Snakes in the grass

"I f***in’ hate snakes.”

So said my neighbour the other day as we stood in a paddock discussing repairs to a mutual fence. It’s a common refrain in Australia (with or without “f***in’”, but usually with, minus the asterisks). We have four of the world’s top-six most venomous land snakes, so perhaps the hate is understandable, but it’s misplaced. I’ll explain why later.

I don’t hate snakes, but I’m somewhat scared of them.

Maybe it’s because of the hot summer or a function of more reporting on social media, but it seems like there has been an unusually large number of snake home invasions recently. The most widely reported was at Moana, a beach suburb in southern Adelaide, where a heavily pregnant eastern brown was found under a fridge, preparing to lay a batch of eggs.

The eastern brown is the world’s second-most venomous land snake – an amount of venom equivalent in weight to 10 grains of sugar is enough to kill an adult human. A dozen or more of these deadly creatures slithering around the house (yes, baby eastern browns are just as venomous as their parents) would freak out almost anyone.

Including me, because I’m somewhat scared of snakes.

We had our own near-invasion a few weeks ago. Jezza, our excitable old dog, alerted us by barking at the wall. On inspection we saw the back half of an eastern brown protruding from a ventilation hole in the bricks; the front half, presumably, was inside the wall cavity. It was stuck – able to move neither in nor out. We (actually my wife, because I’m somewhat scared of snakes) pulled on the tail, but it was wedged firmly in.

In the end, we – that is, my wife – put the snake out of its misery by cutting it in half with a shovel.

We’ve had other snakes near the house, too. Once we discovered a red-bellied black snake near the pond outside the front door.

The pond is gone now.

Red-bellies are venomous, although they are unlikely to kill an adult human. We – that is, my wife – scooped this one up with a pronged hoe and dropped it into an empty wheelie bin. We – in this case, I – bravely wheeled the bin to the bottom of the property, tipped it up, and allowed the snake to go on its merry, slithering way.

Was the release-point slightly closer to the neighbour’s house than to ours? I’m not saying.

Incidentally, a red-bellied black snake was also discovered recently in a child’s cot at a day care centre.

Most Australians, no matter where they live, have snake tales of their own. But even though our snakes are highly venomous and very scary, I’m proud of them, just as I’m proud of the other things that make our continent so unusual and beautiful – the flattened landscapes, the marsupials, the eucalypts, the colourful birds, our indigenous cultures, and so much else.

Australian snakes play important ecological roles, and they're not even very dangerous. They are shy, preferring to get out of our way than pump us with venom. They don’t have real fangs, either, just grooves towards the back of their mouths, so they rarely deliver a full load of venom, even if they do strike. Antivenom and other medical treatments are often effective, too.

Add all that up, and Australian snakes turn out to be less dangerous than lightning. The total number of human deaths by snakebite per year in Australia is estimated at 2–4 people, compared with 5–10 by lightning.

Contrast that with the situation in India, where 46,000 people are estimated to die from snakebite each year. I hope effective antivenom can be made cheaply available in rural India some day soon, because that is a shocking number. India has 55 times more people than Australia but 12,000 times more death from snakebite. Its snakes – such as Russell’s viper and the Indian krait – are super-scary and super-deadly.

I suppose every place has its snakes in the grass, its lurking dangers, but the threats we face in Australia are much more deadly than real snakes. Among the biggest, in my view, is that our politicians lie and obfuscate for the sake of power or stupid ideologies. Another threat is the way we let them get away with it, through ignorance, apathy or prejudice. The “debate” we have had in recent years over climate change and renewable energy policy is a good example of what I’m talking about; another is the appalling treatment of asylum seekers. We have been lied to and misled, and we have fallen for it.

It’s about time we paid more attention. Sam Dastayari, a Labor senator, recently said that ten large corporations – the four big Australian banks, a few miners, two grocery chains, and a telco – have hijacked political debate in Australia. Politics, said Dastayari, have “become so dominated by the interests that they're pushing, and the agenda that they’re pushing”, there has been “this complete crowding out of a proper political discourse in this country”. (To his list of ten companies, I would add a certain media group and a few loud-mouthed ideologues.)

That’s just the view of one (albeit well-informed) guy in Canberra, but I think most of we ordinary folk sense there is something seriously wrong with our democracy. Should we trust those ten corporations (and various bellicose politicians and commentators) to mould the country for the benefit of all? Or will they do it to suit their own interests?

We all know they are only entrenching their own interests and prejudices, and in doing so they are distorting the country into something ugly. But what are we doing about it? I think Waleed Aly is right when he says (in the context of asylum seekers) we are lying to ourselves. At best we are dangerously complacent.

Australians, in general, are good, honest people, and we are lucky in so many ways. We live in a paradise (our superb, venomous snakes included), and we have the chance to build something great, something that will last and something of which we can be proud; we can make the most of our extraordinary good luck. To do so, we have to be honest with ourselves and make decisions based on reliable evidence dosed with compassion. And we must require our politicians to do the same.

Or we can pander to the snakes in the grass, those people who ignore evidence and distort truth to suit their own ends. They’re deadly. Where’s that shovel?

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