Glencairn’s Steve has a heart for all snakes

Glencairn Heights resident Steve Meighan

For a deep look into the world of snakes – to see their value in the ecosystem, their beauty, and to learn how to deal with these much-maligned creatures – look no further than Steve Venom Man.

Glencairn Heights resident Steve Meighan grins just a little: “Snakes aren’t poisonous: you can eat snakes all day long and you won’t be harmed. But some of them are venomous,” he says.

Then quips that that may not be true for his American copperheads – Alice and Cooper – because, together, they are Poison. His humour and his love for snakes of every variety make Steve a captivating speaker. He has ample book knowledge, but his day-to-day experience is what brings that alive; that, and the fact that in his home he has Africa’s largest reticulated python.

He tells me he can’t wait to cuddle Naggie the python, and even Choco his dog glances up at him to check if his smile is still there. It is… but this time he isn’t joking.

Steve speaks about snakes with a devotion I’ve not encountered before. He wants people to understand them and their world so much that he has dedicated his life to teaching people how to live safely alongside of these shy reptiles.

He is planning to open his own reptile education and rehabilitation centre. Steve is also a qualified and licensed snake catcher.

“The worst thing you can do is try handle a snake yourself if you find it in your home or garden,” he says.

Often by the time he is called out, residents have herded a snake into an awkward or unnatural situation; if they are lucky the snake is non-venomous.

It’s the rare occasions where a truly venomous snake has been found and harassed, where bites can occur.

Steve assures me even the venomous snakes will only bite or spit if they are surprised or feel threatened. Most snakes are harmless, he says. But there are 16 venomous types which should handled with great respect.

Steve shows me a video of the release of eight Cape cobras into the wilderness, far from any human habitats. He makes the entire release look smooth and effortless, and this can be deceptive for those with no knowledge or experience. Steve has both: in fact, if you regularly hike, you may want to do some learning with him. It occurs to me that tour guides who lead hikes may well want to pay Steve a visit. He does offer classes in proper snake handling and snake recognition, complete with certificates.

“I am teaching the farm workers on various wine farms how to identify, catch and release snakes, with great success. It used to be a case of the only good snake is a dead snake,” he says. “Now everyone on the farms realises that snakes eat the mice and the birds and insects which eat the grapes: so their value is being understood. And venomous snakes are caught, snake handlers are called to remove them, and other snakes are let be.”

Steve gives talks to schools and explains the great care he takes to ensure that his snakes are not stressed by the visits.

“If one of my guys is feeling a bit flu-ish (yes, snakes get flu… we all live and learn) then I have others to choose from and friends like Shawn Bodington will let me use some of his, and vice versa,” Steve says.

He speaks in detail about the process of making anti-venom; how crucial horses are to the process.

“In a nutshell, tiny amounts of the venom are injected into the horse, which doesn’t in any way hurt or harm the horse. In fact, it helps, because the horse will build up an immunity to that venom. Then, some of the horse’s blood is drawn, and the anti-venom antibodies removed from that, to create the anti-venom for humans.”

He stresses the importance of going to an emergency room for proper treatment if you are bitten by local venomous snakes. If the anti-venom is administered incorrectly, the body will go into anaphylactic shock, and physicians must be on hand to administer the correct doses of adrenalin.

You may want to check if your medical aid covers anti-venom, he says, because many don’t. And the correct type of anti-venom is vital. It gets tricky, being bitten, so Steve is very keen on educating us to ensure we don’t stumble into this territory.

He says that because only Tygerberg Hospital is equipped to deal with serious bites, one of his dream projects is to get qualified, licensed snake handlers to be allowed to keep a certain volume of anti-venom in stock, to supply hospitals in surrounding areas.

He says of the 151 known species of snakes that are technically venomous, only 16 have venom known to be potent enough to be medically significant, to pose a risk, or be life threatening to humans.

The snakes that are considered dangerous to us in South Africa are the boomslang; six species of cobras, of which we only have the Cape cobra in Cape Town; the puff adder, the berg adder, the coral shield cobra, which is not a true cobra and which we get in Cape Town; two species of mambas; the rinkhals, which is also not a true cobra; the gaboon adder and two species of vine snakes, although the latter do not live in Cape Town.

The most common venomous snakes we encounter in Cape Town are the Cape cobra, the puff adder and the boomslang.

Steve has photos of snakes like general folk have pictures of their cats or dogs. And his appreciation of each is nothing short of heartwarming – this is genuine affection and deep, deep respect.

He tells me that snakes are smart as well as instinctual and that they are not the cold-hearted creatures they are made out to be. “One of the saddest things I have seen in a burnt-out field after the fires, was the body of a Cape cobra. She had curled around her eggs in an effort to protect them from the fires. How is that different from any other mother’s intent to protect her babies?”

For more information, contact Steve on Steve the Venom Man on Facebook or for snake removals call him on 064 681 0779.