The television report of a snake found inside a Mayo Hospital laboratory set me thinking about this oft misunderstood, but dangerous creature. Two of the most venomous members from this large family of reptiles (2900 species) i.e. the Cobra and the Banded Krait can be spotted in the hills around Islamabad, and not a summer goes by, when an odd specimen does not sneak into our garden, to be instantly dispatched by whoever spots it.

Snakes, by definition are carnivorous reptiles of the suborder ‘Serpentes’ found on every continent except Antarctica and terrain higher than 16,000 feet. There are even sea snakes that inhabit the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The English word ‘snake’ comes from Old English ‘snaca’, derived from Proto-Indo-European root (s)nēgo - “to crawl”, “to creep”. These creatures range in size from the tiny 10.4 cm long Thread Snake to the 6.95 meters long Reticulated Python and the Titanoboa Cerrejonensis, whose fossil remains were measured at 12.8 meters. Most snake species are nonvenomous and those that have venom, use it to kill and subdue prey or self-defense.

Some snakes have infrared-sensitive receptors in deep grooves on the snout, which allow them to ‘see’ the radiated heat of warm-blooded prey, but almost every member of this family uses smell to track their prey. This is done through a forked tongue that flicks in and out, collecting airborne particles. A snake’s underside is also very sensitive to vibration, allowing it to detect approaching danger or prey, however its vision is only adequate to track movement. Snakes do not ordinarily strike humans, unless startled, threatened or injured and preferring to seek cover. The only exception to this, is large constrictors such as the python or anaconda, which take human prey.

My late mother often told us the story (handed down by her grandmother) of a ‘long haired gigantic serpent’ that lived in one corner of the ‘bhora’ (basement) in the family’s ancestral home, inside the old walled city of Lahore. This underground room was used to store grain and other items and was therefore often visited by my great grandmother, who held the belief that the creature was guarding a treasure hoard. According to the story, anyone entering the underground room was required to address the monster telling it that they meant no harm and expected none from it. Then one day the ‘jattan wala sup’ was discovered in the ‘dewri’ or the landing. On being admonished, by the feisty old lady, the reptile slithered away never to be seen again. This story was made even more ‘mysterious’, when it was linked to another old time belief that snakes, which crossed the hundred year mark spouted hair and were able to change into human form at will. I sometimes narrate the story to my grandchildren, with the disclaimer that snakes do not grow hair nor live to be a hundred.

Our home in Lahore was located in the area known as Civil Lines. It had a large compound and with it, a quota of snakes. It was during the wedding of one of my aunts that the number of house guests forced my mother to create sleeping spots by laying out mattresses on the carpeted floor. One night, we were rudely awakened by my sister’s scream that something had slithered across her outstretched arm. Lights were switched on to reveal a tail disappearing under the wardrobe. Further investigation revealed a middle sized snake coiled in one corner. Poking the beast with a broomstick produced a loud hissing, generating a babble of suggestions by onlookers, on how to get the intruder out. These ‘think tank’ inputs reached a climax, when one of our old and faithful domestics was seen lugging a ‘hookah’ into the scene on the plea that a thin stick dipped in tar and nicotine slime, when inserted into the mouth of the creature was a tried and tested way to kill it. The drama ended, when the snake decided to make a run for it and was quickly taken care of by my father.

While much of the human race has an abhorrence and fear of snakes and snake bite, the ‘cytotoxic effect’ of snake venom is being researched as a potential treatment for cancers. In my opinion, this member of the reptile family is nature’s way of maintaining balance, since it eats rodents and vermin. Who knows that one day toxin from this creature may become a life saver instead of a life taker.