Do snakes have personalities?

Updated - November 13, 2021 10:22 am IST

Published - September 28, 2012 04:49 pm IST

A defensive cobra Armed restraint. Photo: Janaki Lenin

A defensive cobra Armed restraint. Photo: Janaki Lenin

South Indian king cobras are quite different from Oriya ones. Even after years in captivity at the Madras Crocodile Bank, the Oriya kings were just as feisty as day one. I dreaded the days when Rom had to feed them. The southern snakes would stalk and pounce on the dead rat that Rom dangled enticingly in front of them. The Oriya snakes, however, would bite the tongs, plants, and boulders in the enclosure, and after they ran out of things to bite, grab the rat. Sometimes, they would even look at Rom’s shoes intently although he stood still.

These temperaments are not an artifact of captivity. In the Anamalais, Tamil Nadu, one tea estate labourer brought a large snake flailing inside a gunny sack, saying it was a rat snake. Inside was a hefty, 10-ft king cobra. Surprisingly, it had not bitten in self-defence while being caught and stuffed clumsily into the burlap.

One snake catcher in the mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika, Orissa, wasn’t so lucky; he was bitten on the nose by a wild king cobra. Even if he had been close to medical help, there is no anti-venom for king cobra bite in India. Without hesitating for a moment, he swung his machete and chopped his own nose off. It is possible the snake didn’t inject any venom, but had the man waited for the symptoms to develop, he might not have lived to tell the tale.

Pictures of many snake rescuers free-handling calm king cobras from the Western Ghats circulate on social networking sites. If these heroes tried a similar stunt with the feisty Oriya ones, they wouldn’t last a minute.

For centuries, mongoose-and-cobra fights have been staged by snake charmers. The cobras’ first line of defence, to sit majestically and menacingly with their heads up and hoods spread, doesn’t cut any ice with mongooses. We had always assumed the quick-to-tire reptiles were no match for the agile and swift mammals.

It was only recently, when a film crew used high-speed cameras, that we realised cobras strike at their tormentors from the defensive posture without opening their mouths; they were merely head-butting.

I haven’t found a credible explanation for their reticence to bite. Rom suggested, “Venom is expensive to produce. Snakes may want to use it as a last resort.”

I argued, “But this is a matter of life or death. If a cobra won’t use its venom when a mongoose goes for its jugular, when is a good time to use it?”

Despite these broad generalisations about species’ temperaments, there is variation among individual snakes.

A man showed up at our door once holding a healthy adult Russell’s viper in his bare hands. I was still collecting my wits, when he announced he had caught a baby python. Rom instructed in a calm voice, “Put it down slowly and gently.”

After he flipped the snake into a bag, he berated the ignorant man.

On another occasion, Rom’s six-year-old son Samir and his partner in mischief, Kali, brought home a bunch of saw-scaled vipers in their little hands.

“See dada, baby cat snakes,” said Samir.

Surprisingly and fortunately, the normally snappy vipers didn’t bite either of the two kids.

Are these just instances of good fortune? Why didn’t the snakes bite while being caught? Is it the easy confidence of the ignorant that protects them? Some say snakes sense nervousness and react by biting. I wonder if perhaps these individual snakes are calm by nature. Yet, many nervous and frightened cobras, Russell’s vipers, and saw-scaled vipers bite tens of thousands of people every year in India.

I asked Rom, “Do you think the personality of the individual snake determines whether an encounter with a human ends in a medical emergency?”

Rom scoffed, “How do you suggest we test if a venomous snake is a Type A personality?”

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