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Snakes on the Plains

26 Jun 11

It started off innocently enough.

We were visiting a theme park in Jakarta this past week called Tamin Mini Indonesia Indah, or TMII. It’s the Indonesian version of Disneyland, right down to the plushies waiting to greet kids with handshakes and hugs. It even has a Disney-like castle.

Opened in April of 1975, TMII was proposed by Siti Hartinah Soeharto, wife of then-President Soeharto. Her idea was to have a park that “raised the pride and sense of love for the nation and the country.” And she wanted to do this by representing the nation’s disparate parts in one place – southern Jakarta.

In addition to the castle, there is a lake with swan boats that allow visitors to paddle around pieces of land shaped like the major islands if Indonesia. For just 20,000rp a cable car ride takes you over the lake, where you get an aerial view of a mini-Indonesia.

The major attraction for us though was not the castle, the plushies, or even the water park. TMII is designed to represent all of Indonesia. So the large rectangular park is lined on one side by little “villages” containing traditional buildings and items from different regions of the country. There is north and south Sumatra, east and west Kalimantan, and areas representing Sulawesi as well. We spent part of an afternoon traveling Indonesia without ever leaving the capital city.

It was an enjoyable time. We rented a four seat bicycle and peddled our way around the country exhibits. After perhaps an hour, we stopped by one last pavilion, with a concrete mound representing a burial site. The kids climbed its side for pictures, while Aris wandered in and out of the bushes at the mound’s base. A few minutes later, Aris appeared with a small, dark gray snake about eight inches in length wriggling in his hand.

Adam, who has been interested in snakes since he was little, asked to hold it. But unlike other snakes we’ve found here this one struggled so much I finally told Adam to stop. He did, but both he and Aris played with it for a bit before Aris placed it in an empty plastic water bottle with air holes. We carried the snake with us on the bicycle for a few minutes, and finally I told them they needed to release it.

They tried getting the snake to leave the bottle, but it somehow managed to wedge itself in such a way that it wouldn’t come out. Clearly the snake did not want much to do with us, which was a good thing. Because after I took the bottle from them and shook it firmly, it slid out and fell on the grass, where it arched up and glared at us.

Despite its size, its pose was clear. What we had been playing with was a baby Cobra.

My heart skipped a few beats, realizing that Adam had been playing with this snake (likely naja sputatrix) just a few moments before. Cobras are one of the most deadly venomous snakes in the world.

It’s not the first time Adam has been near a venomous snake. While scuba diving earlier this year he came near a Banded Sea Krait. But that snake was about three meters from him, and swimming in the opposite direction. They are not known to be aggressive, and it’s not unusual for one to be spotted around Indonesia’s best dive sites. They are very shy snakes, so a bite from a Krait, either on land or in the ocean, is quite rare.

Cobras however can be more aggressive. They have a particularly strong neurotoxic venom. This means it attacks the nervous system, among other things paralyzing the nerves that control breathing. Victims often die from respiratory failure.

There is a misconception that baby cobras are more deadly than the adults. This comes from the belief that young cobras cannot control the amount of toxin they release, while an adult snake can. Whether true or not, the fact is a cobra is deadly within three hours of birth. So this tiny snake could have killed any one of us.

At this point, I was concerned about leaving the snake in the open in an agitated state. Rather than slithering away, as most snakes do once released, this one kept staring us down. So I found a small twig and repeatedly brushed the snake away until it finally left.

This is not the first time we’ve played with snakes here. Our backyard is home to a family of garter snakes, and some months ago Aris caught one so Adam could hold it. Garters are not poisonous, and those in our backyard likely survive by eating the frogs and toads that also live there.

The guards one day found a python along the stream that runs through our housing development. This snake was much more interesting. The ten foot long python was quite healthy, no doubt thriving on a diet of rats and the periodic neighborhood cat that might have wandered down along the streambed.

The guards put the python in a small cage at the back of the complex’s office and fed it chickens. We went to see it and, despite the strong metal bars, when Aris leaned in for a closer look the python struck at him, hitting the bars repeatedly with its head. It was the most aggressive snake I’d ever seen.

Unlike Cobras, pythons are not venomous. They crush their prey to death by wrapping it in coils of its body and squeezing tightly, literally knocking the air out of them. But their bite does not contain a venom. And since the python was in a cage, it was quite safe, as long as you didn’t stick your hand in between the bars.

Days later, the python was gone. The guards said it escaped, but I suspect it actually made it into someone’s soup pot.

Such an end would not come as a surprise. Snakes are routinely eaten here. There are even stories of cobras being ground up and put into hamburger.

Our experience this week, meanwhile, has caused me to make a new family rule for our last three weeks in country – no more snakes. No handling, no playing, no watching. And for that matter, no more hamburger. Who knows what’s in that stuff anyway.


  1. Your Son (Adam) June 26, 2011 at 1:19 pm Reply

    I never actually held the Cobra, you wouldn’t let me.

    • Willman June 26, 2011 at 1:22 pm Reply

      Your mother will be so happy, too!

      • Beth June 27, 2011 at 8:46 am Reply

        Um – Can you modify that rule to no more anything poisonous or anything that Might be poisonous?! We had our own excitement here you know – Charlie caught a mouse! and brought it into our bedroom to show me. No snakes thank goodness though.

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