Snake Charmers and Laura Pedersen

Nag Panchami, the Hindu festival honoring the king cobra, was celebrated on August 4 this year. This week, NPR reported on the decline of India’s snake charmers. Laura Pedersen, author of Buffalo Gal and Buffalo Unbound, wrote on king cobras and their charmers in her upcoming book, Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws, due out in spring 2012:

Attention ophidiophobes. Serpents do not lurk around every corner or hide under hotel beds.  I did not see a single free-ranging reptile throughout my trip, which included animal sanctuaries and national parks. So it’d be silly for someone to skip India for fear of running into a snake since they’re everywhere throughout the United States. In New York State alone we have three types of poisonous snakes—rattlers, copperheads, and massasauga—along with seriously scary-looking milk snakes, water snakes, and eight-foot black rat snakes. Nonetheless, during a childhood spent largely out of doors, I managed not to become a meal for a single one of them. Yes, vipers live among us and we among them.

Snake charming is a dying profession in India, largely a result of the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, which prohibits owning and selling serpents but wasn’t really enforced until animal-rights activists became involved during the 1990s. However, you can occasionally find practitioners of this ancient art at marketplaces, tourist attractions, and festivals, hypnotizing snakes by playing musical instruments, and sometimes handling them. Snakes are considered sacred, and their charmers are regarded as holy men who are influenced by the gods. Ancient artwork regularly depicts the various gods being guarded by cobras. Most snake charmers (at least the ones still living) have removed the poison glands from the snake’s head or defanged it. Spoiler alert: snakes don’t really dance to the music because they have very poor hearing (do you see any ears?) but can sense vibrations along the ground.

While presidents have been known to travel with mountain bikes, golf pros, and decks of cards, Indian presidents always head to the summer retreat with at least four snake wranglers and one monkey catcher. In 2000 (the last year for which figures are available), a total of four snakes managed to sneak into the executive retreat. At least guests needn’t fret that the proverbial bump in the night is a restless ghost.

As India continues its building boom, many former snake charmers are recareering as snake rescuers, capturing snakes everywhere, from presidential palaces to suburban homes, and returning them to the wild.  I can only hope this works better than my dad’s effort to relocate the birdfeeder-raiding squirrels in his backyard to the dam site five miles away, as it seems to take them less than a day to make the journey home.

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