“The cobra is a pussy cat, a gentle snake,” Lawrence van Sertima says. “Some snakes are very nervous, while some snakes are quite docile. But very few snakes are mean.”
For more than 60 years, Van Sertima has had a love affair with snakes. He’s made a living from snakes and also welcomed some, including a cobra, a mamba and a taipan, into his home.
And in spite of being bitten four different times, the 75-year-old herpetologist says snakes have been given a bad reputation by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
For example, people are saying the anaconda is a threat to wildlife in the Florida Everglades, Van Sertima said.
Much of what they say is “complete, unadulterated nonsense,” he said. “They have jumped on the bandwagon and made a huge hullabaloo of nonsense.”
Van Sertima, a native of Guyana, has lived in Florida and Texas. For the past 14 years, he and his wife have made their home near Bowman.
Over the years, he’s milked snakes to obtain venom for research and he’s exported snakes and other exotic animals to the United States. He’s also raised mice to feed to snakes at various sepentariums, including the one at Edisto Island.
After watching a video of himself milking snakes, Van Sertima said he realized he was taking 14 seconds to take a snake out of a barrel, extract the venom and drop the snake into another barrel.
That’s not bad, handling up to 800 snakes a day and not getting bitten, he said.
Handling snakes is a big deal to some people, but not to him, he said.
He remembers the time when a man came into the room with a bag in his hand. He dumped a cobra out of the bag onto the desk where Van Sertima was working.
“I reached for it and gently rested my hand on the snake’s head,” he said. The snake dropped its head and Van Sertima picked it up.
That was a big deal to the man, but “not to me,” he said.
Although he’s been bitten by highly poisonous snakes four times, Van Sertima bears the creatures no malice.
You just can’t afford to be distracted while handling them, he said. When snakes get nervous, the tension often comes, not from the snake, but from the handler, he added.
“If you’re nervous and your movements are jerky, they sense it, and there’s reaction to that,” Van Sertima said.
He said one of his worst experiences was being bitten by a taipan at Zoological Imports 2000 in Miami.
The taipan is a very, very nervous snake, he noted.
It happened on Sept. 11, 2001, the same day the World Day Center and the Pentagon were attacked.
Air travel was banned in American airspace, but one plane was allowed in the air on Sept. 12, he said. It was a plane taking antivenin from San Diego to save his life in Miami.
The bite of a taipan has a 92 percent mortality rate, and many scientists think it’s the deadliest snake in the world, Van Sertima said.
“I was cleaning cages ... putting the snake away,” he said. “He used his tail to raise the back end of the cage. As I reached around to get him, he got me on my finger.”
Van Sertima went outside and told his wife what had happened.
“I sat down and tried to see if I could milk any of the venom — to make it bleed without cutting. I squeezed it to bleed it, and I fell over unconscious,” he said. He noted a person should never cut themselves if they’re bitten.
Fortunately, the team in charge of Miami Rescue for Reptiles was on the scene and quickly got him to a hospital.
His blood was so diluted he began bleeding from every opening in his body and from old wounds that had healed — from any place where tissue was damaged, Van Sertima said. They were giving him antivenin they had on hand to try to counter the damage, but the only taipan antivenin on hand was in San Diego.
“They needed that to counter the damage of that particular species,” Van Sertima said.
Fortunately, the antivenin came in time to save his life, he said.
In spite of his experiences, Van Sertima sees no harm in owning snakes. He said he started “playing with snakes pre-teen,” so he should know something about it.
“I’m not exactly inexperienced,” he said. But you should never let yourself become distracted, he added.
It was just a moment of distraction that caused him to be bitten by a South American rattlesnake, the most poisonous rattlesnake there is, Van Sertima said.
He was extracting venom for research on the treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, when it happened. He was working on his dining room table when a young man who caught snakes for him came in and asked him a question, he said.
“Unfortunately, I had just pinned the snake and I was about to pick it up, Van Sertima said. “I turned aside, and the snake slipped out from the hook and got me.”
Sertima said he began handling snakes as a child in the jungle near his home.
“I was a city boy by accident of birth, but I was a jungle boy by choice,” he said. Happily, the jungle was only about 25 miles from his home.
“Every chance I got, I jumped on my bicycle with some of my friends, and we went and spent time in the jungle, whether the weekend or a week,” he said.
His snake of choice was the deadly fer-de-lance, and he was handling it well before he reached his teens, Van Sertima said.
“It was not until I came up to the United States that I learned many people, even among the professionals, didn’t want to mess with it,” he said. “To me, that was common in my neck of the woods.”
Today, Van Sertima has given up snake handling. There were a lot of reasons behind his decision, he said. For one thing, he’s suffering from kidney failure, a possible side effect of his confrontation with the taipan.
He’s also given up maintaining a home for his poisonous snakes. However, his wife still keeps three king snakes in cages in the bedroom, he said.
Van Sertima says if he had to live his life over, he’d do nothing differently.
But he has a word of advice for kids who want to follow in his footsteps.
“First of all, play with non-venomous snakes,” he said. “Do not get into exotics until you have got a good few years of experience behind you because there’s not a lot of space for mistakes.”
According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, only six of the 38 species of snakes in South Carolina are venomous — the pygmy rattlesnake; the cottonmouth, also known as the water moccasin; the copperhead; the timber rattlesnake; the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake; and the coral snake.
DNR lists the following general characteristics to look for to determine if a snake is venomous:
“Five of South Carolina’s species of poisonous snakes are pit vipers. They have triangular-shaped heads and a heat-sensing pit between the eye and nostril. They tend to be stout snakes, and their eyes have elliptical pupils, like a cat’s eye.
“On the other hand, some non-venomous snakes are able to flatten their bodies and make their heads appear triangular. The coral snake, which belongs to the same family as the cobra, is rarely seen. While the brightly-colored snake closely resembles several non-poisonous snakes, it can easily be distinguished from them because the yellow stripe always touches the red band.
“A common rhyme is a reminder of how to recognize the coral snake — ‘Red on yellow kills a fellow; Red on black, venom lack.’”
The Palmetto Poison Center recommends treating all snake bites as if they are poisonous and offers this advice if someone is bitten: “Remain calm. Do not apply a tourniquet or ice. Do not try to suck the venom from the bite site. Call the Palmetto Poison Center and seek immediate medical attention.”
According to the center, snakes generally are not aggressive, but it urges people not to pick them up. Snakes generally bite for two main reasons: to obtain food and to defend against prey, the center advises.