Published in Herpinstance Dec 2005
When we first moved to our new home in the rural outskirts of Chennai City Rom warned me to expect venomous snakes in the house. “We’ve built a cave between the scrub jungle and the farmland and it’s only natural to expect creatures to take advantage of it,” he declared. While I gamely nodded, I was secretly wondering, “What have I got into now?” Within the first few months, we spotted a cobra (Naja naja) in our backyard under the banyan tree, while our dog found a young Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii) crawling along the side of the house, metres away from the open kitchen door. Driving home late one night, we saw a common krait (Bungarus caeruleus) going past our gate. So the creatures were there all right and I braced myself for the inevitable venomous one inside the house.
People meeting us for the first time ask me that predictable question – do I catch venomous snakes too? By some logic clear to them, they think just because Rom handles venomous snakes I should too. Do they ask spouses of writers if they write too? It’s my pet peeve – I never had any need to catch venomous snakes so far as the resident snake catcher, Rom, wasn’t far away. But when we moved in to the new house, Rom thought it might be a good idea if I learnt to handle venomous animals. He got a tall plastic bucket with a lid and demonstrated how to hook a snake and plop it into the bucket and close the lid. Easy peesy, I could do that!
In the beginning, about eight years ago, the land was absolutely flat, blistering hot and barren of trees. Well, not if you counted the HUGE banyan and the hedge of palmyra trees, that is. It was after all a rice field. We wasted no time planting trees around the house - the shade was sorely needed - and with daily watering, they shot up. At that time we had hardly any furniture either and every evening we unrolled our bedrolls on the floor. We had to shake out all the sheets just to make sure no creatures were hiding inside. Despite the exaggerated precaution, Rom shot out of bed one night in pain. A giant centipede (Scolopendra.) had bitten him. The pain was so excruciating that he couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. That was when we decided we needed to get above the floor and bought a cot. This incident was a sign of creatures to come.
It was approaching summer when the ubiquitous house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus) first moved in. This added the first real touch of being in a 'home'. One night a little creature, I had never seen before, darted speedily across the room. It looked like a centipede with enormous thin legs. That was my introduction to the harmless scutiger. Common tree frogs (Polypedates maculatus) began moving in as the heat built up. During the day they hid behind the framed pictures and at night they emerged to ambush the insects that hovered around the lights. Toads (Bufo melanostictus) began to do the same in the garden.
At the height of summer the frogs were EVERYWHERE (at one count, there were 267 in the house) - in every crack, the tiniest of ledges, light fixtures, the toilet bowl and flush tank, behind cupboards. We had to check the inside of the washing machine before loading the laundry, cause they were frequently inside. At night they seek out the toilet bowl and kitchen sink to soak in before beginning the night’s hunting. They spent a few minutes in the water and then wiped an oily lipid secretion all over their bodies with their hind legs. If you didn't chase them away, before using the pot, with a flip of the flush, you would be treated to the rude shock of having a wet glob suddenly attach itself to your butt. At the fag end of the summer, the house resounded with their calls heralding the arrival of the rains. We tried not to invite any guests then; the frog calls sound like a terribly flatulent person!
Just as we were about to be overrun by the frogs, Rom christened our home ‘Pambukudivanam’ (the woods where the snakes live) as a portent of more things to come.
About a year later we noticed we had a new guest – a termite hill gecko (Hemidactylus triedrus). It had staked out one of the kitchen cupboards as its territory. It was a very neat houseguest and always shat in one spot near the cupboard door making the cleaning very simple. One morning when I opened the door to clean out the gecko’s nightly offerings, there was a white round egg along with the little turds. Using a paintbrush I cleaned around it gently taking care not to disturb the egg. A couple of days later, there was another egg until there was a collection of five. Months passed, nothing happened. The eggs grew discolored and had to be cleaned out finally. I guess she had no male to fertilize the eggs.
Another species of frog who then moved in was the diminutive Ramanella variegata. They were entirely bathroom-based frogs - monopolizing the pipes and the flush tank. The only inkling of their presence was the loud, deep croaking; the pipes did their bit to amplify their calls. As soon as the light was flicked on, they disappeared inside the washbasin or the tank. If one was late in disappearing, you'd be treated to a Houdini-act - we still cannot figure out how a 4-cm frog could squeeze itself through a 0.5-cm diameter drain hole. They were quite responsive to non-frog sounds. My computer made a weird chirp if I make a mistake, and I always received an answering call from the bathroom. Why, sometimes they even answered the dogs barking!
Where frogs were, snakes can't be far behind. We've played host to a few in the last few years. The common bronze-back tree snake (Dendrelaphis tristis) slides in through any of the upstairs windows from the overhanging banyan tree. One evening we found one who had fallen into the wastebasket, stuffed full of tree frogs, and couldn't get out! The night shift was taken over by the common wolf snake (Lycodon aulicus) in its hunt for geckos. We’ve even had birds coming in to get the frogs. Drongos swoop in, grab a frog and sit on the window gruesomely bashing the frog into senselessness.
The floor of the upstairs was the domain of a large skink (Mabuya carinata). He was chunky, yellow striped and fast. He lurked around through the day and retired under the cushion of the sofa for the night, just when we were about to relax in front of the TV. On rainy days, he could barely stir himself. It was kind of strange to pick up a pillow, like you'd turn over a rock outside, to find a nice fat skink sleeping underneath! Judging from the long healthy turds he left around, a lot of troublesome insects were getting chomped.
The creatures that turned our home into a real minefield were the scorpions. There were three different species residing at this address but only one was dangerous, the red scorpion (Mesobuthus tamulus). They ruled the windowsills, door and window hinges and perilously, in the bookshelves as well. We never pull a book out by placing our fingers on top of the book's spine because that was where they hung out.
Of late, we have noticed a new gecko on the prowl in the bedroom, the bark gecko (H. leschnaulti). It made a meal of a few house geckos before staking out its large territory. Sometimes when we returned home late and switched on the light, we have caught a couple of these big geckoes engaged in mortal combat. They disengaged and ran across the floor in opposite directions with open wounds. If we hadn’t unwittingly called off the battle, they would have almost certainly lost their tails, with their skin hanging in tatters. One evening last month, a false vampire bat began flitting through the house noiselessly. Watching him flap from room to room was like driving a Porsche through congested city streets – he had to flap so slow that he could just barely be air-borne. He cleaned up all the geckos in the house in a couple of nights. Unfortunately on one hot summer evening I was cooling off under the fan when he got hit by the fast rotating blades and fell down stone-dead.
Quietly over the years the house has become the summer home of a congregation of toads – Bufo melanostictus and Bufo fergusoni. Last summer there were so many that we had to be very careful while walking around for fear of stepping on them or one of their magnificently enormous scats. After a few days of cleaning up after them I grew irritated, I wanted a normal house. So I caught a whole bunch of them and moved them to the garden. They returned. I caught them all and moved them 250 m away out of sight of the house. They were back that afternoon. They returned in 25 hours when I moved them 500 m away. That was it – it was an all out battle of wits. By this time I had marked them with permanent marker so I could recognize them. I took them 1 km away across a road and into the scrub jungle. May be that was too far away or may be they got the message that I didn’t want them. May be they all returned but stayed in the garden, I don’t know. But the house was free of toads the rest of the summer and when the rains came we could hear their melodic metallic songs all around.
Rock lizards (Psammophis blandfordanus) live on the palmyra tree behind the house. Then there was a common monitor lizard (Varanus bengalensis) who stayed for a few weeks in the rafters of the porch. It kept the pesky palm squirrel from building anymore messy nests. A large beaked worm snake (Grypotyphlops acutus) (India's biggest worm snake at 60 cm) caused a guest to freeze on her tracks in the kitchen. Besides, we came across several chameleons (Chameleon zeylanicus) using the house as a bridge to cross from the banyan to the trees in front of the house.
We were very careful where we put our hands and feet in the garden. Rat snakes (Ptyas mucosa) have been our most common visitors over the years. We watched a pair of six-foot males fight for a couple of hours. Our big 30-foot diameter well is ringed with several long nests of baya weaverbirds hanging just above the water. One season we watched a rat snake get into a nest and the whole thing - snake, nest and baby birds fall into the well. The well was dry and the fall must have felt hard but the snake seemed to be all right. Comfortably grounded he made short work of the baby birds.
We found a shed skin of a common krait (Bungarus caeruleus) near the clothesline recently but by and large, they tended to remain shy and elusive. We even found a gravid slender coral snake (Calliophis melanurus) under the banyan tree while digging a water pipeline. The open field below the house doesn’t look like much but it was the favoured hangout of the saw-scaled vipers (Echis carinatus). Local village ladies who came every afternoon to cut grass for their cattle regularly find the sawskies coiled around the grass. One morning we found a Kollegal ground gecko (Geckoella collegalensis) in one of the dry watering sumps along with an incredibly fast pygmy shrew (Suncus etruscus). We hadn’t even realized that these pretty geckoes or one of the world’s smallest mammals were found here.
In all of this time we found several venomous snakes regularly in the garden. The commonest venomous snake here was the Russell’s viper. It was the one snake I really didn’t want to deal with. It was snappy with long fangs, and sat its ground. But the most traumatic incident was caused by a cobra.
One morning we woke to be greeted by only 2 of our dogs. The third one was missing and we called for her. She was usually immediately responsive when called. When she didn’t turn up, we knew something was wrong. I found her crouching in the overgrowth along the edge of the garden unable to walk. She had two bloody wounds on her leg which we assumed was the result of a fight between the dogs. Rom carried her home and lay her down on the porch. When an hour later, she seemed to be getting worse, Rom concluded she must have been bitten by a cobra. The venom had paralyzed her legs and she wasn’t able to even sit up. We rushed her to the local vet hospital and gave her the antivenom serum that we always had a stock of. The vets were unconvinced it was a snakebite but Rom forced them to administer the antivenom serum. She got 9 vials of serum in all but it was probably given too late and she died late that night. It was horrendous watching her struggle for breath as her lungs collapsed from paralysis. Eventually she just got so tired from the struggle that she gave up. That was the first time I had witnessed a snakebite incident and I was terrified of having snakes around the house after that. We cleared all the overgrowth and made a policy decision that any venomous snakes in the garden would be removed far away hereafter. Rom flipped several into the big bucket, and released them the next day deep inside the scrub jungle.
One cloudy afternoon when I had a friend visiting me the dogs found a young cobra. It had to be caught and moved into the forest. Rom was out so I had to play snake catcher for the first time. The dogs and family were standing on one side while on the other was our pet pig’s enclosure. I tried hooking the snake like I’d seen Rom do millions of times but the snake slipped off like spaghetti. Each time the snake slipped off the hook it crawled closer to Luppy, the pig. Luppy watched the cobra and grunted with interest. She would have a snack of the cobra if she got a chance! I felt clumsy and inept. Finally the snake tired and sat limply on the hook long enough for me to get it into a bucket. That’s when I realized that I was shaking from the adrenalin rush and the fear that I was going to get bit.
One night our gardener came running to say there was a black and white banded snake in his house and it had crawled over him, as he was lying asleep. My mind kept saying “krait” – had a venomous snake finally found its way inside? What we found instead was a pretty snake appropriately called the bridal snake (Dryocalamus nympha). While this was my first look at the species, Rom had last seen it thirty years ago in Guindy National Park, in the middle of Chennai city.
As our trees grow and integrate with the scrub jungle we expect more and more creatures to also call this place home. I just hope not a lot of them are venomous. It’s summer now and almost all the old faces – tree frogs and toads - are back in the house. One of these days I’m going to move them all out and I wonder how many will home back.