Trailing the snake catchers of Australia

'You have to be comfortable to dive on the snake, grab it in your hands and do whatever it takes to catch it,' says Harley Jones

Snake catcher Harley Jones runs Snakes in the City in Sydney. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell
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I am utterly petrified. My heart rate has escalated and my body has seized up, locked in terror. An attempt to retreat from the deadly threat advancing towards me has caused me to back up against a wall. In this moment, I am protected only by hope. The hope that I'll regain movement in time to evade the poisonous red-bellied black snake that just slithered under the bed near my feet. A few blurry minutes later, the snake sits in a hessian bag, courtesy of my friendly neighbourhood "snake hunter" Mark Pelley.

The red-bellied black snake, which possesses enough venom to kill an adult, was coiled up beneath the bedside cabinet of a display home on the outskirts of Melbourne when I first encountered it. When Pelley, who was called by the property company that owns the house, picked up the squirming snake with a metal hook, it fell to the floor and scurried under the bed by which I was standing, sending me into a panic. Pelley, by ­contrast, was as calm as a lagoon. He ushered me out of the room, scooped up the snake once again, packed it away, collected his pay and got on with his day.  

Snake catcher Mark Pelley demonstrates the length of one of the snakes he caught. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

A 36-year-old father of five girls, Pelley allowed me to attend this retrieval so I could see first-hand the risky work done by Australia’s snake catchers. These are ordinary men and women who just happen to have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Each year thousands of Australians call catchers to help remove a poisonous reptile from their homes or offices.

Why snake catchers are so important

Unlike crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, most snake catchers don't earn fame and fortune from their perilous work. It's just a job that feeds the family, who pray each day that their loved ones will avoid being bitten. To get an inside look at this unusual ­occupation, I went on patrol with two of Australia's leading snake catchers – Pelley in Melbourne and Harley Jones in Sydney – to watch them tangle with deadly reptiles.

Australia is infamous for its life-threatening fauna. Sharks trawl the seas, crocodiles stalk the rivers, poisonous spiders hide in the trees and venomous snakes crawl over its land. While shark and crocodile attacks are rare, snakes pose an ever-present threat. Of the world’s 25 most venomous snakes, 20 are in Australia. Each year, up to 5,000 ­Australians are bitten by snakes, with more than 500 of them admitted to hospital. Since the start of 2018, seven people have been killed this way, with that number jumping up to more than 40 since the turn of the century.

While there have been plenty of cases where Australians have died from snake bites while walking in the forest or desert, surprisingly more than half of the deaths in the past 20 years have occurred in or around the victim’s home, rather than in the wilderness. People are often bitten while trying to trap the snake themselves, which is why Australia’s snake catchers are so vital.

Poisonous snakes are regularly spotted in living spaces, which makes snake catchers such as Mark Pelley and Harley Jones vital to the community. Photo by Ronan O’Connell

The deadliest species is the eastern brown snake, which is ­embedded in the deepest fears of most Australians from a young age. If snakes are scary, brown snakes are terrifying. Unlike most ­serpents, which are frightened of humans and flee upon seeing us, only biting as a last resort, the brown snake is fearless. It doesn't retreat; it stands its ground and even charges at you in attack mode. The only thing faster than its venom, which can ­easily kill an adult in 30 minutes, is its lightning-quick strike as it coils up only to release like a spring.

An affinity for the creatures

Growing up in Australia, I had nightmares – both while asleep and awake – about brown snakes. It wasn’t so much their extreme toxicity that frightened me, but rather their aggression and the horrific idea of being pursued by one. And yet, “I absolutely love playing with brown snakes”, Jones admits to me in a forested park near his home in northern Sydney.

It is the kind of brash statement that could ring hollow or come off as false bravado, if I hadn’t just watched Jones trap one of these very reptiles, grin firmly in place. Six years ago, the 37-year-old father was employed in an office job for a recruitment company when, on a whim, he decided to ask a snake catcher if he could accompany him on a day’s work. Now Jones owns a company called Snakes in the City, and employs the catcher who inspired him.

Snake catcher Harley Jones in action. Photo by Ronan O’Connell

A strongly built man with a dark beard, confident swagger and thick Australian accent, Jones fits the mental image I had of snake hunters. He greets me outside his large home, which he shares with his four-year-old daughter and his girlfriend. While his ex-wife "wasn't too keen on snakes, so I got divorced", his daughter and partner love them. "They are both very comfortable with snakes, and my daughter enjoys helping me catch non-­venomous species," says Jones. "My partner has come out to help me catch snakes many times, and sometimes she even catches them before I do."

This colourful conversation takes place as Jones shows me the cages beneath his home where he keeps the snakes he collects before releasing them back into the wild. He rarely kills one; snakes are a protected species in Australia, and unlawfully killing one can incur a A$10,000 (Dh25,787) fine and two-year jail sentence. Either way, Jones and Pelley both express genuine affection for the creatures, and handle them firmly but gently when on a job.

'Whatever it takes to catch it'

Of course, that’s not always possible. Snakes tend to hide and, when discovered, they can put up quite a fight. Using a metal hook to grip and then scoop them into a bag is the method most snake ­catchers are taught first, but this approach doesn’t work a lot of the time; the snake simply wriggles off the hook. Which is why, Jones says, catchers have to be “comfortable to dive on the snake, grab it in your hands and do whatever it takes to catch it”.

Again, he's not exaggerating. Pelley once had to grab two highly dangerous tiger snakes at the same time – one in each hand. As the tale unfurls, he had been trying to catch the one hiding under a large rock when the second one, which he had not noticed, launched itself at him in an attempt to bite. His quick reflexes saved him, but reminded Pelley just how vulnerable snake catchers are on the job. This was the scariest experience of his seven-year career, he tells me, as we stand in his home looking at his own collection of 30 snakes.

Of the world's 25 most venomous snakes, 20 can be found in Australia, including the dreaded brown snake. Photo by Ronan O’Connell

Among this assortment is a figure that lurks in the darkest corner of my mind – a brown snake, massive at more than three metres long and as thick as my arm. There are six people in the room right now, including my wife and three of Pelley’s daughters. This snake has enough venom to kill us all. My hands are shaking as I take a photo of Pelley holding it aloft by its tail. It coils up and tries to bite him several times, but the snake hunter doesn’t break a sweat, smiling for my photos all the while keeping an eye on the snake and avoiding its fangs.

His three daughters are ­looking on, chatting and laughing as if this were the most normal situation imaginable. Their demeanour is so relaxed and cheery, you’d think they were watching their father cuddle a puppy. Pelley is not being careless; rather, he is in complete control of the situation. His daughters know this. They trust him, as do ­people across Australia. Even I’m starting to trust him. After all, I wouldn’t want to be left on my own when one of the world’s deadliest creatures slithers into my home.