Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year’s resolution?

Pitter patter,  pitter patter,  pitterSQUEEEEE...!


I lie wide-eyed staring into the dark. Apprehension edges through me as I strain to catch a tell-tale sound.

Directly over my head an innocent rodent has just met its doom.
And I don't know why (or more precisely, whom).

For the last couple of months my nights have been haunted by the slaughter in my ceiling. The piercing shrieks of dying bats, mice and geckos shatter my dreams.
Somewhere in my roof lurks a Large Predatory Beast. And, so far, I've been too cowardly to find out what it is.

Tomorrow's supper? An Egyptian slit-faced bat (Nycteris thebaica) hides out in my bathroom.

While everyone's busy making New Year resolutions, I'm debating whether I should resolve to clamber up on my kitchen bench, clear away the cobwebs and poke my head up into the ceiling.

To look or not to look...

I know that as a wildlife enthusiast I should be bursting with curiosity and as a zoologist my scientific zeal should outweigh all other considerations. But I'm fairly certain The Beast is limb-free. And I do NOT like snakes. The tiny feet of mice and geckos hammer a noisy tattoo on my ceiling, and even visiting birds (shopping for nest sites) sound as if they're attending a tap-dance festival.
But when The Beast prowls, I hear nary a footfall.
Only one sound is detectable: a heavy, sliding slither. It's the sort of sound that, in the dead of night, conjures images of a hooded hunchback dragging his withered leg or a silent assassin gently shifting his kitbag.

I know you think I'm being paranoid. I'm mean lots of people have wildlife (even legless wildlife) living in the cosy space between ceiling and roof. But the problem is, only half my house has a proper ceiling. My lounge and kitchen are roofed with sagging sheets of thickened bubble-wrap, and each swayback strip - draped precariously over dangling wires – is bordered by big yawning gaps.
Call me wimpy, but I'm convinced that sooner or later - intentionally or otherwise – The Beast is going to drop down into my house.

Is it better, or worse, to know what's destined to land on your head?

The possible contenders are not encouraging. There are three nocturnal mammal-killers with a penchant for climbing: the snouted cobra, the African rock python and the brown house snake.

What I'm afraid I'll see if I poke my head through a gap in the ceiling. The snouted cobra (Naja annulifera) was once considered a variant of the Egyptian cobra (aka Cleopatra's downfall) but has now been granted taxonomic independence. Photo by Michael Randsburg.

Snouted cobras scare the Hell out of me. They're the thugs of the cobra family. It isn't enough for them to tote a highly lethal neurotoxin, or to inject enough of it to kill ten humans. No, they also have to indulge in body-building. Why any cobra feels the need to attain boa-like proportions is beyond me, but when you're battling a snake phobia, it's just not nice.

As with most muscle-bound heavies, snouted cobras are active at night. Occasionally I meet one at dusk while walking my dogs at the local mine. Last time, the dogs were too busy haring after a duiker to notice the snake coiled by the track, but as I approached it reared up threateningly and spread its hood. Although quite reasonable in length (about 2 metres/6 feet), its yellowish body (banded here and there with grey) was as thick through as my thigh (the part toward the knee; I can't vouch for the rest after Xmas indulgences). The creature stood poised with its head at waist-height (I hate the way South African snakes do this; isn't there some biblical stricture about 'slithering on thy belly') and its massive hood was a scary 25 cm ( 10") across. I felt queasy. Hissing threateningly, it glared at me for a few moments before correctly concluding I was not a threat and gliding smoothly up into the canopy.

A captive snouted cobra showing off its glorious physique.
Photo posted on Flickr by KBugler.

To find out whether I was alone in my feelings towards the snouted cobra, I turned to the internet. The herpetological forums are a source of endless fascination for me. A snouted cobra photo that sends shivers down my spine elicits a volley of appreciative comments:
"I love this beautiful snake".
"One of my favourite species..."
"A stunning specimen of a gorgeous snake. I still miss Paul."
The next comment, after a paragraph of snake-directed superlatives, concludes:
"Paul was a really great guy."
Yep, you guessed it. After a short search I find that Paul died several years ago after a snouted cobra nipped him on the wrist.

I do NOT understand snake-enthusiasts!

Of course, The Beast in my ceiling may turn out to be a non-venomous python. Unfortunately, the pythons around here grow a trifle large; husky-eating large. My neighbour, about 1.5 km downriver, recently found one 5.2 metres (17 feet) long showing a heart-warming interest in his Weimaraner dogs. Encountering one on my bed at 2 am has taught me that - venom or no venom - I do not want one of these falling on my head.

My guest room with guest. African rock python (Python sebae).

There is no doubt, that the diminutive brown house snake (Lamprophis fuliginosus) is my one shining hope. It's small (about 1 m/3 ft) and its teeth are entirely venom-free. It even sounds reassuringly friendly; like a house cat.
Of course I've never actually seen one around here...
But maybe that's just evidence of its discrete and humble disposition.

Currently I remain unresolved.
Would you look?


  1. O M G. My heart is pounding and I am not a weenie re: snakes but GOOD LORD it's HUGE and CRAZY venomous. I had NO idea they got SO giGANtic! Wow. I don't know what is an appropriate best wishes phrase for someone with a potentially deadly snake in her house. FYI: the opening of this blog is GENIUS and made me laugh 3 times. =) LOVE your blog dearly. Happy (and SAFE) 2011!

  2. I am a snake lover but I have so much respect for any hooded cobra, puff adder or mamba. The problem is with taking a look, you may only find an empty space as they will be curled up in a dark corner snoozing if they are hunting at night!! Goggles on, strong search light and maybe it is worth taking a peak with great care. I hope for your sake it is a python, yea or maybe the brown house snake that you have never seen around there! Wishing you a healthy 2011, you may need these wishes. Take care.

    Looking forward to further news. Diane

  3. It is a problem, and I'm happy to say it's not mine. OK, thats no help to you. I suggest taking a very careful look - make yourself a periscope, attach a couple small LED flashlights to it's end - that way you *may* be able to spot whatever it is up there without putting yourself in harms way - if it is a cobra. (Two small mirrors, some cardboard tubing, duct tape and flashlights should do the trick). ATB!

  4. Well, now you HAVE to look, you can't leave us in suspense!

  5. so....if it IS a cobra..... how the heck do you get it out of there????

  6. Linking to you tomorrow. Your long leggedy baby I'm a gnu! If they land here they'll be frightened off. We just have tabakrolletjies, but our neighbours in Camps Bay had a large cobra in the roof. (The cobra moved to the snake park)

  7. What hunts cobras? Big Nile Monitors. Too bad you cant induce one of them to clear out your attic. If it's a big python, I guess the monitor would be doomed. I would be nailing up a more secure cieling.

  8. I would not look. I hear noises in my ranch house attic every now and then and I have convinced myself it is a raccoon or woodrat who just borrow the dry shelter for a few nights during the rainy part of the year. Usually this works and then I go back to sleep. Pulling the hangman's noose out of the attic was enough for me and I had help and I am never going up there again. Perhaps you can barter to get someone else to do it?

  9. I'm with John....more secure ceiling!! Snakes don't bother me, until I start thinking of one that can drop in on my while I'm sleeping and kill me! Then I'm not sleeping anymore....unless I've locked myself in a secure area....perhaps with one of the mongoose groups as guards??

  10. Biobabbler,
    Thanks for the encouragement. I also had no idea that they got so big, until I actually met one. Urgh! But they are supposed to munch other snakes so maybe there's an excuse for it. Hoping 2011 is a great year for you.

    You're quite right about The Beast lying low by day. When it first arrived I did screw up my courage and had a brief (unsuccessful) look during daylight. Unfortunately, there's just too many hiding spots. I really need to look when I hear it dispatching something, but somehow I can never persuade myself to get out of bed in the overt presence of death!

    Thank you for your impressive technological advice. You're obviously much more of a handy-person than me. You don't want to drop round and install a ceiling do you...?

    Sympathy for your level of suspense is not my primary concern right now!

    I don't (hence my reluctance to learn the painful truth). Although I've become quite adept at removing visiting spitting cobras (by herding them into a large poster mailing tube), spitting cobras have the grace to remain at ground level. They also fit in the tube!

    Elephant's Eye,
    Thank you for the link. I love your twelve days of Xmas; it's an inspired idea.

    There IS a big Nile monitor hanging around but I think he has his eye on my cats not my roof-inhabitant. Unfortunately, ceiling installation is beyond my DIY skills (almost everything is beyond my DIY skills). If I try, I'll be worrying about the ROOF falling on my head.

    Ah, a woman after my own heart! I can't believe your hangman's noose! In the disturbing stakes, I think that's pretty much on a par with a big python; not dangerous but highly disquieting.

    Rascal Rescue,
    Fortunately my bedroom has a sound ceiling so I only need to fear for my life when I'm up and about. I'll start laying a trail of mealworms immediately to attract in my mongoose militia.

  11. Oops, hope you didn't think I was being insensitive - sorry. I'll keep my fingers crossed that it's the house snake. I certainly learn a lot from reading your blog!

  12. Rebecca,
    No,no, not at all. I should have made it clearer that I was (trying)to be humerous.

  13. I'm with those who say, Only look if you can do something (constructive) about it. Better to panic in blissful ignorance than with full knowledge!

    Sending you good wishes and an entire absence of falling snakes...

  14. Snake enthusiast here ;) I'd look of course.

    Hope it's nothing you aren't prepared to deal with!

  15. Olivia,
    Plummeting snakes so far avoided. I'm thinking of trying to stick up some of the gaps in the ceiling with duct tape, but I'll probably succumb to Histoplasmosis first.

    I knew there had to be some of you out there. You're not scared of mongooses, are you, just to even things up? Rat-sized, beady eyes, pointy noses, needle-like teeth...

  16. Oh dear! I think I'd just leave things alone since what you find can't be any worse than your worse fears and snake catching in an atic doesn't sound very smart. I think you need to cultivate some snake catching friends -- human or otherwise. Anything!

  17. Elva,
    Yes, I'm currently opting for the ostrich head-in-sand approach. Any creature capable of catching The Beast isn't something I'd want falling on my head either!

  18. Whatever the nature of the beast, you are a great writer about it!


  19. Bertus,
    Thank you for the kind compliment. I hope The Beast (currently quiescent) will allow me to go on being a writer (or just being full-stop)!

  20. Like you Lynda, snakes do not feature high on my list of favourite animals. I was taught that the only good snake is a dead one,by a father who was bitten by a boomslang, but I have got beyond that and am content to leave them alone.
    I have even taught my eldest grandson to appreciate them and respect them.
    Having said that would I take a look?
    With my innate curiosity I would be compelled to do so, but I would wait until I knew that the creature was well away from the trap door.
    On the other hand I may just call in the help of a friend who takes great delight in catching snakes. She is totally fearless and is always being called in snake type emergencies.

  21. Great post!

    Would you add the bat photo (and any additional you might have) as a citizen-science observation to the AfriBats project on iNaturalist?:

    AfriBats will use your observations to better understand bat distributions and help protect bats in Africa.

    Please locate your picture on the map as precisely as possible to maximise the scientific value of your records.

    Many thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...