Mbali Mtshali saw her first snake when she was about six years old. And her granny warned her: look a snake in the eye, and you will die.
“I think I must have been like six and living at my grandma’s place. It was big, green, slender and elongated, it must have been a green water snake,” says Mbali. But it didn’t matter if the snake was venomous or a friendly vermin eater. “My granny was my best friend then, and she told me that snakes are evil. If you think you've seen one, don't even keep eye contact, because if your eyes and the snake's eyes connect, you're going to die. They are a symbol and a sign of witchcraft. And we should never make friends with them.” And Granny had backup. “It's even in the Bible – because my grandma was my Sunday School teacher as well. So, everything that she taught me, I had to register in my head and record every time,” Mbali recalls.
Now Mbali’s on a mission, as an apprentice to Snakes In The City Team Simon Keys and Siouxsie Gillett, to undo granny’s teachings and to not only look those snakes dead in the eye, but to pick them up and save their lives.
Sssspeaking of sssssnakes
What do you remember about your first time handling a snake?
I was turning 20 that year; it was 2012. And it was at an animal rehabilitation centre where I volunteered at the time. I don't actually remember my first time… I had to do it twice! The first one was too brief. I was so scared I was squinting my eyes. I gave it a second attempt, and that's when I could make out it actually felt like it was silky and smooth. Touching it for the first time, it just hit everything that I was taught before because I was told you don’t even want to touch them because they’re cold and slimy and gross.
You've had plenty of experience with snakes since then, have you been bitten?
Many times. I'm careful and I decide if I'm even keen to handle even a non-venomous snake. If it's going to be a python, for example, there might be more than just one puncture on my flesh. Or do they have shorter teeth, because you're not going to feel it as much (a little easier). My last bite was last year. This year already I have removed four snakes from my neighbours’ dwellings, and I haven't been bitten at all.
How did you come to be involved with Snakes In The City?
I got the opportunity to host Snakes In The City through a friend of mine, who is a hepatologist. He was the first person who made me some of my snake handling gear, and he taught me everything that I know about snakes. His name is Carl Schloms (the Senior Herpetologist at SAAMBR, The South African Association for Marine Biological Research). Every snake handler knows him.
What was one of the most important discussions you had with the Snakes In The City production team?
It's something that came up every day: “Just be yourself. You've got our support; we want you to be loved for what we saw in you.” Even on my briefing documents, it stated that I need to bring out my personality, so I shouldn't be shy. I hardly ever felt homesick. It was like I'd found my second family when I was there.
One thing that I kept being reminded of, which I did appreciate, is that “Mbali, don’t feel pressured. Once we get to the callouts and we have confirmed what snake it is, don't stick your fingers where you cannot see. And please, please, please make sure that we have given you a go-ahead, before you can even put your hands on a snake, because if you get bitten, that's going to be the end for that particular filming day. It was about not being ego-driven, like, “Yay, I’m on TV, so I’ve got to show that I’ve got this!” It was trusting Siouxie, trusting Simon that they mean well by allowing me to shadow them first.
What was one of the most physically challenging positions that you had to be in to deal with the snakes this season?
I can't think of any, because I'm such a physical person. Doing squats is my game, doing deadlifts is my thing. Twisting, jumping… it was like I was getting a (workout) session that wasn't even planned. I cannot even think of one that was tricky, except Simon has this habit of making us run. I didn't want to think about getting bitten by a black mamba, but that thought wouldn't leave my head whenever Simon made us run!
What’s one of your favourite bits of knowledge that you got to share?
I had to have it drilled into my skull for years, that snakes are more scared of us than we can ever be of them. Simply by being present in the space, before you can even notice that there's a snake somewhere in the corner or on the roof, they are already scared that you are in their space. Your job is to protect them, not to abuse them. And whenever I got to visit townships, it was reassuring to be able to share those one or two facts and see that people understood that there’s nothing special about you that's going to cause the snake to not want to bite; that they only bite if they need to defend themselves, and that's when they feel cornered.
When you say a snake is scared, how do you see that in how it’s moving?
First, it's looking, like, “where can I escape from here?” They hardly ever hiss or puff if you haven't approached them too closely. In most cases, you can tell they have become skittish. They are wiggling their heads because they are trying to see where they can escape to. Once they start swirling their tongue, left and right, that's done to learn what kind of creature is surrounding them, or if it's the only one. And this is another fact I enjoyed sharing: Since they’ve got a forked tongue, they can smell in four different directions, so it’s the top section, it's the bottom section, and the sides, which is amazing!
Do they specifically recognise people, or do they just see us as a big animal?
I've been wanting to keep a snake pet for years, but my mom just won't allow me, even now! And I was taught that even if you keep one as a pet, they cannot identify you as Mbali, my keeper, whatsoever. But they are aware that you are a human creature, because of our scent, and they can kind of make sure that you are not related to any of their prey items (so don’t hand-feed your snakes, kids).
A day with Snakes In The City
What happens during the course of an episode?
- Before meeting with the crew Mbali exercises for about 20 minutes to get those endorphins pumping.
- The Snakes In The City team groups up around 8am to wait for calls to come in, from a black mamba in a mechanic’s scrap heap, to a snake loose in an orphanage.
- The person taking the call will ask basic questions about the snake and where it is, and many people can now share their live locations via WhatsApp.
- While driving to the location, Mbali makes sure that her torch is ready.
- Once they’re at the location, sometimes they can drive up; sometimes they have to hike the last part.
- They speak to the house owner to find out more about the snake, while keeping in mind that people who don’t “do snakes” will often get details wrong.
- Simon and Siouxsie locate Mbali a safe place to stand if needed, or somewhere to start searching. Once they start looking for the snake, it’s “silence, please,” so important information can be communicated.
- Once Mbali has spotted a snake, she will identify it out loud and Simon or Siouxsie will confirm. If it's not venomous, Mbali can capture it.
- If the team determines that the snake is venomous, their priority is moving the community watching to a safe distance.
- Once they have the snake in the bag, they might stop and tell people what kind of snake it is and what to do if one bites them. Mbali adds, “We also say if they are even lucky to get that particular snake in that particular locality. Because some of these snakes are quite rare.”
- They give out business cards, say goodbye and drive off with the snake bag.
- In the car, they will decide where to release the snake, where it will be able to hunt, and avoid future encounters with people. “Not everybody is going to jump at the opportunity to phone us. Some people just kill them. And that's just one of the saddest realities, which I got to witness when we're filming,” Mbali says.
Watch Snakes In The City Season 8 from Wednesdays, 6 July at 18:00 on National Geographic Wild, DStv Channel 182
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