The Spitting Cobra and the Devil

We were traveling in two land cruisers. On this particular day I was in Ben’s. The other land cruiser had stopped on the road ahead of us. Everyone was looking down at the ground. As we drove up next to them, I tried to focus on what they were seeing. When I did, I snapped back in my seat. It was as if the snake they had spotted were in the car with us. A long, thick blue-black spitting cobra lay motionless on the verge.

The spitting cobra is a deadly snake whose venom paralyzes your nervous system in less than a minute. Your brain can't send its signals to your lungs. Your lungs stop bellowing. You suffocate to death.

I remembered a story a guide had told me on an earlier safari. He had been driving along a road outside of Maun in Bostswana doing about 40 miles an hour. The window of his land cruiser was open and he was resting his elbow on the edge. He was wearing a short sleeve shirt. Suddenly, his arm felt cool as if it had been sprayed with water. He looked in the rear view mirror. A spitting cobra, raised up with its hood spread, was disappearing into the distance. He jammed on the brakes, ran to the back of the cruiser where he kept his waterbag and thrust his arm inside, frantically rubbing the spot where the venom had struck. He told the story with a great deal of admiration for the snake and not much concern for his own life. He had less than a minute to size up the situation and take action. Suppose he hadn't seen the snake in the mirror?

“Can you imagine the accuracy of that reptile, hitting a target moving at forty miles an hour ten feet away?”

“I certainly can,” I said.

I was not lying. I have always tendered Nature's venomous creatures the greatest respect. Since most of those venomous creatures congregate in Africa, it is little wonder my heart is in my mouth every time Nancy takes me there.

“I only fear two things,” Ben said, observing me cowering in the front seat next to him. “Cape Buffalo and hippos. This snake is quiet. Just look at him.”

I allowed myself to peer through the window next to Ben. He was right. The snake lay there like a piece of old garden hose. It might as well have been dead for all the movement I could see. After a few moments, it twisted itself into a paper clip, slithered back along itself and disappeared into the clump of bushes behind it.

“You see,” said Ben. “He doesn't want any trouble. He is only dangerous when he lifts himself up and spreads his hood. This one is quite peaceful.”

I wanted to tell Ben what bothered me was not this particular snake. Rather it was what snakes stand for. I didn’t. For one thing I wasn’t really sure. I’m still not. For another Ben would have thought me even more pusillanimous than he already did.

I have heard that we are all hard-wired to fear snakes and spiders. I don't really believe that. For one thing if most snakes behave the way Ben said they do—that is, they want no part of us—then why would they ever have posed a problem that Madam Evolution had to take to her complaint department? And then there is Michelle Brown, a young woman who is currently doing research on the female behavior of red colubus monkeys in the Kibale National Forest. She told me she kept snakes as pets when she was growing up, including a python. Would one have to say that Michelle and the thousands of snake fanciers like her are genetically defective? Hardly.

I think the truth is that I learned as a child that it was a snake that deceived Adam and Eve. I learned that the snake is the source of all our woes. The deadly spitting cobra, the black mamba, the bushwhacker, the puff adder, they are all the spawn of the devil. It was an asp that killed Cleopatra. It is the snake in the Garden of Eden that will end up killing me.

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