I’ve always had a fascination with snakes. As one of humanity’s most feared and reviled creatures, snakes get a bad rap, and I suppose I’ve always like to root for the underdog. As a child, whenever I lifted a rock in my backyard and found not the usual insect, frog, or toad, but the rare garden snake, instead of recoiling in horror, my face would light up and I would try to catch it. Once I caught three of them and kept them in a terrarium in my room, but they mysteriously escaped one by one, to my piano teacher’s horror one afternoon.
Anyway, it was with great joy that I learned we would be visiting a “snake park” outside of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), called the Guindy Snake Park, or the Chennai Snake Park Trust. The herpetarium is usually my favorite part of any zoo, so I was expecting a large herpatarium, comparable to other zoos I’d seen in other countries, but with added exotic Indian snakes, of which there are many, to the general terror of Indians.
Upon entering the snake park, the first stop on the tour was a large hut called the cobra house. As we approached the cobra house, we began to hear a frightful, fierce hissing sound, which grew louder and louder as we approached the hut. Upon entering, our eyes fell upon the source of the hissing – several black king cobras in a pit below the railing where we stood, arched back, their hoods flared open, their fangs bared, and looking very pissed at the snake handlers in the pit with them below.
Usually, when you see a cobra at the zoo, all you see is an empty terrarium. If you’re lucky and the cobra has decided to show itself, it’s probably sleeping. And if it’s actually moving, its hood is certainly not open, as we always imagine them thanks to the movies. In this case, I finally got to see not one cobra, but several, arched back in their full glory. The large, sandy pit was covered in clay pots with lids, which I could only imagine contained other snakes. It was quite shocking to see the snake handlers so close to these clearly irritated cobras, especially because they didn’t seem to be wearing any special protective gear and seemed quite nonchalant about the whole affair. And as if the sight of these awesome creatures wasn’t enough, their hissing was deafening and seemed to bounce off the walls of the hut.
Then one of the snake handlers removed a rag from his belt… and swatted it at one of the cobras, almost causing me to have a heart attack. The great thing about travelling to countries like India is that there aren’t as many rules at in the U.S., which allows one to see things that would normally be completely forbidden back home, because I’m pretty sure this guy was breaking all kinds of OHSA rules. I wasn’t sure if they were irritating the cobras for our amusement, but I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then, right before the cobra looked like it was about to pounce at the snake handler and sink its fangs into his neck, he lunged out with a pair of snake tongs and grabbed the cobra by the neck, pulling it towards him, while his friends kept the rest of the cobras at bay. Then he grabbed the writhing, infuriated cobra by the neck with his hand, and positioned its bared fangs over a beaker and proceeded to extract its venom. They undoubtedly use the venom to make antivenom, an important product treat bites in India, especially in the south.
I eventually exited the cobra house, slightly traumatized, knowing that every single other snake exhibit I would later see in life would disappoint me. The rest of the park consisted of some other reptile enclosures here and there, some colorful birds, and some nice foliage, but nothing like the cobra house. One other notable sight was an enormous alligator enclosure, which housed an inappropriate number of gray, dusty, sedentary crocodiles. There was one particularly old and withered crocodile that I felt sorry for, just because it seemed so frail and helpless. A park employee then walked over to the enclosure with a bucket full of fish – it was feeding time. He began to throw the fish into the enclosure, and all of a sudden all of the dozens of crocodiles stirred, jumped up, and began to hustle in the direction of the fish. As he continued throwing fish into the pit, the old crocodile I had previously felt sorry for seemed to become possessed by some invigorating life-force, as he snapped in every which way, catching fish before they even hit the ground, actually managing to consume more fish than any of his fellow crocs. Don’t judge a book by its cover!
If you ever happen to visit Chennai (which you should one day, as the south of India is quite beautiful and certainly merits a visit), do make a trip to the Guindy Snake Park. It’s an excellent way to spend a couple hours and a fine opportunity to get up close and personal with India’s most feared creature – the king cobra – in way that you never could in any other part of the world.
WHERE: Chennai Snake Park Trust, also known as the Guindy Snake Park. Guindy, Chennai, on the Sardar Patel Road.
WHEN: Open every day but Tuesday, 08:30 – 17:30.
Official Website: http://cspt.in/thechennaisnakepark.php