Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Three's a crowd

‘twas the night before Thursday
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse.

THIS house??

Where bushbabies hold nightly gumboot races in the ceiling, cheered on by a squeakery of bats?
Where three species of gecko brawl raucously over the rights to my mealworm colony, and resident gerbils sharpen their teeth - without pause - on my electrical appliances?
Oh, and let’s not forget the live-in toads who are convinced that beetle-hunting is most lucrative deep within my store of recycled plastic shopping bags.

THAT house??

Silent as the grave (and the simile wasn’t chosen idly).

What catastrophe has befallen us?
Did my housemates succumb to radio-active fallout from the gnawed microwave? Or maybe deadly spores wafted from the dishes mouldering in my sink? Was our water supply craftily poisoned by delinquent baboons?
No. We simply have a visitor come to stay.

In truth, we’ve had three visitors (all equally ostracized by my roommates) but I managed to persuade the other two to leave.

Now don’t imagine that these houseguests turned up unannounced.
It’s just that sometimes I have trouble understanding the local lingo.
Still, the first warning came through loud and clear.

I was beavering away on my computer on Tuesday afternoon when a large toad hopped by. Now this is nothing unusual as I share my domicile with at least four of the beasts.
Hey, but wait... It’s daytime!
I leapt to me feet in panic.
You see my toads are nocturnal beings, and there’s only one thing that will drag them from their beds before sundown: a professional toad-muncher.

A red toad (Schismaderma carens): snake-detector extraordinaire.

As the toad hurried out the back door, I cautiously crept into the kitchen (from whence the refugee had hopped). On route I passed a panic-stricken gecko, fleeing its daytime haunt behind the fridge.
Not a good sign.
A wary search of the kitchen’s nooks and crannies revealed the culprit: a Mozambique spitting cobra, lurking behind the stove.

Now I’ve written about spitting cobras before (here, here and here). With appalling manners (spitting in the faces of strangers) and a lethal overbite, they’re not the sort of guest you want loitering in your food preparation area. But, fortunately, the judicious application of a broom induced the creature to retreat into a poster tube (ah, one of life’s essentials), and in no time at all I was trudging off into the bush to liberate it.

The following day I was once again plugging away at my computer (see how diligent I am?) when Magic (my husky-cross) leapt up and rushed to the backdoor. We knew that something was loitering immediately outside because its shadow was moving in the strip of light under the door. I was gazing at this dark shape when, suddenly, a thin, black filament flicked, just for a moment, in under the door.
It’s a skink’s tail, I assumed erroneously.

Rainbow skinks (Trachylepsis quinquetaeniata) frequently skitter in and out of my house, hunting for any creepy-crawlies the toads may have missed (or maybe just to taunt the dogs).

Since the skinks are masters at evading canine pursuit, I opened the door to let Magic out.
Standing there on the doorstep was a two meter (6 ft) long rock monitor. Grey and gnarly-looking, it was bent forward with its stubby nose pressed to the crack below the door, and was flicking its long, forked tongue in underneath. I managed to grab Magic’s collar as she lunged for the reptile, and while I struggled to hold her, the monitor took off, racing in a claw-scritching, side-to-side, swayback sort of way for the back fence.

Once rational thought had returned, I sagely concluded that the monitor was hunting skinks, and nonchalantly went back to the computer.
Big mistake. It was not hunting skinks.

The rock monitor (Varanus albigularis) actively pursues its meals, licking up its victim’s scent with its forked tongue. The tongue’s prongs slot neatly into the paired opening of its vomeronasal organ, snugged away on the roof of its mouth.

Some hours later, when I lifted the lid from a mega carton of eggs sitting on my countertop (the carton, not me), I discovered what the monitor was hunting. A very large spitting cobra was coiled neatly among the eggs. The unexpectedness of this rendezvous sent me reeling backwards out of the kitchen, and the wily serpent slipped away beneath an immovable cupboard.

Oh dear.

Hence the complete exodus of my roomies.

Those of us brave enough to remain behind for the night (just myself and the pets) congregated by silent consent in my bed. As the kitchen has no door, we all hoped that a massed pile of big, warm furry mammals would be sufficient disincentive to a roving serpent.

Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica).
Last seen wearing a smug expression,
in the vicinity of my saucepan cupboard.
Photo posted on Flickr by Jeppestown.

My hopes that our scaly tenant would do a moonlight flit were dashed when I went to feed the birds next morning. I discovered it curled up asleep in the spilled birdseed (clearly a strategic thinker). Once again, it exploited its shock-value to zip into hiding. My frantic efforts to find the beast failed, and the pets and I crept about the house on hyper alert, cringing from any object even remotely reminiscent of a snake.

Serpent induced chaos. Emptying all my kitchen cupboards did not reveal the felon.

My state of mind was not improved when I arrived home from my weekly shopping trip to discover my third caller, schlepping on the bed in my spare room.
What was this, a cobra convention??

As much as I wanted to believe that this creature was my overnight guest, its wholemeal-tinted sheen gave the game away (my kitchen resident was decidedly terracotta). Fortunately, this one zipped into the poster tube lickety-spit split, but I was still feeling shaken.
The prospect of immediately resuming a snake-hunt was more than I could face.

No, I thought, I’ll just take a wee break; let myself calm down a bit.
I know, I’ll treat myself and open the Christmas package I just picked up from the post office.
My mouth was already watering because it was from my sister (in Oregon USA) who normally sends me candy.

Now I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but siblings – even those you rarely see – have an uncanny knack for ‘hitting the spot’; and not always in a good way. That day was no exception.

Ripping impatiently at the packaging, my heart suddenly stopped. Hidden within the torn wrapping paper - right beneath my fingers! - were the unmistakable coils of a snake!
Oh my God!
I let out a shriek and hurled the package across the room. My dozing pets, seeing a metre-long serpent uncoiling on the floor, careered away in all directions.

It took us all some time to regain our composure.

And there, lying in the middle of the lounge room floor, was a cellophane-wrapped, confectionary snake.
The label read, “The world’s largest gummy snake”.
“Almost 36 inches long” (almost?).
And then, just in case you were worried, “Artificially flavoured”.

While munching belligerently on this snake (delicious, by the way), I decided that this would be a symbolic gesture. No more would I be terrorized in my own home by a mere elongated reptile. As I devoured the snake, so I would annihilate my fear. After all, my houseguest clearly didn’t want to meet me (and was skilled at achieving this) and I didn’t want to meet it. All in all, I daresay we could get by.

I didn’t meet our unwelcome tenant again, and you’ll be relieved to know (or at least I was) that all my wild acquaintances have now moved back in. I’m presuming this means that the cobra's made tracks.

Has it gone? I've never been so pleased to see a bushveld gerbil (Gerbilliscus leucogaster) peeping from my cupboard.


  1. Whoa! Living in your house is certainly an adventure.

  2. wow. as ever, a hair-raising story. I love your well-learned lesson of picking up on what's going on in one's environs by paying attention to animals and their behavior. Not everyone would know that a frog leaping by in the daytime means HOP UP ON YOUR CHAIR NOW! Nicely done.

    Holy cow.

    I'm wondering if said spitting cobra SAW you merrily munching on a snake and thought better of trying to shack up with such a cold-blooded creature.

    Your sister did well. =)

    phew. I think I need a nap, now. Glad you and yours are well. =)

  3. Biobabbler is right, it is impressive that you can tell what is going on around you by watching the behavior of the little animals in your house.
    Far be it from me to tell you what to do, and much as I love little creepy crawlies, if I lived in your house I would be busily sealing up gaps with caulk and installing tight-fitting screens on windows and doors.

  4. Uh, let's see. I did find a spider in my bathroom the other day.

    Not quite the equivalent, eh?

  5. P.S. Like your sister, I also live in Oregon.

  6. Holy cow! Don't think I would sleep at all knowing there were cobra's lurking within!

  7. hi lynda - i was delighted to stumble across your blog as i was looking up something about toads.... i hope you and the pups are well. I also noticed that Iorek and Black and now in charge of Bugbears-- woohoo! :) i still remember them all from 2008. Is Paddington still around? anyway, just checking in-- i'll keep an eye on your blog for more awesome stories!

  8. Rebecca,
    I never thought I’d say it, but I could do with a little less in-house adventure in my life. It must be old age!

    Maybe you’re on to something, and I should take to munching scorpions and mosquitoes. It would probably work for Jehovah Witnesses too. Ah, perhaps we should patent the idea: confectionary religious zealots.

    As per your excellent advice, I’ve just fitted a ‘weather-excluder’ (clearly a euphemism) to my backdoor. I’m expecting to stumble over a picket line of outraged toads and gerbils any minute now.

    Don’t devalue the merit of bathroom spiders...
    Many excellent nature bloggers seem to hail from your neck of the woods. Could it be that they’re all kept indoors by the rain?

    Rascal Rescue,
    A barricade of sleeping dogs helps to give one confidence (probably misplaced!). Of course, ‘sleep’ is probably a relative term anyway.

    It’s lovely to hear from you. What are you up to these days?
    Paddington headed out to seek his fortune a couple of years ago. I was very sad to see him go, but pleased to think he’s making his way in life.

    1. Oh, good luck, Paddington! What are the new bugbear babies called?
      I'm in my 3rd year in an Ecology PhD program, studying animal behavior and sexual selection, mostly working with lizards and frogs. Not as personable as mongooses, but they have their own charms!

  9. Excellent! So sorry I giggled out loud over your serpentine angst! Loved the 'revenge' of the gummy snake...I think they are keeping eyes on you!

  10. We (my 13 & 16 y.o. & I ) just read your post aloud...LOVED it!

  11. Melissa,
    I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Giggling is the only sensible way to deal with snake-induced angst.

  12. Lindsey,
    Having now named 46 mongooses in Bugbears, I'm struggling to find new bear names (but thankfully I've not had to resort to the Care Bears). The latest brood are named Ragnar (the king polar bear in the movie The Golden Compass), Beorn (the man who can transform into a bear in The Hobbit) and Gladly (the cross-eyed bear from the misinterpreted hymn: "Gladly, the cross I'd bear...").
    I hope you're having fun doing the PhD (although PhD's in the USA don't sound much fun at all!).

  13. Lynda, I'm a Co-worker of your sister Jane she showed me the blog and told me about the rubber snake. Your a great writer and i love your stories and pictures


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