I’ve not slept since the weekend. The reason is that we went to the zoo.
I have a serious fear of snakes – irrational as I was bought up in Manchester, which isn’t exactly renowned for its anacondas – and normally refuse to go within 500 yards of a reptile house.
However, I was with my young nephew and he wanted to have a gander, so not wishing to appear weak and pathetic in front of a three-year-old, I bravely agreed and we headed in.
I expected perhaps a couple of grass snakes, certainly nothing bigger or more harmful than a plump garden worm, so it was a little worrying to wander in and see a cavernous glass tank stretching from floor to ceiling in front of us.
The size of it suggested there was something rather larger than your average worm lurking within, and turns out there was.
Inside was the biggest, thickest, and most dangerous-looking snake I have ever seen in my life, and I’ve watched the Indiana Jones movies.
It was, according to the sign on the glass, a reticulated python and if you have seen one before, I daresay you won’t have forgotten it. Not only is it the world’s longest snake – growing up to 21ft in length, not far off the length of a bus – it is also one of the heaviest – fully grown they weigh in at 165lb, almost the same as a heavyweight boxer.
In other words, it is not something you’d want to share an elevator ride with, nor is it something you want to come face-to-face with when you have an acute fear of snakes.
Within moments of setting eyes on it, my hands went clammy and small beads of sweat began to form on my brow. The same happens when I have a spicy curry, though the difference is a curry won’t eat you.
My nephew didn’t appear quite as concerned, shouting, ‘woah, brilliant’ and banging on the glass in excitement.
The python, coiled around a tree, glanced over, stuck out a forked tongue, and began weighing up which of us to devour first, at which point I rugby-tackled my nephew to the ground and ordered him not to get the damn thing riled.
Despite my terror of them, I do find snakes oddly fascinating. They are quite magnificent creatures, though I will never understand for the life of me why anybody would want to keep one as a pet.
I recently visited a friend in London who works in finance, and had been in his lounge for around 30 minutes – sipping a cup of tea and making small talk about the state of the stock markets in south east Asia when I noticed a glass tank on the far side of the room.
'What’s in there?' I enquired.
‘Oh, it’s our pet snake, Stanley,’ he said, before launching into a lengthy anecdote about the Danish economy.
I edged forward to look at Stanley, and discovered he was worryingly large. He was a corn snake, apparently, which aren’t venomous but look as though they should be. After retreating around 7ft, I noticed the vent at the back of the tank was covered with some flimsy looking tape.
'Erm, sorry Dave, that’s interesting what you’re saying about small businesses in Copenhagen, but why is that duct tape there?' I asked.
‘Ah that,’ he replied, with the nonchalance of a man deciding between a latte and a cappuccino. 'There’s something wrong with the tank and he keeps getting out. The other morning my wife found him in the cutlery drawer.'
'Well, it’s been lovely seeing you,' I said. 'But my train home leaves shortly so I must be off…'
Going back to the zoo and the terrifying specimen I encountered, I read later that although reticulated pythons don’t normally kill humans, there have been many exceptions.
That is slightly worrying considering I was stood only a few feet from one – granted we were separated by a thick pane of glass but I feel sure that, had the mood taken him, he could have headbutted his way through and gobbled me down whole.
In Burma, for example, a jeweller went hunting with his friends and sought shelter under a tree during a rainstorm.
His choice of tree wasn’t the best. An 18ft python dangling above dropped on him, constricted him to death, then swallowed him feet-first. I’ll be honest, of all the ways to go, that one is closer to the bottom of my list than the top.
There have been lots of near-misses too, one of the most frightening in 2009 when a woman in Las Vegas went to pet-sit for a neighbour. The pet wasn’t a cute dog or cuddly cat but an 20ft python.
The woman – and this is bonkers I know – took her three-year-old son, who, at some point in the evening, was attacked by the snake and wrapped in its grip. He was turning blue and moments from meeting his maker when his frantic mother, who was at this point presumably making a mental note not to do her friend any more favours, stabbed the snake with a knife grabbed from the kitchen drawer. It released its grip and the child lived, though the python wasn’t in such good health.
I have barely slept since returning from the zoo. Meanwhile, my nephew, whose birthday is next month, has asked his mother for a snake. If he gets one, I’m never visiting again.