8 March 2024

Should 'snake catching' become a government-funded service?

| James Coleman
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Dr Gavin Smith from the Canberra Snake Tracking Project says his work is not sustainable. Photo: ACT Wildlife, Facebook.

Dr Gavin Smith works full-time. And he’s a father of two small children, with all the commitments they require (at all hours). But between September and April every year, there’s a lot of time he’s not at home. He’s out on the road.

“I drive around the city constantly, collecting highly venomous snakes from people’s houses and gardens, workplaces, public places, schools, hospitals, etcetera,” Dr Smith says.

He’s an associate professor at the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, but he’s also the face behind the ‘Canberra Snake Tracking Project’, and one of only three people in the ACT licensed to deal with all of our venomous snake species.

So far this snake season, he has already received more than 200 call-outs.

It’s a largely unpaid gig, apart from a small service fee to cover his overheads and the occasional donation from ACT Wildlife, but he says this needs to change if the service is to continue.

“It’s not possible to do this, to work these two jobs simultaneously full time,” he says.

“I’m afraid people like me will no longer exist, and when a school calls and says, ‘Hey Gavin, we’ve got an eastern brown snake inside a classroom. Can you come and get it, please?’ there won’t be anyone at the end of the phone.”

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Sponsored by ACT Labor backbencher Dr Marisa Paterson, Dr Smith has launched a petition calling for a “review of the ACT’s snake licencing arrangement and the resourcing of snake catching and education services”.

Essentially, snake removal and handling would become “salaried as a contracted public service”. These handlers could also “register ownership of venomous snakes for education and training purposes”.

It has precedent. Snake-catching has been adopted as a public service in the Northern Territory, while other jurisdictions (like NSW and Victoria) allow people to handle and keep venomous snakes, albeit under very strict conditions.

The petition, which currently has nearly 500 signatures, also has the support of the people.

“A recent survey of 1176 ACT and surrounds residents found that 40 per cent have a fear of snakes, 90 per cent thought snakes play an important role in the environment, and 91 per cent felt that snake catching and safety education … should be a public, not private, service.”

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Sponsoring MLA Dr Paterson says the ACT should look to “existing frameworks and practices already in operation around the country” and develop stringent regulations that require “demonstratable competencies in handling and husbandry that are verified by experts in the field”.

“The situation in the ACT is untenable,” she says.

“As a community, we strongly value the various work that Canberra’s snake catchers and educators perform, and it’s time that our laws reflected best practices in the welfare, care, and protection of snakes – which they currently do not.”

As an organisation that frequently receives calls for help from members of the public and has to refer them on to these overstretched services, ACT Wildlife has voiced its support too.

“It’s an incredibly stressful situation for our volunteers who are talking to someone on the phone who’s desperate and who’s got no money, and we have to refer them and say, ‘Look, I’m sorry, there might be a fee’,” president Yana del Valle says.

“What happens is it encourages people to kill snakes rather than pay the fee to get them removed. It’s easier to just get a shovel.”

Brown snake coiled up between glass and fly screen doors

One of Gavin Smith’s finds this season – an eastern brown snake caught between a glass door and fly screen. Photo: Jacob Filiatrault.

However, the ACT Government says adjusting legislation to allow people to keep venomous snakes “poses a significant challenge”.

“The ACT Government received advice … that changes to current regulation would pose significant animal welfare risks that could not be overlooked,” Minister for the Environment, Parks and Land Management Rebecca Vassarotti said.

“Ms Paterson’s suggested alterations would permit snakes to be owned indefinitely – removing them from their natural environment and making them endure prolonged periods of isolation … I cannot in good conscience support this proposal.”

Ms Vassarotti says the government would continue engaging with snake handlers to “ascertain the most humane and pragmatic approach to snake care in the ACT”.

The petition closes on 16 March.

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Having a python-feeding video attached to this article is very misleading. There are no pythons in the ACT, they are non-venomous and this is a captive one (20years) is no comparison to a wild Eastern Brown venomous snake. Totally irrelevant to this story.
It might cost a lot to pay Government rangers to do this job, the the two snake catchers I know fund themselves at the same cost.

What an opportune time, seven months out from a Territory election to be reminded just how backwards Greens thinking is. A well-deserved dose of Greens thinking to remind voters just how bad governments can be with this party holding the balance of power.

A party of dysfunctional oddities who surprisingly and unexpectedly found themselves in a power sharing deal following the last Territory election. Inexperienced but with a new level of importance they demanded and received a bigger share of portfolios. Attempting to present themselves as a more credible and viable alternative to the current Labor/Liberal power hold, it has been a downhill battle for the party ever since with indefensible controversies, unforgivable mistakes and underperformance taking hold.

Now we have the Greens Environment Minister and party heir apparent Rebecca Vassarotti MLA announcing that she can’t be bothered to negotiate a better outcome for snake containment in our city and remunerate the small number of unpaid volunteers because of some flaky idea in which she deliberately misrepresents the proposal. Ms Vassarotti’s snub comes despite advice to the contrary, the well-known risks snakes pose to the public and the mighty efforts of the small number of snake professionals volunteering their services to keep our city safe. A proposal which seems to have overwhelming public support and will see the ACT follow other states and territories in implementing policies which will give professional snake handlers and educators the recognition they deserve.

Luckily for Canberra voters we have Dr Marisa Paterson MLA who is more generous in her understanding and more vigorous in her lobbying for much needed reform.

I look forward to the debate in the assembly, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, for this reform!

Tony Corrigan6:29 pm 09 Mar 24

To be fair and honest, I don’t think the Greens had much to do with it. More likely a misguided bureaucrat.

Tony Corrigan2:27 pm 09 Mar 24

I’m not sure when it changed, but I worked as a wildlife ranger with ACT Parks and Conservation Service and we had a team of fully professionally trained rangers who did the job. We collected venomous snakes on a daily basis. We went private homes, swimming pools, shops and in my more than 35 years from just about any place you can imagine including cars and buses. Then I noticed private people doing it. Not sure who or why the policy was changed.

Missing from this article is the information that this role was handed from government to private suppliers a few years ago. It would have been worth mentioning that until relatively recently the function was costing government the wages of the employees involved, and presumably the cost of their training, certification and equipment.

Also, what the petitioners seek is not clearly spelled out. I do not know either, but there are two separate issues entangled here, the private keeping of wildlife (some of which are venomous, which may or may not be a valid reason to block the practice); and second, how to respond to calls from residents for help with urban wildlife, including venomous brown snakes, as well as possums, kangaroos, etc

It must be costing government a motza for its staff to drag kangaroo carcasses off urban streets and roads. If that activity was cut back a tiny bit, it might pay for a snake rescue service several times over.

The real reason why, we’re not allowed to privately keep venomous snakes in the ACT, is because, two or three high ranking bureaucrats are against it. Other States allow it, and with proper regulatory requirements, it would be just as safe here in the ACT.
Gavin’s work is invaluable, and deserves the support requested. I’ve been trained in handling venomous snakes by Gavin, and watched him catch a Red Bellied Black snake, trapped in a cesspit. His care and devotion for the welfare of our local snakes, drives him daily in his work, and is a great example of those Canberrans who care for our wildlife.

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