Shaggy Cobra Story

On March 25th of this year an Egyptian cobra escaped from The Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. The story went viral. Within days the whole world knew about it. News stories focused on the cobra’s lethality—humans dead from one bite in 15 minutes. Someone taking the snake’s point of view began posting on Twitter. The site attracted over 200,000 followers. A week later the cobra was found in a corner of the Reptile House, comfortable and apparently unperturbed. All the fuss, the hype, the panic, the anxiety masking as humor, went out of the story like air from a balloon. Like the snake itself, the story no longer had legs.

The story recalled another Egyptian cobra-on-the-loose adventure that happened when I was in Tanzania in August of 1995. It was our last day on safari. The day before we had gone looking for pythons curled up in treetops in the Angaruka Plain. Thank goodness we hadn’t found any. Well, we actually found their molted skins rolling around on the ground like so many monster cigar wrappers. That was a disappointment to my fellow travelers. So our guide, Peter Jones, promised a stop at a snake farm on the outskirts of Arusha.

The farm consisted of 20 glass cages each with a different snake ranging from the harmless to the aggressively deadly, including a black mamba whose bite, like the Egyptian cobra’s, meant death in 15 minutes. An African guide took us through. He looked battle ready in his fatigues and combat boots. That didn’t inspire confidence. His English was good, and he relished ending his description of each snake with a comment like dead in 10 minutes, no life in one hour, 24 hours and the life is gone.

Midway through the tour Peter suddenly pointed to­ward the ground.

“There’s a loose snake,” he yelled to the guide.

“All our snakes are in cages,” he said not bothering to look where Peter was pointing,

“It’s an Egyptian cobra,” Peter insisted.

The guide continued to shake his head. Suddenly, out from under a bush came a two-foot long snake, no rounder than a limp gar­den hose. It was reddish in color. It slithered across the path and into a larger clump of bushes several feet away. The guide saw it. He began yelling at the top of his lungs. Six people, includ­ing the South African owner of the farm and his wife, came running.

The owner was a short, burly man with bad teeth. Unlike the guide, he wore only shorts, a ratty t-shirt and a pair of canvas sneakers. If there is such a thing as snakebite-proof apparel, he wasn’t wearing it. He brandished a six-foot metal pole forked at the end. He looked like a poor man's Poseidon. Without the slightest hesitation he dived into the bushes right behind the cobra. There was a tremendous amount of heaving and branch shaking. It was as if the bush were on the verge of giving birth. Then just as suddenly the heaving stopped and the South African emerged with an Egyptian cobra wriggling helplessly, its head clamped between his thumb and forefinger. He put the snake into a plastic barrel and clamped the lid shut. The snake would undoubtedly end up in one of those 20 glass cages.

For the snake farm owner in Tanzania this was just another day at the office. But put that missing snake right in the middle of Metropolis and it is Chicken Little all over again.

There's a lot to be said for a forked stick and a natural habitat.