Snakes alive!

By on December 5, 2010 in Community

Businessman, herpetologist, professional speaker and author: Pat McKrill is all of these. Gavin Foster talks to the man whose life revolves around snakes.

Camperdown’s Pat MacKrill life revolves around his legless pals. “I never studied snakes formally,” says Pat, who developed his fascination for the reptiles in then Rhodesia in the 1950s.  “We lived in and around Salisbury and as farmland became developed we used to get lots of snakes popping up in residential areas. That happens with development – the snakes get moved aside but after a year or two they start coming back.”

Wherever the snakes were, Pat was never far behind, and his parents adapted to the situation pretty well – especially his mother. “One day I came home from school and she told me she’d used my cranky old snake stick to catch a really lovely house snake that she’d seen being given a hard time by the birds at the bottom of the garden. I opened up the pillowcase she’d put it in and pulled out a 1.2 metre boomslang.”

The ignorance-is-bliss factor is often present when it comes to snakes. “I know lots of people who’ve messed about with things they didn’t know were dangerous until somebody told them,” says Pat. “I had a young girl working with me who came in on her motorbike with a ‘house snake’ inside her tracksuit top. It was actually a Natal Black Snake. There’s only ever been one bite recorded from that snake and the guy went into a coma for a couple of days!”

Pat spent a lot of time in the wilds with the army during the Rhodesian bush war, and studied snakes closely while he had the opportunity. “I learnt a lot about their behaviour during that time,” he says. “All puff adders act one way, all cobras are alike in their behaviour, and all mole snakes behave similarly, with few exceptions. The thing about snakes is that they bite, so humans feel they have to kill them. I always point out that dogs bite, cats bite, fish bite, so what are we going to do? Kill everything with teeth? In South Africa maybe ten people die each year from snakebites, while millions die from Aids and thousands more are murdered, but we seem to accept that okay.”

Pat is kept pretty busy as a motivational speaker, talking about his favourite topic, comparing the survival strategies of snakes with those required in business. “I use analogies from what we know about snakes and use them in the corporate sphere,” he says.  “For instance, if you need to see a particular client but you don’t want to because you’ve heard that he’s a hard guy to deal with – that’s a business decision that’s been affected by the way you think. Find out about him before making an unreasonable decision on what kind of person he is.

“Nature is there for survival and uses strategies like camouflage, checking out the opposition, sussing out food sources etc. Because nature is so successful it’s easy to work with and learn from through studying it.”

Just as Pat’s passion for snakes and nature evolved into a speaking career, his talking led to him writing a book about snakes. “I started writing in about 2004, but never felt pushed to finish it. But as I did more and more talks I realised that the same questions kept on coming up, and the book began to make more sense. I called it Getting to know the Neighbours because we have to learn to co-exist with snakes.”

Pat has been bitten just three times in 50 years: twice by night adders and once by a puff adder. “All three times I was being helped by other people so was not fully in control,” he says. “I’m a born coward when it comes to things like mambas and I’m very careful with what I do. The only poisonous snake I handle now is the night adder. I’m not out to frighten people but to show them that a lot of our venomous snakes are not aggressive. The night adder is ideal for that because it makes such a noise and hisses and so on in defence mode, but it’s not an aggressive creature.”

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