promptly dug up by locals and eaten! I haven’t seen any rabid dogs around here but the vet told me that there have been a few on the north-east of town so we thought it prudent to keep Kharma up to date.

Snakes, by the way, don’t get rabies.