National Geographic’s (181) Snake Month kicks off with the popular Durban-based series, Snakes in the City. Back for a sixth season, Simon Keys and Siouxsie Gillett once again brave homes and businesses to catch (and later release into the wild) the coastal city’s most dangerous serpents. The pair is currently filming their seventh season, but we caught up with them in an exclusive interview aimed at educating even the most fearful and superstitious of people.

Snakes protect us from disease

The belly-surfing creatures are almost always described as villains, especially in pop culture: think of the Harry Potter franchises Slytherin, Snakes on a Plane, Anaconda, etc. But generally, snakes are afraid of humans and hate to be disturbed when they find themselves in a relaxing position. Herpetologist (the study of reptiles) Siouxsie Gillett says she completely understands that many people are terrified of snakes but stresses the importance of having them around. “We actually need them; they reduce the rodent population and rodents – rats and mice – carry disease. Snakes do a great job at helping to keep the rodent population down to stop the spread of disease and that’s a big thing you know, they are doing a great job.”

Professional snake catcher Simon Keys highlights that their venom is also used for medicines. “For instance, the Black Mamba venom is used for treating cancer cells, heart conditions, high blood pressure, the list goes on and on.”

Look out for: In season six, the duo will discuss exactly why snakes are important for the ecosystem and what their venom can be used for.

It’s still scary even if you are a professional

For those of us who can remember season five, Simon and Siouxsie were called out to find an extremely grumpy Black Mamba (yes, they have emotions too). “You have to be really careful with any Black Mamba call out because they can all be very tricky and snakes in general, to be honest,” says Siouxsie.

Black Mambas don’t generally attack humans and they are actually terrified of us and would rather try to escape. Simon says that when they put themselves in the firing line, they try to catch the Black Mamba in order to safely remove it from a property or car, but the snake gets defensive because it doesn’t know they are there to help. He does stress that if you find yourself in the bush, the snake will always go in the opposite direction (from a threat i.e. you) so try not to panic.

They really, really love snakes

While it’s virtually impossible for Simon to pick just one slithering serpent to call his ultimate favourite, he does highlight the most popular snakes he has kept over the years. “I used to keep lots and lots of cobras, now I’m keeping smaller vipers and they all come from other countries, and lots of rattlesnakes too. So, I don’t really have a favourite, because I love them all. I’ve kept hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of snakes over the years. And even the most-deadliest snake in the entire world, I’ve kept those too.”

Protective gear: Nil … but it’s not over-confidence

While the duo pride themselves on saving snakes to release them back into the wild, they do put safety first even though it may not seem that way to us, the viewers. And them not wearing any protective gear is not due to over-confidence or the lack of common sense, it’s actually really practical and comes with well thought-out reasons. Siouxsie highlights that a snake fang can easily penetrate the denim fabric of jeans and that protective clothing like thick trousers won’t help against a bite either. “And if we did dress up with all the proper stuff you can buy, like what people wear in America to help with bites, we would pass out from the heat,” she says with a chuckle. We’d be so hot covered up from head to toe to protect ourselves, we would just pass out from the heat which would be very dangerous in front of a Black Mamba or a deadly snake.”

Simon echoes Siouxsie’s sentiments and even adds his own: “Plus it restricts your movement as well, I mean you are held back. If you were bitten on the leg and you are wearing jeans, some of the venom will actually go into the jeans and not as much will go into you.”

How to become a snake catcher

Simon’s love of all-things snake related started at the age of 15 when he was still living in the UK. He attributes a lot of his snake knowledge to the late Steve Irwin, who he praises as someone who did wonders for wildlife and nature. “I used to watch his programmes, and at that time, I was breeding a few pythons at home and other bits and bobs and started importing snakes and breeding venomous snakes. At one stage, I had about 88 venomous snakes in my parents’ house. And the fascination just grew. And in 2005, I came to South Africa and started removing them for a living and I wanted to save them, because I was tired of seeing people killing snakes) so I started rescuing them.”

Simon basically taught himself not only how to catch snakes, but about their conservation, habitats and behaviours too. He does stress though that it is a serious profession because a mistake could cost you a limb, or even worse, your life! “So, if you want to become a snake catcher, do your research, get training preferably, don’t take chances, and there is a lot of learning to do. You know, start at the bottom with the harmless stuff and then you work your way up.” But this serious profession does come with its ups, like educating people and the increase of snake catchers. “There has been an influx of snake catchers which is a good thing as well, everyone’s got their little area. And if you can rescue 15 snakes a month, then you are doing a good job.”

Flight but don’t fight

Most people completely lose their minds when they see a snake and it’s understandable, but Siouxsie has a few tips on how to save the situation when you stumble upon a serpent. “Stay calm, stay away from the snake, the snake is just as terrified of you as you are of it. So, if you don’t go in the snake’s direction, it will go away from you. It wants to get away from you. And that’s the absolute truth! So, as much as you want to scream and dance, maybe do it behind a closed door, so that the snake can’t see you (laughs). Just don’t go towards the snake and it really will leave you alone.”

Simon also adds some tips: “So, if you see a snake and you are scared, walk away from it and shut the doors if it’s inside and close the windows and go outside and phone a catcher. There’s plenty out there these days, most areas have at least eight snake catchers and a lot of the time we can advise people over the phone, you know, “tell us what it looks like”, if it’s green with black spots, it’s a bush snake and is completely harmless, leave it alone, it will go away on its own. It could be in a tree outside, that’s kinda where it’s supposed to be.” Remember though, if it’s a Black Mamba, be sure to call your friendly snake catchers no matter what.

Simon also explains a common misconception and belief that a Black Mamba will chase you down, something which is simply not true. “They actually go the opposite way, the only time they get very defensive is when they are nervous. And then we start to deal with them when they are hiding under a coffee table and amongst stuff; then it gets defensive when it’s secure where it is and when you move things around, it will try to escape first but if it can’t, it will stand its ground. Now that’s where you need a snake catcher to come in and remove it.”

“My advice to people is: if you don’t know what it is 100%, then phone a snake catcher. Most people are victims when they try and hurt or injure a snake,” adds Simon. There is also a downside to being a snake catcher, and while Simon advocates for people to educate themselves about snakes, it does upset him when people do horrible things to them like pour boiling hot water on them or toss them into fires, because these animals feel pain just as humans do. “It’s a horrible thing to do to any animal.”

Doing what they love also educates others

The show has educated many people over the years, with some who have actually changed their attitude and behaviour as a result. Siouxsie said: “We are now seeing people saving snakes and not killing them, and that’s what’s the best thing about the show, personally it’s an achievement. Why people love it still? I don’t know, but I think it’s all the catches, excitement and so much goes on in such a short space of time and that’s what I think we love about the show.”

Contrary to popular belief, snakes don’t roam around all day looking for people to bite and Simon credits the series as a platform to inform people on the different types of snakes so that they actually know what they get up to in the wild.

Dirty, sticky situations

While the duo love what they do, they don’t necessarily enjoy the situations they find themselves in. Siouxsie explains: “I think some of these situations we end up in, hands and knees in dirty places, I mean that’s not great, searching behind toilets, not great, sometimes the dirty situations we encounter is not my favourite thing, anyway.” Simon adds that: “You get home some days and you just want to put anti-septic stuff all over you, we’ve been in sewage pits, we’ve been in toilets, you name it, we’ve done it, a lot of rat nests and mouse droppings all the time, and it can be quite dangerous.”

Look out for: In season six, the pair are found in their worst nightmare once again, a sewage pit! And what makes it even worse, it’s on a hot sunny day.

Behind-the-scenes happenings

The crew really work as a unit, with one not able to work without the other. Siouxsie praises the entire crew as making the show, not just one single individual. “Everyone has an important job and without them it wouldn’t happen, and they get involved in the catches as well.” It comes as no surprise that some of the crew members are terrified of snakes. “We have one guy in particular who goes on a call out and he’s not looking happy to be involved in the catching in any way, he’s not happy to be on a call out.” But this doesn’t put a damper on filming or their relationship outside of the series, which Siouxsie says without any of the crew or antics, the show wouldn’t happen.

Snakes in the City S6 starts on Sunday 1 March on National Geographic (181) at 18:00

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