It is hard not to associate snakes with danger and evil. From Cleopatra taking her own life by allowing a venomous snake to bite her, to Greek mythological figure Medusa having the reptiles for hair, the cold-blooded creatures have long been associated with the macabre.
Literature and films also play their part in perpetuating this stereotype: think Anaconda, Snakes on a Plane and the Harry Potter series. That series, which featured a snake called Nagini as one of Voldemort’s horcruxes, cemented the idea of a serpent as the ultimate evil in the minds of millions of youngsters – save for one. For Maya Azeredo-Badreldin, 10, “snakes are cute and cuddly”.
The UAE resident, who is a Grade 5 pupil at North London Collegiate School Dubai, completed a unique internship at Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in July. Passionate about the reptiles, Maya became the first child to be allowed full access to the institute, and she did the UAE proud by procuring and sharing knowledge with the scientists during her time in Brazil.
The institute, which opened in 1901, is the largest immunobiologicals and biopharmaceuticals producer in Latin America and one of the largest centres of biomedical research in the world. It is renowned for its collection of venomous snakes, as well as lizards, spiders, insects and scorpions. By extracting the venom from these species, Butantan develops antivenom and medication to treat diseases such as tuberculosis, rabies, tetanus and diphtheria.
Dozens of rescued reptiles and insects live in the Biology Museum within Butantan. The creatures play an important role in the institute’s research, as well as being an attraction for thousands of children who visit the museum every year. While the animals can only be observed through thick glasses, Maya was the one child who had the opportunity to spend quality time behind the scenes with the biologists and vets who care for the animals.
As part of her internship, the Brazilian-British-Egyptian citizen, who was born and raised in Dubai, cleaned the serpents’ enclosures, fed lizards, snakes and frogs, learnt about scenario design and species classification with museum director Giuseppe Puorto, and even bathed a bunch of bearded dragons.
Maya says she’s always been interested in animals and became “a specialist” in snakes a couple of years ago. Self-taught, she can explain in detail – and with endearing enthusiasm – the genetic breeding of the different morphs of ball pythons and the feeding system of each animal.
“Snakes can go many weeks, even months, without eating. They tend to go into a hibernation stage before changing their skin or after a meal,” she tells The National with all the confidence of an expert.
As part of her experience, Maya also spent time in the veterinary department, learning about various snake diseases, how to tell whether a snake is male or female and the process of quarantine for rescued animals. She handled animals including large tarantulas and gigantic Madagascar cockroaches.
Her favourite part of the internship, she says, was spending time with the snakes, including boas, pythons, beauty snakes, coral snakes and corn snakes.
In the final part of the internship, Maya became an educator for a day, learning how to inform the public about how important the animals are to the ecosystem.
“I don’t understand why people are afraid of them. As with any other wild animal, they do not attack humans or other animals out of evilness,” Maya says.
“Snakes are solitary creatures, who like to stay alone in a dark hiding place most of the time. They only bite to defend themselves or if they are hungry and identify prey.”
She has adopted a 1.2-metre, 7-year-old male ball python. Twig lives in Maya's living room alongside the family's pet cat and dog.