Linda Cuttriss to think about her own encounters with snakes.
Returning from San Remo the other day, something unusual blocked our way. We had interrupted a battle between a cat and a copperhead snake. A young cat stood over the snake, distracted by our intrusion. The snake took the chance to writhe away but the cat was onto it. The cat pounced, pressing one front paw on the snake’s head, holding down its neck with the other.
Having won the round, the cat leapt lightly out of reach, watched the snake try to escape, then advanced, licking its lips, honing in on the reptile’s head. The cat sprang forward, teeth-first onto the snake’s head, pinning its chin to the gravel. There was no deathly intent for now. That could wait for later. The snake curled its body like a spring, whipped its tail around its tormentor and the startled cat let go. The two morphed into Medusa for a moment then the snake slipped from its furry foe.
We shouted and tried to shoo the cat away, but it was focussed on the game. People appeared beside us to investigate the commotion and, as it readied for another ambush, a boy rushed in, grabbed his pet by the tail and whisked the cat away.
The snake remained still. We thought it was dead. We stood around for a while debriefing, looking down, bemoaning the instinctive nature of cats. Then the traumatised snake started moving, slowly, slowly. He stopped, as if to rest, then continued towards the cool, green, kikuyu grass and disappeared.
That’s not the only snake I’ve seen this week. Down in the garden, something glistened golden, a few metres from the path. It didn’t notice me, so I watched it slither between the tussock grasses.
As a child growing up on the farm, I learnt to live with snakes. I was told to stomp my feet so a snake would know I was coming. “They’re hard of hearing and almost blind.” “They’ll get out of your way; just watch where you’re going.” I took to carrying a stick, hitting the ground as I walked.
The other morning, on my way to the clothes line with a basket of washing, there, a couple of metres in front of me, was a copperhead, a big thumper I had seen before. Thankfully, I had disturbed the snake. It felt me coming. Its neck was stretched flat on the ground to appear larger and more threatening. Its head was raised towards me. The rest of its body was a plump coil of copper discs on a dark background. I did what I always do. I froze on the spot, fixed my eyes on the snake, assessed my position and backed slowly away. The washing could wait until later.
Our resident magpies don’t seem to like snakes. Twice lately, I have heard them squawking louder and longer than usual. The first time, a copperhead was moving across the lawn, a young magpie in pursuit. The perky fellow kept nipping at the snake’s tail then jumping back with a shriek each time it turned to retaliate. His father followed closely, one eye moving back and forward between the youngster and the snake, intently monitoring the danger. The older magpie soon joined in and the two birds harassed the snake into the shrubbery.
The other time, a snake had slinked onto the terrace. From the window I saw the male magpie strutting and shouting, running in from behind and pecking at the snake’s tail. The snake fled to the shade of a pot plant at the edge of the terrace. It melted into the cracks between the bricks, threaded through the rectangular shapes like a piece of rope. I came out of the house (with shoes on) stamped my feet from a safe distance and the snake vanished.
Watching out for snakes all summer may seem tedious, or even a bit scary. But it’s a small concession for the joy of plunging in the ocean on a hot day, feeling the salt on my skin and a delicate sea breeze in the evening. And in winter, when the cold and grey is pressing in, there’s consolation in walking freely through the bush without scanning my surrounds.