AE 543 – Interview: Why Snakes AREN’T the Enemy with Ross McGibbon

Learn Australian English in this interview episode of the Aussie English Podcast where I talk with Ross McGibbon about why snakes aren’t the enemy.

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AE 543 – Interview: Why Snakes AREN’T the Enemy with Ross McGibbon

G’day, guys! Welcome to this episode of Aussie English. Today I have Ross McGibbon, who is a snake enthusiast or would you call yourself a reptile enthusiast? You pick a team or?

No mate, snakes are probably my favourite out of all reptiles they definitely what I focus on mainly, but I’m definitely a reptile enthusiast. I guess an amateur herpetologist, I study them in my spare time.

Yeah, brilliant!

And then yeah, the wildlife photography as well.

Well, that’s it, so the first question I have for you is where are you from and where did you grow up down under and what do you do for a crust? What’s your day your day job vs the photography thing?

Well, originally from, I’m in WA, in Fremantle now, I’ve been here for the last two years, but I’m a Queensland boy as you might be able to tell by my very Queensland accent. Yeah I grew up in kind of a lot of different parts of Queensland. The Gold Coast for 10 years and then mum shipped us out to Emerald Queensland which is a couple hours inland of Rockhampton so, country town big mining town and we ended up on a farm out there. So, a bit of a farm background and then obviously later in life joined the Army when I was 20. Joined as a firefighter and I’ve basically stuck with that career the whole time and then about three years ago I just combined my passion for wildlife photography, travelling and then reptile’s all into one sort of hobby and then just started doing wildlife photography on the side.

Far out so, were you… when I was a kid my parents used to always take me to my grandparents farm in Bendigo and there would always be… It was always dry, rocks everywhere, really flat rock so, they were the perfect kind for lifting up and finding snakes and spiders and lizards and stuff. Were you doing that ever since you were a little kid?

Well, for me it started off with dinosaurs. I was absolutely obsessed with dinosaurs and then once we got moved up to Emerald I started to realize that.. I started to be out in the bush more and I started to realize that hey, you know, these reptiles are like living versions, miniature versions of dinosaurs so, my obsession sort of quickly went from dinosaurs over to reptiles. I was one of those kids of school that was just sneaking out of class to be in the bush all the time and catching reptiles and doing this sort of same sort of thing, you know, you might have been doing as a kid just just being out the bush and enjoying, you know, whatever I could find. And then when I was about 11 years old we moved out to a farm, obviously my mum sort of started up a relationship with a guy who was a farmer and that was a big contrast to what…well firstly he had the mentality of, you know, any snake, a good snake is a dead snake.

That’s pretty much all farmers, right?

Pretty much all farmers, you know, they don’t bother learning about them, they don’t care. They just see them as a pest. They don’t see them as native wildlife and basically they kill them all regardless of whether they’re non-venomous, venomous, a legless lizard even…

Are they allowed to do that? That’s one of those questions that I hear about working, I worked at the museum when I was doing my studies and we did quite a lot of surveys, we’d have to go out into the Grampians and into the Alps here in Victoria and catch everything, and I remember quite often they were saying because they talk to farmers and they’d be like I just kill them and they’re like that’s like a twenty thousand dollar fine. You know, if you kill one of these animals and people find out about it so, what are the sort of rules with that?

Well this is the thing. There’s a bit of a grey area. So, first and foremost, all native wildlife in Australia is protected including every species of reptile including snakes. If you kill one of these snakes indiscriminately and someone has the proof to then pass on to the Environmental Protection Agency or whatever government body is in that state, if they the proof, then they can, you can then receive a fine, but there is a grey area that says you can protect your personal safety with whatever means necessary. So, people sort of take that on board and they go ” alright, there’s a loophole here, I can kill snakes because snakes are aggressive” and all they have to do is say ”oh I feared for my life, I feared for my family’s life” and they can indiscriminately kill snakes. What it really means if a snake is advancing towards you in a threatening behavior you can grab whatever’s nearest to defend yourself, that is allowed. What it doesn’t include is seeing a snake down in the chook pen, running up to the house, grabbing a gun, going down and shooting that snake just for being a snake and that’s…

Really, so, even that you can’t do on your own property?

No, so they’re protect the wildlife and that does come under, you know, the law that you can not go and kill that animal just for being there or just for being a snake, but again there’s those loopholes, and what people do on their own property is very rarely ever seen by the general public and they can get away with it. So, that’s sort of where that sort of behaviour comes about and it’s a mentality that’s taught from kids from a young age in the country. The older parents, they’re not learning anything about the natural, and I’m being very generous and I’m speaking from my experience from what my stepfather was like. They only know agricultural upbringing. They don’t really know about the natural world, their family and their generations have changed the land many years before they’ve cleared it, they’ve destroyed a lot of the natural habitat for natural wildlife and you get these snakes that feed on rats and mice like brown snakes and taipans and species like that and then they’re attracted to the home because, you know, farmers are feeding their chickens with grain, they’ve got all their horse feed and their hay, all this stuff that creates a great environment for rats and mice to breed, right? Then you’ve got the snake who used to have all this land and now it’s all cleared and it’s still trying to survive. So, it’s trying to eek out this existence in a very altered landscape to what it was, but what they’re doing is providing these great food source then that’s… those snakes can come and exploit. Plus, they’ve got so much mess and rubbish and tin lying around. They’ve got all these great hiding spots because they don’t keep any of it clean and tidy.

That was always one of those things that I was always thinking because I interviewed a guy from Queensland, from the Sunshine Coast, who was a snake hunter and he was talking about how he’d always get called out to houses and it’s always…they just leave tin and wood piles and it’s like…man, that is the perfect thing you need to do if you want to attract snakes your house, is just leave a heap of flat tin panels that are going to warm up in the day, you know, flat on the grass.

And what they don’t understand is snakes need to thermo regulate so, their whole, their home make up is designed to operate off being at an optimum body temperature so, if they can find very safe underneath the piece of tin, that then warms up under the sun and they don’t have to expose themselves, that’s a perfect shelter site for them, when they’re warm enough, they’ll come out to hunt and you just created this perfect storm to have snakes by having a really messy property, all these rats and mice running around.

So, is there there a lot of your work too when you’re out, you know, creating these videos on YouTube and taking these amazing photos? Is a lot of your work also interacting with people and trying to educate them personally on that sort of behaviour and avoiding those kinds of things to be safe around their properties and not just, you know, ”I’ll do whatever I want and if snake’s there, I’m going to Kill it”?

That is first and foremost what I started out doing on the Sunshine Coast, I became a professional snake catcher so, like the guy you were talking about, before it was my full time role when I wasn’t being a firefighter, basically on my days off. I was a full time snake catcher and we get up to 10 jobs a day on the Sunshine Coast, it’s a very populated area for snakes, not to scare anyone, it’s just a very rich biodiversity.

If you don’t like snakes, guys, come to Victoria, you’ll be fine. There’s very few of them.

Yeah, well, you know,, like yeah we’d be out educating a lot of the public on our snake calls, but it wasn’t really enough. And then you’ve got these phenomenal tools like Facebook where old snake educators used to have to go to schools and educate 20 kids at a time. Now, you know, just by creating a video on Facebook you can put it out there for the world to see and I just pull one out recently about brown snakes chasing people and explaining that, and you might have caught that one and you know that’s how about nearly 9.000 shares. And it’s had a lot of positive feedback because it helps people understand snakes because they’re very, very misunderstood animals.

Well, talking about that, why are Australian snakes so dangerous? Why don’t we move onto this topic. Why are they so venomous and why are they so misunderstood as well to get you going?

Venomous and dangerous are two different things. Obviously, everyone’s heard about how much we have such toxic snakes in Australia, but the problem is those tests have been performed on mice. So, there was a thing called the LD50 test which they did. I can’t remember exactly what year, but it was some time ago. And what they did is they tested all the snake venom on mice. And now what they did is come up a list, with a list, from those results of the top 25 most venomous snakes in the world and Australia has, you know, a good 15 or 20 of those in that list. Now, everyone thinks now that we’ve got these super, super toxic snakes, what they don’t quite understand is that those results don’t exactly correlate over to humans, they’re performed on mice. I’ll give you a good example of how it really doesn’t work in the everyone thinks it is: you’ve got the Sydney funnel web spider who can kill a human, but yet it’s venom is very ineffective on mice. So, now if you test all these snake venoms on mice, you’re going to come up with this, you know, very scary looking results towards humans and we really can’t sort of correlate the two. We can only sort of pick up certain things that does so, anyway Australia’s got this massive reputation of having all these venomous snakes, what we don’t understand is that statistics prove that we only have an average of two snakebite deaths a year, which is very low.

That’s one of those things, sorry to interrupt you, that always blows my mind when I was looking up some of the stats on animal related deaths in Australia. All the animals that you would imagine aren’t scary, are benign, are the ones that will actually F you up and kill you at the end of the day, right? Like, I think, you know I think it was like 30 deaths a year from horses. Kangaroos kill more people than sharks in car accidents. And it is weird that it’s completely skewed and that Australia has this kind of like ”oh we need to, wear it as a badge of honor all these dangerous animals, they’re deadly, watch out”, but in actual fact it’s all these other animals like dogs and kangaroos and goats or whatever that will actually kill people and not necessarily spiders, snakes, sharks.

Exactly. I was reading a big write-up on it not too long ago and I think, you know, all our venomous creatures, including snakes, crocodiles, sorry, non-venomous, all our dangerous creatures including our snakes, our crocodiles, our sharks, our very dangerous marine life, it all amounts to about five deaths on average a year and then you get something like this cute little honey bee. This introduced honeybee killing 10 people a year and, you know, you got this really skewed mentality that we need to go out and kill these snakes, but yet you’ve got all these honey bees flying around everyone’s flowers and backyards and stuff and you don’t have the parents running out in a fit of like panic killing all these honeybees like they would a snake, yet the snake, you know, gets this really bad rap in Australia.

Well, imagine them going out there to fish and chip shops and just like beating the hell out of all of those pan… like, all the dim sims and everything because they causing obesity and heart disease.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean, driving the car. You know, we have around between three and a half, four and a half hours of car related deaths and that is phenomenal when you compare that to snakes. Yet, you know, there’s very little fear about jumping in your car and going down the street, you know what I mean?

Is there even a word for that kind of a phobia? I don’t think anyone has a phobia of cars, but you’ve got arachnophobia, I’m sure this phobia of sharks and yeah, it is funny how it’s kind of like irrational.

It is, it’s very irrational and that’s what, you know, as a snake educator and someone who puts a lot of time into learning about these topics, the more I learn and the more crazy people on Facebook I meet, is just staggering how many people just have this really skewed version of how dangerous, you know, our native fauna is when really all of that stuff needs to be preserved and we can put our efforts into doing more constructive things with our time instead of getting on Facebook and carrying on about how dangerous snakes are. You know, why not learn more about them so, that you realize they’re not so dangerous like a lot of the professionals do.

What are some of the misconceptions that the average person that you encounter have with regards to snakes?

Basically, I’ll start off with snakes being territorial. A lot of people will see a snake act defensively towards them and they’ll be like ”oh this snake is chasing me out of its territory. It’s taken up residence in my home. It’s marked that residents out as it’s territory and now it’s trying to chase me out of it. So, what I’m going to do is I’m going to go get my gun and kill it”. Now, snakes are not territorial animals. What they have is a home range, just like you or I do, you know, we live in a town, we know where our food is, we know where our shelter is, and we know where the nightclubs are we go out and find females, but, you know, if you correlate that to snake he has his home range, he kind of knows where everything is. He knows their habits, so the habits of the occupants because he’s grown up there, he or she, sorry, and they’re only going to defend their personal safety. So, when they confront a snake everyone thinks ”oh, this snake is attacking me, it’s being aggressive at me”, but what they’re doing is they’re just saying defensive behavior because it’s very important to understand that snakes look up from the ground. They see this large animal and in the wild that’s a predator to a large animal. So, anything that’s larger than them they see is a threat to them, even cars. I get these people going ”oh, if they’re not aggressive then why was it striking at my car I pulled up next to it on the road?” and it’s like the snake doesn’t have Google and it can’t log on and see the latest model for a Toyota and go oh that’s not a person. It just looks out sees something big and intimidating and it just switches into defensive mode. That’s all they do.

That was really interesting when you showed that video recently with the brown snake, right? Can you explain what exactly was going on in that video and the point of it? Because it was it was really, really interesting.

Yeah. So, for that particular video we were out filming venomous snakes. We’d come across one on the road and we got out to identify it as a brown snake. We were actually looking for inland Taipans. We were right in the middle of Australia in northeast South Australia and…

You got a death wish, you got a death wish, man.

Right out in the middle of nowhere in front of brown snakes. But yeah, we got out realized it was a brown snake. I thought I would just grab a quick bit of footage because we try and film everything we come across because you never know what the animals are going to do and how you’ll be able to use that footage to sort of educate the public later on. So, I went up behind it, my friend Richie was filming me and as I got close to it, it did a 180 and that’s where the video starts. It’s done a 180 at me, it’s advance towards me in defensive, I guess in a defensive manner, thinking that on the large predator about to hurt it. As I walk backwards and all I had to do was walk backwards I didn’t have to run, I didn’t have to panic I just walk backwards, the snake advanced towards me until it saw its first opportunity to flee and that’s what knocked down that soil crack that you can see. And that was a perfect example of how snake will act offensively toward you. Try to get you on the back foot, get you to just basically leave it alone and get away.

A lot of people mistake that behavior for chasing and they call it chasing because they believe that the snake is trying to advance towards them with intention to bite them because everyone thinks that they want to bite you and kill you and that’s just not the case. They put on this big bluff display, a lot of it mock striking and bluffing a lot of it’s even done with closed mouth, and I’ve witnessed this many, many, many times while I’ve been out filming venomous snakes and as a snake catcher I know that a lot of it is just fluff, but it can result in a bite if you do not leave it alone. So, where accidents happen is if you don’t see the snake acts defensively towards you and you keep moving around, it’s just thinking oh this thing’s trying to kill me. It acts defensively and if you are close enough they can result in a bite.

Yeah, because I’ve heard that quite often they’re not actually interested in wasting venom on things they know are predators cause there’s no real point, right? It’s a waste of venom. They’re not going to consume you and they have to create that venom again to try and hunt later.

Exactly. Pretty much, you nailed it on the head. Venom isn’t really used by Australian snakes in defense, the only time that’s really used is in things like spitting cobras and they’ve had, you know, thousands and thousands more years of large predators to deal with so, they rear up and they spit up into the eyes of your perceived predator.

Fortunately we got none of them here except…unless you go to a zoo and your Harry Potter and the glass breaks or whatever, right?

Exactly. So, you know, we don’t have to worry about any snakes spitting venom be in our eyes. What we need to be wary of is just how to act when we do see a snake and we can go on to that in a bit more, but just for the whole defensive… snake’s using venom for defensive purposes. There is no snake in Australia that can kill a human that quickly to stop it from killing the snake. So, you know, it’s venom is absolutely useless as used in a defensive manner. So, first things first. They’re not going to try and use that, but the thing is a snake is a snake it’s a long cylindrical animal and the only thing it has to defend itself is, you know, bluff type of behavior and acting assertively. And then last resort it may bite and a good a good statistic I like to put out there is the Australian brown snake, the Eastern Brown is the one that is responsible for the most amount of deaths in Australia and that’s the one that everyone fears and that’s why I did that video, but there’s a statistic they’ve collected from snakebite history that the brown snake will only envenom its victim or the bite victim around 20 to 40 percent of the time.

That means you can poke the thing between three and five times before you’ll get done.

Yeah, basically, you know if we want to make a bit of a joke out of it, you’ve basically got the odds in your favor of mocking around with snake, but to be more serious, all it does is that statistic it shows the general public that they’re not trying to use venom as a defensive mechanism, the venom is only just a byproduct of them biting and the fact that they’re venomous so, put simply that’s that’s the way it is, and yet I do have another point.

You’re good, you’re good.

Nah, it’s alright, we’ll move on, put it very very simply, they’re not trying to use them for defensive purposes. That’s what I want to say. If you are a rat, if you’re one of its prey items, then it will envenomate 100 percent of the time because it’s trying to use its venom on you, so we can all relax. We can realize that snakes aren’t trying to prey on us, they’re trying to defend their personal safety from us.

It was always crazy, I used to have a black headed Python and he was a bit of a nut job inside the cage for some reason he was very cage defensive, you get him out he was like a puppy, but in the cage, in his home and I don’t know if it was associated with this is my space and when you come into invading it, but he would always like strike, but again I’d put my hand in there sometimes and he’d hit my hand and not actually latch on, but then the moment that you put a rat in there it was frozen dead, you put it in there and he would just completely change and just be vicious as. It was interesting seeing those two different kind of behaviors between the defensive go away kind of striking, bu then when he’s actually turned on and wants the thing that he’s after.

Yeah, that’s extremely easy to explain because you’ve got this snake in a confined space so, he can’t really escape it doesn’t have that option. So, that’s where cage defensiveness comes in, the snake is cornered. He sees this big sort of large, threatening looking thing in front of it. It gets caged defensive. Then what comes in is can the chemo-reception. So, they’re very, very good at picking up scent particles of their prey items and that’s what they use their forked tongue for. As soon as you introduce the smell of that rat into the snake’s environment and switches into prime mode and that’s exactly the switch that you’re talking about.

Seeing that is frightening, especially when you know you’ve held the rat in your hand and my girlfriend at the time would be like ”oh just feed him with your hand” and I’m like screw that dude, I’m using the tweezers. If he bites, he’s not letting go.

Yeah, exactly and that’s why, that’s why a lot of keepers are at risk if they don’t use safe practices and I’ll talk about the Inland Taipan for example, it’s you know going back to that list of the most toxic snakes in the world, it ranks as number one, but the very simple fact is it’s in the middle of Australia and hardly encounters anyone. So, the only people that have been bitten by this snakes, are guys like myself who have been out there trying to photograph it or study it and then you got the keepers that keep them in captivity and they’re the types of people to get bitten. So, you got this snake with this really scary statistic that it’s the most venomous snake in the world. If you’re a mice, sorry, if you’re a mice or rats, and then no one’s ever died from it.

Really? So, no one’s actually ever died from a Taipan bite or an inland Taipan?

Well, an inland Taipan bit yeah, people have definitely died from coastal Taipans. There’s one third species of Taipan, which is called the Western Desert Taipan, just even more further inland if you’re on the East Coast, it’s over in the Great Victoria Desert. And yeah that was a snake that I went and actually found last year and wrote an article for it and got into Australian Geographic which is a great, great feat.

Oh, awesome!

Less than 20 people have actually encountered that snake in the wall because it’s in such… I should say less than 20 million people involved in Western science, I’m sure the local Aboriginal people have been encountering that snake for thousands of years, but it was only known to science in 2007.

Wow, that recently?

That recently yeah and I guess that’s what was interesting the Australian Geographic because they’re like cool. We need people to go and find out more about this snake. If you’re going to go in there and take photos of it we want to know about it so…

So, moving on to encounters, have you had any obviously you’ve had a few sort of dodgy encounters, what happened? And what do you need to do if you want to get bitten by a snake? And what do you do to avoid it?

Well, when it comes to encountering snakes I obviously shoot with a wide angle lens and I get very, very close to my subjects in order to show all of the detail and show the habitat that they live in so, I can then go and use those photos to tell the story. So, I deal in close proximity to snakes, you know, for long periods of time and I get around Australia and film as many as I can. So, I’ve basically come across all of our venomous species, well, groups of animal species, brown snakes, black snakes, tiger snakes, Taipans, I’ve found all three Taipans in Australia which not many people have done so, I got a wealth of experience with Australian venomous snakes and that’s what I’m trying to specialize in, it’s my most important sort of interest. And from that I’ve derive a lot of knowledge because, and a lot of experience from having these encounters, and now it’s trying to get that knowledge out to the public because they’re just so misunderstood. So, to get back to your question of what you should do if you see a snake, don’t do what I do because I like to get very close and I like to photograph them so, don’t do that for starters. But there’s no reason why you can’t walk away from any kind of snake encounter as long as you know the following steps so, this is an area of great confusion amongst the Australian public because I get told one thing and then they get told another, but really there’s two methods you should do when you encounter a snake. If you see a snake at a distance, just leave it alone. Try and find an alternative route, observe if you’re interested.

Use a zoom lens, not a wide angle one.

Now, if you’re in close proximity to a snake, you know, you walked out of the chook shed and you’re about to stamp in on one. If at all possible the first thing you should do is remove yourself from the vicinity, but sometimes it’s too late, that snake is already way too close for you and what might happen is a snake might rear up a look at you because it’s just noticed you. This is way the Australian public need to use their best judgment in this situation. If you can get out of there, get out of there, the snake will go back to doing what it was doing. If this snake rears up and you, what it’s best to do is stay completely still because they are very responsive to movement. So, the more you move around, the more that snake is going to then get defensive and reactive. So, this is why killing snakes is such a dangerous activity and there’s statistic out there that if you try and kill a snakes with hand tools, and you and you getting sort of close to these animals you’re provoking it, you’re trying to kill it, it’s going to defend itself.

Your likelihood of being bitten just went through the roof.

And the mentality of these people that kill the snakes is like ”I’m just protecting my family” you know, what I mean? And you get this statistic out there that actually proves that because the most amount of Australians that are bitten are these adult males, trying to confront and kill the snake. So, first, first things first, if you want to survive a snake encounter, don’t try and kill it. That’s the first thing.

Call someone to remove if it’s on your property too, right?

Exactly, like, you know, this can create a little bit of a problem for people that are in rural areas. So, that’s why so many farmers just kill the snakes because they just want them to be eliminated, but the problem is it’s a band aid solution so, it’s not actually solving their perceived snake problem.

It’s pretty dumb, right? If you’ve got a heap of crap in your yard that they can live in, you’ve got heaps of rats and mice living around your house, killing one snake using it to tell the other snakes to not come in, it’s like oh okay there’s space open now no one’s living here at this address, I’ll move in!

Yeah that’s, that’s pretty much what happens. You’ve created this niche for snakes then to come and exploit. So, imagine a bit of a case study let’s say we follow a brown snake from birth. It knows exactly where all, as it grows up, it knows where the food is, it knows where the shelter is, it knows where the danger is so, it tries to stay out of your way because it doesn’t will be preyed upon. It wants to remain in secrecy so, it can hunt and then go and live, you know, in a hole somewhere and they do very, very good job of staying out of your way. So, you take that Brown snake who’s lived in that area and then all of a sudden he gets to adulthood, he gets beg and he gets noticed and farmer comes and kills the Brown snake, what happens is you remove that top predator…

Who is keeping the other 10 snakes.

From that environment, you know, he is the top predator in his environment, he’s cleaning up all your rats and mice that if they are left to breed on their own potentially can reach plague proportions and then affect your livelihood, they’re eating all your dog food, they’re eating all your crops. You know, there has been instances where there’s been plague proportions, you know, and people have been overrun by mice and I’ve even heard of a story about an old follow couldn’t get out of bed who had his ears, you know, eyes, they started to eat him alive basically because he couldn’t get out of bed. So, these type of things can happen if you start to change the land so much and remove the top predators then it brings in all the snakes, all the snakes ”oh, look, there’s a food source there. There’s so many of them. We need more snakes” so, you might have more snakes in there and this isn’t to say it’s going to happen every time, but this is basically what you’re doing by just killing a snake because you fear and misunderstand it. You just don’t know enough about the animal to go ”oh, maybe we should leave this guy around and we should take a few other precautions”. Now I’m not saying, you know, it’s great to have a brown snake around because they do pose a risk to people if those people don’t know how to live cohesively with snakes.

Especially if you’ve got kids, I imagined or dogs or…

But the thing is the whole ”I’m protecting my kids” mentality is it’s blown so much out portion because you get the odd child that is say bitten by a snake or even in worst case scenario, and this is a tragedy. don’t don’t get me wrong, but then the media got a hold of it and they blow it far out of proportion and everyone just whips into a frenzy and starts the snake hate again.

It is pretty weird, right? They would not blink putting their kid into the car.

Say that again, sorry?

Yeah it is pretty funny that we have those kinds of visceral reactions to snakes and spiders and sharks and crocodiles and yet we don’t blink if we put our kids in the car or we take our kids to a friend’s house, he’s got a big backyard pool with no fence, there’s no kind of… you don’t freak out and, you know, ”oh my gosh I need to blow up this pool” and like ”we’re going to invert this car and like set it on fire to protect the kids” and yet with snakes it’s kind of like yeah, as you say, there’s like two deaths a year which are probably both farmers or people in such, you know, restricted areas that are just so far away from the hospital that for whatever reason they didn’t make it there, right?

Well, what’s probably more of the attributing factors they didn’t know what to do once they were bitten. So, if you want to protect yourself and your family from snakes, we have these amazing medical facilities, we have antivenom, you know these are all the contributing factors that are the reason why we have such small amounts of death in Australia, but the people who who are, you know, dying from snake bites generally speaking are people we just don’t know what to do after a bite. So, this is what education comes in and this is why I’m doing what I’m doing, a; to help the species that I love, but also to help people, as I mentioned before I’m a full time firefighter, I care about public safety, so what my mission is to do is stop the conflict between our native wildlife and people so, I’m on both sides. And a lot of people sort of yeah I get a lot of hate on the Internet because, you know, what I might appear to be sticking up for snake when really I’m trying to educate people about the snake. So, then I can take that knowledge away and use it in a positive way.

You got to be careful, man. The internet is a cesspool of hate. I get it If I drop the odd F bomb or something I get a lot of people, ”you shouldn’t be saying that, mate”, and I’m thinking, well, it’s English, dude! Like, chill out!

That’s it, I’m teaching people English.

So, what happened? Can you tell us a story about when you were bitten? And how many times has it been? Can I ask that or is that one of those things where you don’t ask a girl her age and you don’t ask a guy how many times he’s bitten by a snake?

It’s actually the most common thing I get asked, because people want to know, oh, how many times have you been bitten?

Well, it’s not to look like… What’s the professor’s name? Fry or whatever, who has been bit like 30 times, and he’s like “yeaaah!!’, you know.

Here’s this people I know that have been around a hundred times. You know, like it’s a…

That’s probably what a million dollars’ worth of antivenom, you know.

You know, that one person that I’m referring to actually just wipes out bites, but you know I don’t actually recommend that, we won’t get onto that topic, but you know, he probably want to be remained anonymous, but.

All good, all good. So, what happened with you, though, when you were bitten by Australia’s most venomous snake?

Well, look, it wasn’t Australia’s most famous snake. It was a mulga snake or AKA King Brown.

Yeah.

Which part of the blacksnake family, a lot of people don’t realize that it’s a black snake, and they don’t have the most toxic venom, but they make up for it in sheer volume. And I was very lucky, I was always trying to rescue a small, you know, mulga snake, it was about 30 centimetres long and it was on a busy road. So, you know, whenever I’m out looking for reptiles, you know, you try and take them off the road because road trains just come along and clean them up.

Yeah.

So, I removed this snake from the road and look, if I was doing this job professionally at someone’s house I’d just use a welding love to grab a snake that’s small and that venomous, out in the bush, didn’t think twice, I was trying to move it off the road. Actually, removed it off the road successfully. It came back onto the road. I quickly went to grab it, but it was almost preempted my grab as I grabbed it, it spun around and bit me on the pinky finger. Now as I said before, these snakes make up for their toxicity by injecting a lot of venom as they have the biggest venom yield of any Australian snake. So, a big one is actually, you know, a bit of a worry if one of those chews on you, but this one just gave me a small defensive bite, it only got one fang in. And I basically sat there for a minute because I had a great night of photography and reptile lined up with a mate, you know, it was only at the very start of the night, it was such a hot night, there was reptiles all over the road.

You were just like ”do I roll the dice? Maybe it’s a dry bite”.

I actually sat there for a minute, but I knew, from knowing about snake venom, I knew that the mulga snake’s venom is painful. So, I sat there for about 30 seconds to a minute and then when I started to feel pain from the bite, I’m like alright let’s wrap this up and get to the hospital. Lucky for me the hospital was only 15 minutes away in the car so, we quickly applied the compression bandage which is your standard snakebite first aid.

And how did you do that?

How do we do it? So, started from a bite site, which was down on the finger so, it’s very easy, you just start at the extremity and work your way up as high into the groin or armpit as you can get and you’re rapping about a third, you’re going up about a third of the bandage each time and your, the pressure that you should use is similar to a sprained ankle, just to support it. So, all you are doing is compressing the lymphatic system, you are not coming off the blood. This is a common misconception about what you should do because people used to go and do silly things like put tourniquets on their arm, then they go to the hospital realize it was a non-venomous snake and they had to chop their arms off.

I can’t imagine how embarrassing can that be. Or I was like yeah, mate, it was a dry bite, but your arms, you know, been denied oxygen for the last two hours, so are going to have to amputate it, sorry, buddy.

Exactly, yeah. Because you didn’t follow proper snakebite protocol so, you know, I’ve been in this situation before. The friend that I was with it been in it before. We knew what to do, we knew how calm to stay and then basically he drove me to the hospital because we were in a remote location, we didn’t want to use up their resources by calling out an ambulance to us. It was just quicker and easier and better for everyone that he got me to the hospital via a car.

But you would say to other people make sure you call an ambulance.

Well, this is the thing, if you’re in a remote location what you might want to consider is meeting the ambulance. So, you know, if the ambulance has to come an hour and you have to come an hour, you might be able to meet the ambulance in the middle instead of having that ambulance come all the way out to your property which is, you know, 200 kilometers away and you’re just sitting there. So, you know, it is very important to stay immobilized when you’re in the car. So, moving is basically your enemy when you’re bitten by an Australian snake.

And that’s because it facilitates the movement of the venom in the lymph nodes, right? So, that it go… it’ll get further into your system.

Exactly. So, the venom say I’m bitten in the pinky finger, the venom has to travel vertically up my arm until it reaches my lymph node in my armpit and then it will be transferred into the blood. So, the Australian snakes have very short fangs, venom is injected past the skin. It’s trapped in the skin and that’s where the lymphatic fluid brings it up the arm into the bloodstream. So, what can happen is you can… if you do this procedure, you know, to the T and you follow it correctly, you can have vital hours before needing to reach antivenom and this is what happened to me. Bitten on the finger, went to the hospital. It was something like seven hours before I reached an antivenom because…

No kidding?!

The hospital I went to didn’t have like snake antivenom and they didn’t have what we call a polyvalent antivenom which has all five types of antivenom mixed into the one so, yeah, it’s used if they can’t identify the snake Yeah. So, they just go ok here’s the broad spectrum antivenom, it’s going to cover all snakes. So, they didn’t have any of that. All they had was brown snake antivenom, which would have actually done some good, but it was no, it was no use. You know, I was wasn’t showing any symptomatic signs that the venom was in my system and basically the Royal Flying Doctors came to my aid and they flew me back to Perth which was a thousand kilometers by road. So, it was about seven hours before I reached antivenom and then the attributing factors that led to me not needing antivenom in the end was the fact that I’d only been bitten by a baby snake, it only gave me a small amount of venom. I stayed super calm, I knew what to do and then I didn’t move my arm not even a muscle for seven hours.

That must have been difficult.

It was difficult, but you know I knew that that’s what I had to do. So, don’t know don’t move a muscle, don’t tense anything and the venom has got a lot more chance at staying localized to where you’ve been bitten.

And so, what happens if you were to get bitten like that by that snake, can you just wait out the venom, I don’t know if you would call it, disintegrating or anything like that, If you would a bandage your arm up in you. for whatever reason, couldn’t get to a hospital or get antivenom, would it potentially just get out of your system eventually or you’re pretty much screwed and you need to do something about it?

Well, you have to do everything you can do because you don’t know what’s going to happen. So, if you’re bitten by a snake and you’re just a member of the general public and you can’t even identify that snake, you just have to be going to snake bite first aid mode. So, you just follow, you know, the 10 or 12 simple steps in snakebite first died and then get yourself to a hospital. Now, a lot of people ask me what if you’re in the bush and you’re by yourself, because everyone’s fear things are the worst scenario possible and they’re like ”what if you’re in the bush and you’re by yourself and no one is there to help you?”. So, in this scenario it’s counterproductive to just put on the bandage and stay immobilised. If you do this and it’s an extremely toxic snake and you’ve been given a decent amount of venom, you know you know you might sit under a tree for five hours and then you are eventually going to die, anyway.

Should have brought a shovel.

So, you’re not allowed to say the shovel word around me.

Triggered, triggered.

Yes so, it’s counterproductive to then follow snakebite first aid to a T where they say stay immobilized, you need then get to safety, you need then get to help. So, if you’re, you know, in the bush and you’re half an hour away from home, you would need to put on that bandage, that compression bandage and then you would need to calmly make your way up to the house, trying not to keep your heart rate (up) and your limb moving too much.

Because I’m going to make that venom move and obviously also avoiding as many snakes on the way back to the house as possible.

Yeah, yeah. Don’t try and kill the snake that bit you and then get bitten several more times as well and then decide you’re going to run up to the house and by then, you know, the venom is already in your system and you have a lot less chance of surviving.

Far out, man, I’ve got so many questions for you. We’ve already gone for 45 minutes. I’ll have to get you on again and ask about cane toads and a few other things. But how did you get into the photography side of that of reptiles and everything and what have you sort of learnt about them since doing that?

Well, as I said I started with this snake catching sight of things and it just wasn’t… it wasn’t fulfilling enough for me to continue doing that when I moved over to Perth. It’s run a bit differently over here and I’d always wanted to be a wildlife photographer so, in my own unique way I just combined my love of travel photography and reptiles into one sort of passion and then it came a bit of obsession over the last few years and I’ve been spending all my spare time on travel, on camera gear, on fuel money on everything as well as launching the Instagram, the Facebook, the online shop, all the social media outlets, to then go you know, ”hey, this is all photography, I’m getting this is what you can learn by looking at a nice image of this animal”. So, but I do it all for the passion and the love of it. If I can then come back with a with a beautiful photo that someone wants to buy and hang on their wall that is, you know, quite humbling that someone wants that piece of your art in their home, but it’s a very small reason why I do it it’s just basically the cherry on top if I can educate the public with my photos and then sell a few prints which goes towards more camera gear and fuel money.

Oh, brilliant, mate! Where can people find out more about you, then? Where can they follow you?

Well, you can follow me at Ross McGibbon Repitile Photography on Facebook on Instagram as Ross McGibbon Photography and then I also have a Web site which is www.rmrphotography.au.

Yeah, go check it out, guys! Definitely Facebook, man! I love the videos and that was where I first came across you. I think it was… I follow Wild Man, Damien Duffy, right? I’ve had him on the podcast, he’s a classic and he’s always like, ”wow, spewing, amazing” with your stuff, every time he gets up, I don’t know if it’s him that likes it or I like it and then I see like it starts popping up on my feet all the time, but you’ve got some amazing videos in there, mate, so, definitely keep it up and guys go check it out!

Thanks very much for having me on today, man, it’s been a great chat.

Nah, I’ll have to get you on again. Thanks so much, Ross. I appreciate it.

No worries.


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