Sunday, 11 October 2009 18:00

Scientists want Kenyans to keep snakes as pets

Written by Arthur Okwemba

Can you imagine keeping a snake, an animal considered by millions of people as evil and of deceit character as a pet? This is exactly what officials at a government outfit who care for snakes are requesting Kenyans to do.

Concerned with the high numbers of snakes dying due to the current cold weather or those being killed by people in Nairobi, officers at the National Museums of Kenya are now appealing to those who find snakes in their houses to treat them humanely and as pets.

Majority of these snakes are said to be running away from the current biting cold wave in search of warmer places in people’s bedroom and kitchens. But when the owners of these houses spot them, the first reaction is to kill the snake instantly. Or chase it away, if they lack the courage or skill of killing it.

Few others call National Museums of Kenya (NMK) or Kenya Wildlife Association (KWS) to come and pick the snake. In the past two months, the Museum’s Snake Park section has received more than twenty calls from Nairobi residence requesting them to go pick the snakes from their houses.

Rashid Kaka, Senior Curator at the NMK’s Snake Park says they are worried that majority of the snakes being killed are very harmless because they do not produce any venom and can be kept as pets like what happens in other countries. In Western and Asian countries, for instance, people even buy their children snakes as pets the same way we do with cats and dogs.

“We are appealing to people not to consider some of these snakes as enemies since they are harmless and suffering from the cold weather the way human beings are,” says Kaka.

He argues that like cats, these snakes can be used in the homestead as a natural way to control the stubborn rodents, which they feed on as their main diet.

Other snake experts too want people to accommodate the harmless snakes in their houses until the cold weather subsides as many freeze to death. They say the moment they get into the house, they are too weak and sometimes suffering from a cold.

The only thing they need to be provided with is warmth to enable them recover from the cold and regain their strength.

Being cold blooded reptiles, snakes are known to succumb to very cold or hot weather due to their bodies’ inability to regulate own body temperatures the way warm blooded mammals do.

In fact, many of the deaths among these cold blooded animals are recorded during the extreme cold or hot weather. In attempt to keep alive, snakes crawl into people’s houses for warmth. That is why continents such as Antarctica are not inhabited by snakes because of its extreme cold temperatures.

Jacob Mueti Ngwava, Assistant Research Scientists at NMK says the current cold weather is penetrating into the soil where snakes hibernate, forcing them to come into the open and then venture into houses in search of warmth.

Experiences from other parts of the world show that snakes tend to be attracted by warn sleeping human bodies, explaining why snakes like sliding into beddings or sleeping next to a person’s body.

But the public have no idea about such snake behaviours and whenever they see a snake in their house, they know that they are under attack. The next thing on their mind is not to let the snake enjoy the comfort of the household, but to kill it.

All snakes to people are venomous and their bite kills. Herpetologist-people who study amphibians and reptiles- are however arguing that snakes should be labeled as venomous and not poisonous since they cause no harm when eaten.

In many of the Asian countries, people eat snake meat and drink its blood as medicinal products.

Appeals by Kaka and these snake experts to people to treat the harmless snakes as a pet is however going to be a tall order. First, only snake experts can differentiate between a venomous and non-venomous snake for them to offer it a friendly reception.

The other challenge is, even if people were willing to keep the snakes as pets, it would go against societal expectations. Many communities in Kenya and beyond consider rearing or keeping of snakes as a form of witchcraft.

Those who keep snakes are therefore secluded from other people in the society as they are believed to bring misfortune to the community. When something awful happens, it is immediately attributed to them. And if the person living with a snake happens to be from certain parts of the country, then he or she is likely to be lynched to death.

Such a label of a witch will make it very difficult for people to even remotely think about keeping a snake as a pet.

As Ruth Omukhango puts it: “Whether the snake is harmless or dead, I cannot see myself having it as a pet. Snakes should be killed immediately once a person sights them.”

“When I see a snake I see a grave. I either flee or kill it,” adds Josephine Ong’ayo, a resident of Buru Buru estate.

In biblical times, the snake is accused of tempting Eve to sin in the Garden of Eden, and hence Christians consider them as satanic or evil animals.

In the football arena, there are claims of people sprinkling snake blood around the stadium to make the opponent lose the contest.

These perceptions and the bad reputation the snakes have make them encounter hostile reception whenever they cross paths with human beings.

Another issue is living with a snake as a pet is not just as easy as keeping a dog or a cat, snakes experts warn. Unlike the two animals, a person intending to keep the snake as a pet will need to go through the rigorous process of securing a licence from the KWS.

This helps the government establish if the person with the snake has been trained on how to handle it and to monitor how it is being treated once in the custody of this person.

All this is done to guard against people who might keep the snakes for commercial purposes in the pretext that they are pets. Equally demanding are the peculiar needs of the animal and its demand for a committed owner.

A freezer for keeping some of their food, for instance, will have to be bought; identify a veterinary doctor to attend to it whenever it is sick; and keep a thermometer to monitor and ensure the snake’s surrounding temperature is not harmful to it.

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