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My Snakes and I

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Let's say you want to have a pet. You would go to the nearest pet shop, and what would you get? Something cute, fury and cuddly I guess. Now - what makes anybody choose something other than that? Like lizards or worse, snakes for instance? Having scaly, slithering long reptiles in your living room isn't a pretty picture for most people. Some would rather have them as decoration - like a wall hanging or even more drastic like a pair of knee high boots - which have been very fashionable recently.

"I finally figured out what you have been doing with your snakes. You are using them for your weird intimate fantasy," he said. His eyes accusingly darted to her shocked innocent face.

Anna, an 18-year-old high school Javanese girl, couldn't believe her ears. She jumped up and down furiously and finally told him to leave after cursing him with all her might. She was absolutely befuddled. Where would her close classmate get such an outrageous absurd idea? She had known him for almost a year; she thought he had understood her true affection towards her pets. They are just pets, nothing else! Okay, instead of dogs, cats or those horrible furry little chipmunks - mice, hamsters or whatever they are (snake food . that's it!), she has snakes. She has one yellow-streaked baby python and one Burmese boa, which are kept in a closed wooden closet in her bedroom. The boa is almost three metres long. She also has several smaller poisonous snakes - which she barely touches, locked in a cage in the front yard.

Most people are still not at ease toward snake keepers. Some of them even consider snakes as evil creatures. Why would anybody love them as pets? Anna's friend's behaviour explains how hard it is for some people to accept snakes.

At least with her snakes, Anna isn't worried about the disturbing barking noise dogs would create. Snakes do not steal chickens off your kitchen table (livestock, maybe) and the most important thing is that they don't leave huge piles of stinking stools all over your house or back yard.

Once a week, she feeds her snakes. She goes to a local bird market and buys half a dozen quails in a cardboard box. The constrictors are fed first. She puts them in a locked room, and with a long handled tong she puts the birds, one by one in front of the snake's mouth. The snake's tongue flickers and his eyes rivets to his prey and with a sudden strike he grabs the bird with his mouth and constricts it. What a beauty! Then slowly, starting from the head of his prey, he swallows it. A huge bump appears past the head that glides down to the centre of his stomach. Phew, don't you wish you had jaw structure and a digestive system like them sometimes? You would be able to just stick a huge salami in your mouth and swallow it - no sweat. Saves you the time from slicing and chewing as well. A perfect solution for TV dinner devotees!

Anna knows how important it is not to touch the snake food with her bare hands. Since the snakes have very poor vision, they distinguish prey almost entirely by scent. They can easily get confused between their prey and their keeper. If you move, and have the scent of their food on your body, there is a possibility that they will attack you accidentally. The large constrictor is fed three quails once a week. Anna throws the rest of the birds into the cage in the front yard, which is occupied by six medium-sized yellow and black-striped snakes.

Bath time is the funniest time. Unlike other keepers, Anna likes to give her snakes a bath once or twice a week (a slippery thing with a bad body odour curled up around her neck doesn't really take her fancy). She uses an old bathtub at the back of her house for that purpose. She fills it up with fresh water and gently put her snakes in. Watching them dance in the water - how they wiggle and stick their heads above the surface from time to time is a good anti-depressive therapy.

With her boa wrapped around her waist or neck, Anna takes a walk to enjoy fresh air almost every evening. There is no better bodyguard than her snakes. Living in a suburb in South Jakarta, a woman who walks alone in the dark always draws attention from those low-life male perverts who hang out at the T-junctions. Just one quick glance from the brownish-yellow eyes is guaranteed to freeze them and shut them up.

One important factor in keeping large constrictors is to make sure that they are kept in adequate cages. A spacious and extraordinary strong wooden cage is a must. These creatures are so powerful they can push through windows and screens in no time and escape.

One day Anna was shocked to realise that her baby python, which barely reaches a metre long, was nowhere to be found. The gap between her bedroom window and the frame explained it. The snake had escaped. The word spread really quickly, alarming the whole neighbourhood. You wouldn't believe the panic the news caused. Her telephone rang every second with people asking whether she had already caught her snake or not. The neighbours complained about how their children were reluctant to go to the bathroom because they were afraid to find the snake hiding in the toilet bowl. It was a nightmare. All of the fuss ended when the python came back into Anna's bedroom by itself, a week later. This still puzzles me - do snakes actually recognise their home? Do they feel the urge to have a quick tour around the neighbourhood and when they have enough adventure they will be able to find their way home just like that? Like cats or dogs?

But unlike many other domesticated animals which are taken as pets, snakes are still wild animals, with their natural behaviour and instinct intact. It is always best to return them to the wild. Although, after watching how the local people playing Steve 'The croc's bait' Irwin wannabes - hunted snakes on TV recently, I have my doubts. They hunt them, kill them - sell some to the skin to wallet makers, while some of the hunters sell the other snake organs as libido enhancement tonics, yikes! Somehow I feel that those cute slithering pets are safer with people like Anna.

First published in the Jakarta Post.

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