learning to love spiders and snakes

ADELAIDE, South Australia Ken was really more a magician than a wildlife expert. Friendly and smiling, smartly dressed in khaki shirt and shorts,…

ADELAIDE, South Australia

Ken was really more a magician than a wildlife expert.

Friendly and smiling, smartly dressed in khaki shirt and shorts, he slowly but surely cast a spell on the group.

How else would everyone cross willingly into the creepy world of spiders, lizards and yes, even snakes?

It started innocently enough as Ken introduced Martha, a gorgeous sulphur-crested cockatoo. He placed her on a large tree perch, and she kept an eye on things when she wasn’t busy preening feathers.

A pair of four-month-old emus ran all about the place, their fuzzy heads and long skinny legs appearing and disappearing in the bush.

“See, there’s nothing to this stuff.”

Ken was luring us in. “Let’s take a look and see what else is in there.”

He disappeared into his shack and came out with two clear plastic jars. “Spiders. Yup, I think that’s what these are. I’ll pass them around.” Really, what harm could they be from inside a jar?

They were, in fact, red-backs, one of the deadliest spiders found in Australia. A small member of the black widow family, you can’t miss the bright red smudge on their back, which brightens when they feel threatened.

Common enough to be found even in city gardens, an anti-venom was developed years ago.

When Ken next appeared carrying nothing more than a bright green tree frog everyone relaxed and even laughed. Ken was right — there was nothing to this stuff. That cute little frog with the bulgy eyes isn’t even poisonous.

It was only a small step from harmless tree frog to harmless lizard. Really, there’s not much difference.

These lizards are just a bit bigger, and their skin is a bit rougher, and their long flickering tongues are blue … but they are sort of cute in a weird kind of way and sure, sure, I’ll hold it for a minute and see how scratchy the little toes are.

Easy as pie. Ken was moving ahead in leaps and bounds and no one even noticed.

This was actually fun!

The hook was set, but Ken knew the final step was a big one. He introduced his assistant, Julie, an English student volunteer.

There was a suspicion of what was coming, and you could all but hear the drum roll as Ken ducked into his shed one more time.

Julie’s cheery and confident presence was reassuring, but what exactly was she doing there?

She was there to lend a hand with the 2.4-metre long Murray-Darling carpet python Ken had around his neck as he emerged from the shack. “Just look at this beautiful creature,” enthused Ken. “The pattern on the skin is remarkable. Come on up here. It’s easier to see in the sunlight.”

There was absolutely no backing out now. There was nowhere else to go but forward, up to the front to see the dazzling pattern. The hypnosis was complete. The grand finale was guaranteed.

“Wait, I’m not being very thoughtful here. Why should I be the only one to hold the snake? The skin is so soft you won’t believe it”.

A magician, that’s what Ken is. People lined up to take their turn having an eight-foot long snake wrapped around their neck. It was a moving, muscular, heavy snake that seemed even longer once it was on your shoulders. Hey, is anyone taking a picture?

“Oh, Canadians are you?” asked Ken, chatting away. He was keeping an eye on the snake, which was now curling back on itself to stare into the eyes of the woman who was wearing it like a stole.

He paused. Was that a flicker of imagined danger across his suntanned face?

“Canada. There are grizzly bears in Canada, aren’t there?”

 Catherine Miller is a Whitehorse-based writer on a months-long tour of far-flung places. Her chronicle appears here every Monday.