THE Eastern Brown Snake is one of the most feared creatures in Australian wildlife. It can grow to 2.5 metres and strike at a metre a second. And Gavin Smith can’t get enough of them.
An associate professor of social science at the ANU and owner and operator of ACT Snake Removals, Gavin wants to foster a safer relationship between people and snakes.
“I’m fascinated by snakes and their behaviour, as I am our response to the animal. I want to really help people understand snakes better,” he says.
It might seem improbable that Gavin’s two passions, sociology and snake catching, would overlap, but he’s fascinated by the social relationship people have with the serpents.
“Part of why snakes are so terrifying to us is their complete disregard for the societal structures that we ourselves place so much importance on,” he says.
“I’ve had to remove snakes from embassies, places we as people very much understand to stay away from. For snakes, there’s no respect, no awareness of our constructed boundaries. It’s this collision of wildlife and social life that really makes us terrified.”
Gavin also thinks it’s how our cultural representations of snakes throughout history have further contributed to our fear of the reptiles.
“We’ve seen them represented as evil in history as far back as the book of ‘Genesis’ with the snake that manipulated Adam and Eve. There’s also examples like the serpents that make up the hair of Medusa,” he says.
Gavin’s had to remove snakes not only from backyards, but car parks, a soccer team’s kit bag, a weapons bunker and even multiple major shopping centres.
“The Eastern Brown is the most common type found here in the ACT, but there’s still plenty of other snakes around that we also deal with when needed,” says Gavin.
While he’s had a slightly quieter summer, he says people still need to be conscious of snake activity.
“We’ve had a wet summer and so we’ve seen a lot of growth of tall grass and plant life. I think that the snakes might be using that as camouflage and so might be being seen less. People should be very cautious around tall grass,” he says.
After catching the snakes, he relocates them to a more suitable, non-residential environment.
He says brown snakes play a crucial ecological role by eating vermin, such as mice and rats, help with the control of numbers of other native species and provide a food source for other animals.
Gavin is part of a team of researchers conducting a study that will soon track the movements of 12 brown snakes in the Canberra area.
The study aims to understand how far the snakes travel, the time of day and temperatures at which they are active, and where they go dormant in the colder months.
“We are hoping the study will help educate the public about how snakes operate in the suburbs and inform translocation policies and conservation efforts,” says Gavin.
He also wants to teach as many people as possible how to be more safe around snakes.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to present them as cute and cuddly. These are dangerous creatures,” he says.
“But what a lot of people forget is that they’re terrified of us, too. If you have a snake in your house or if there’s conflict with pets of course give us a call, but at many times when seeing a snake the most important thing to do is remain calm and leave it alone.”
Gavin thinks that slowly but surely people are becoming more aware of the importance of protecting these creatures.
“During the devastating bushfires last year Australians saw our beautiful wildlife so tragically destroyed,” he says.
“I think that event might have made people a little more conscious of caring for our wildlife.”
Ultimately Gavin loves what he does as a snake catcher because it means he gets to serve his community.
“It’s knowledge that breeds greater tolerance,” he says.
“The better we understand snakes, the less we might fear them.”