A certified naturalist, forest volunteer and naturalist for Jungle Lodges, Subhadra Cherukuri has deep connect with animals and the wilderness, and is even an animal whisperer, or what she calls a telepathic animal communicator
Usually, Russells Vipers are irritable. This one was catatonic, curled up on a patio grill on a rainy day for five hours. That’s when a family living in a mango orchard in Bengaluru got worried as snakes, though spotted often, usually go away, uninterrupted. A frantic call to snake rescuer Subhadra Cherukuri brought in the Indiana Jane of Bengaluru who vroomed in, equipment from her Duster’s boot in hand, ambled in, and in five minutes cajoled and prodded the hissing reptile into a bag.
This is second nature for Subhadra as she rescues 85 snakes a year. Eight years ago, she left her EY management consultant job, and since then she has been a part of hiss-tory. Certified in safe snake rescue and relocation from the Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology, the canine behaviouristis also certified from the British School of Canine Studies, has a day job running Wag-ville, a pet services and animal assisted therapy centre in Bengaluru. A certified naturalist, forest volunteer and naturalist for Jungle Lodges, she has deep connect with animals and the wilderness, and is even an animal whisperer, or what she calls a telepathic animal communicator. And no, there’s no voodoo involved, she laughs, just a profound intuition.
As humans take over verdant land belonging to animals, snake rescuing has become a lucrative business costing Rs 1,500 upwards per rescue. For Subhadra though, this is a labour of love as she rescues without charge.
“My exposure to wildlife came from my mother Asha Cherukuri who was with Doordarshan, and is a wildlife documentary filmmaker. I have had a thing for reptiles even as a child. What makes me good with snakes, horses or other animals is understanding and respecting their needs, and working with them in a way they feel safe,” says the conservationist who sheepishly admits to a phobia for birds.
Her encounters with snakes began from her first rescue in her backyard with directions via phone from her snake rescuer husband. Each year, she has over 85 encounters, and has stopped counting. “About three years ago, we rescued a huge Cobra, about 7 ft long. We discovered she had a nest of eggs but sadly could not save them,” adds the mother of an eight-year-old girl. “Snakes in bonnets of cars, living rooms, lift shafts, we recently found a huge Cobra inside the spice storage unit of a masala factory,” recalls the mommy who has taught her daughter well – she knows how to rescue a snake, and can identify species expertly. “I’m not going risk letting her handle venomous snakes, but she is comfortable with snakes, and does assist me with non venomous rescues,” she says.
Ethically, rescued snakes have to be released within a 2 km radius for 100 percent survival rate of the snake. Rescuers like Subhadra and her husband Mark Anthony get permission from the forest department to release them in demarcated areas.
That snakes and reptiles need to be rescued is due to the looming human-animal conflict. As a conservationist, working with the Karnataka government, Subhadra feels, “We need to spread awareness about how to appreciate urban wildlife and co-exist rather than trying to ‘keep them out of our space.’ Each animal has its place in the ecosystem, and it is sad that even the educated do not understand. There is greater acceptance amongst rural and uneducated.”
Many rescue calls are due to snake bites, often because of unethical rescuers not conversant with the MO, or those seeking an adrenaline rush or photo-ops. “There is so much rubbish floating on social media. Thus, panic, and paranoia have become a style statement,” she adds.
Indian mythology has also done little to help the cause of snakes. “The common myths- snakes are vicious, will chase and bite or if you accidentally kill one, then its mate will come after you– these are untrue. The more dangerous concern are myths exacerbated due to jadoo-mantar (magic potion) medicine – quacks. The scarier reality is when bitten, people are coaxed into calling a priest or a relative who touts a cure,” she explains. Her advice is categorical: Get to a hospital as there is no other cure except anti-venom. “An important fact many don’t know is that the anti-venom available in India is just for the big four. For the other 31 venomous snakes, we don’t have an anti-venom. Not even for the King Cobra!” She’s been bitten innumerable times by non-venomous snakes, which is due to their extremely hyperactive nature.
Get to know your snakes, and leave them be
India has 130 different species, and of them 31 and the big four- Russells Viper, Cobra, Kraite and Soskild Viper, are venomous. Pythons are indigenous to the Western Ghats, North-East and Northern India, and the common non-venomous are Rat Snakes, Keel Backs, Wolf and Kukri snakes, etc.
Superstitions have made the snake an ominous entity. Subhadra speaks of Sand Boassold for lakhs as people believe they bring good luck and money. “There is Illegal sale of snake skin, turtles sought-after for the aphrodisiacal content of the meat or monitor lizards’ testicles sold as an aphrodisiac (dried and powdered).The government is doing a lot to curb such illegal practices,” she adds.
Cautioning against unethical rescuers, a highly unregularised sector, she says, “Unethical rescuers are dime a dozen, more interested in selfies. Such trends are prevalent in north Karnataka and Maharashtra.”
Sensitise the child
“Exposing young children to wildlife and educating them beyond academics is essential. The entire responsibility lies with the parents, the minute they put fear in their child, panic ensues, as these are learnt fears. Stop that. I would urge parents to educate children with documentaries, books and visits to watch animals in their habitat not just safaris.”
Subhadra has a calm intuitive understanding of animals – especially snakes, dogs and horses. At Wag-ville with her husband, and partners Krishnan and Rachel, they provide canine training, therapy dogs, and are in the process of training seeing-eye dogs. She also offers equine assisted therapy to children (and adults) on the autism spectrum, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, emotional problems, depression and ADHD.
“It has been scientifically proven to be especially effective in autism and neurological issues. Sitting on horseback with a thoroughbred, helps. The gait of the horse helps open some vestibular issues in the body,” says the conservationist who is instinctive with horses too. “With horses, it is about respecting their sensitivity. They are beautiful, gentle and sensitive creatures, and highly perceptive, communicative and expressive. They have the ability to gauge the emotions of humans.”
Any word of advice for amateurs? “It is important to use gentle methods to work and interact with these majestic creatures. Using methods that involve force or pain can quickly make a horse stop enjoying.” Or for that matter, a snake too.
Snakes are extremely shy creatures, respect their need to not be disturbed or handled too much.
It is important not to use methods like pinning the head, tongs etc to rescue a snake as they can cause a great deal of harm and injury.
Crowd management is very important during rescues as too many people around can stress a snake.
If you spot a snake out in the open, stay away. Don’t stand around or it or take pictures. It will go away.
A snake gets stresses if people poke and prod them. They can get overheated, and freeze. Being cold blooded, they can die.
If you are not a professionally trained person, don’t touch it. Call an ethical rescuer who is humane.
Interestingly, Indian or endemic birds and reptiles are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 which states that possession, rearing or breeding animals for research or medical purposes is banned, even though people keep snakes as pets, especially as foreign breeds are allowed.
To avoid snakes around your home, ensure there is not garbage or rubble lying around, thus there are no rats, or overgrowth.
If you see a snake at home, check if you can open a door or window to let it out. If not, call a rescuer and observe quietly from a distance.
Do not try to take pictures or go near it.