CAREFUL: Snake catcher Jason Arnold with a black mamba, which gets its name from the black colouring in its mouth, while its skin is a dull grey. Picture: Duncan Guy

Durban - When you fall off a horse, you get back on again to keep your confidence, right? Snake catcher Jason Arnold once applied the same logic when a deadly black mamba bit him – fortunately only lightly – and he immediately responded to a call to catch another.

“I was on my way back home from the hospital with my sister,” Arnold remembers.

“There was a call to catch one at Reservoir Hills. I’ve never shaken so badly as when I was doing it, but it was the equivalent of getting back on a horse.”

Arnold, 34, was speaking to The Independent on Saturday following the publication of a picture of an enormous snake, supposedly a black mamba, which had gone viral in cyberspace on e-mail with many doubtful that it was real McCoy.

He has doubts about its authenticity. In spite of his years of catching, handling and releasing snakes, he confesses that after dealing with the serpents he’s always a bit shaken.

“The adrenalin is hard to control,” he says.

“There isn’t a mamba experience that isn’t hair-raising but some are more hair-raising than others.”

While people may wonder how Arnold can love black mambas and other snakes, he fails to understand how some among them buy properties bordering nature reserves and kill every snake they see.

“They should rather live in flats.”

But getting them removed to be released elsewhere for fear of them being too near children and dogs is a different story, he says.

Arnold believes the danger black mambas pose is hugely exaggerated.

“Mambas in people’s yards are very secretive. They don’t want to be stopped or confronted. They’re extremely nervous and alert and they’ll be gone at the slightest hint of danger.

“However, they’ll be aggressive in a very small area, such as when someone enters a Wendy house and finds one inside, or if someone walks into an aviary and it has been eating birds and is too fat to get out.”

Arnold and others from the Association of Reptile Keepers in KwaZulu-Natal have microchips inserted into black mambas they release so that scientific data can be collected if they’re caught again.

He releases them into wild areas inhabited by black mambas such as the Palmiet Nature Reserve, mindful that the balance of nature is not upset.

“If you cause an overpopulation there won’t be enough food and you deplete the area of everything and the small mambas will start dying of hunger.”

You can put them back where they could live but if there is no black mamba population and there is development, they could be killed or caught within a year.

Often, snakes end up in urban areas after slipping into cars, either for protection or for warmth near the engines.

“They’re great users of public transport,” jokes Arnold.

While many snakes will be snug in hibernation over winter, black mambas remain active because it’s their breeding season. In the run-up to that, the territorial males fight. Arnold recalls being called out to a property beside the Roosfontein Nature Reserve.

“The owner called me, saying three of them were going ballistic in the bush on his property line. They were intertwined with one another, rising and falling, sticks were breaking. They were big and powerful things and he was not happy with them being there.”

Arnold found only two of them, still at it.

“One disappeared down a hole. The other became confused, thinking ‘where the hell did he go?’

“He looked around and thought I was the other male and came for me, really quick at face level but I used my grab stick and got it one metre before he would have reached my face.”

The creature was 2.7m long and his rival, which Arnold hauled from the hole, was 2.4m.

He dumped the two on the far side of the reserve.

Asked whether it was wise to release snakes in nature reserves close to cities, Arnold replied: “As much as people would like black mambas killed or sent to Mars, like sharks in the sea they’re part of the eco-system. They certainly keep rodents in check.”

Arnold sees himself as part of the nature’s balance, a sort of middle man.

“Snakes are so feared, with people acting unnecessarily. They need someone to help them and (snake-fearing) people, in turn, need people such as myself, who love snakes, to help them.” - Independent on Saturday