African Tales – The cobra, she spits

December 23 – One of the most dangerous African snakes is the black-necked spitting cobra. It is quite common, and seems more anxious to spit its venom at an enemy than to bite it. It aims for the face and if that venom gets into the eyes, it creates a great deal of pain and temporarily blinds the recipient. The eyes need to be washed out immediately or much damage, even blindness, may result. A friend of ours entered a dark shed and a spitting cobra squirted venom into his face and eyes, and he had to wear dark glasses for quite some time. The spitting is not really spitting, for the venom is forced out through the two hollow fangs at the front of the mouth and can travel for several feet.

Twice in my life I was spat on by a cobra, but fortunately both times the venom fell upon my arm and I just wiped it off and suffered no harm. If I had had a cut there, it would have been just the same as being bitten and probably I would not be telling this tale today. On both occasions I was not aware that the snake I was dealing with was a spitting cobra, but after that I knew that the black band on the throat was a danger signal. Photographers trying to take pictures of this kind of snake have to be very careful and need to have a glass or plastic barrier between them and the snake.

Before we were married, Chris and I were walking with her dog near a small stream one day and we saw a cobra rear up in alarm as our dog passed near it. It was a spitting cobra, and as we approached it went down into a hole in a termite mound. Knowing that snakes do not willingly allow themselves to be pulled out of a hole, I grabbed its tail before it disappeared and held on. For quite a while I pulled steadily but the snake held fast. Eventually it began to tire and I slowly pulled it out, asking Chris to find a good stick to use in holding the snake’s head down. She rushed around, collecting sticks that all turned out to be rotten and that broke. When the snake finally was right out of the hole I had to do something to keep it from turning its head and spitting at me, so decided to just swing it around my head and let centrifugal force do the job. Chris was still looking for a strong stick but nothing came to hand, and after a while all this whirling around was starting to cause dizziness. I had hoped to capture the cobra but that was not to be, so I finally just swung it hard against a tree and killed it.

While at boarding school near Cape Town, I one day captured a small yellow Cape cobra and took it back to school with me. I did not publicize my captive at all, for the authorities would have made me get rid of it immediately. The end of the school year was near, so I kept the snake in a small container in the dorm room and when it was time to return to my folks in Zimbabwe, I took the snake along with me in the train. That fact was not made public either, for a cobra on a train, in the passenger car, was doubtless illegal!

After a three-day trip, snake and I were at trip’s end and we ended up in my room at home. I’m surprised now that my folks let me keep it in the house. As entertainment, I used to put on heavy gloves, take the snake out of its container, and torment it into striking at my gloves. The fangs were too short and the leather too thick to allow penetration. The thrill of this encounter soon wore off and the snake was executed and buried. So to any young readers, and most other readers, too? I do not recommend keeping cobras as pets! – DALE

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