Living Alongside your Protectors
The king cobra is the one highlighted in the documentaries. That is understandable. It can raise itself 6 feet tall. It’s venom will kill you in minutes. The king cobra’s favorite dish is other snakes, which is hard-core.
Still, the king cobra kills only a small handful of people each year. It’s the Indian cobra you actually have to watch out for.
My grandfather lived over the homes of some Indian cobras. Or it might have been my great-grandfather, and it may have been next to the cobras rather than over them. What I know is that one of my direct ancestors lived daily in such proximity to a cobra that we wouldn’t be comfortable with for 30 seconds.
Killing the cobras was a possibility, but that was never a serious option. Hindus revere cobras, as we revere a lot of animals we might otherwise seek to kill. (I’m not quite sure why we’re made fun of most for the cow thing when revering cobras seems like a Darwin award in the making. Indeed, 11,000 Indians die from snakebites each year; no other country comes close. Nevertheless, the Indian cobra is protected by the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.)
This reverence was not a random artifact of religion. Cobras kill vermin. Vermin can be deadly. In India, vermin are an existential threat themselves. The cobras protect us from them.
So, the cobras live unimpeded throughout India with their role not only tolerated, but celebrated in our religion and art.
This doesn’t mean you go anywhere near a cobra. You give it a wide berth. If you see a hole that could house a cobra, you stay away. If you see where a cobra has shed its skin, you might avoid that area because at one point that area had a cobra. This is the law.
The people who know what is good for them avoid cobras, and cobras themselves don’t bother those who succeed in avoiding them. My grandfather did in fact survive, presumably by some combination of conservatism and luck. If you go out of your way to avoid bothering cobras, you will generally avoid being one of the unlucky 11,000 that year.
For their part (and I realize I am anthropomorphizing, but I’m allowed to since this whole post is an extended metaphor about how we live with our human protectors), cobras don’t intentionally seek us out. If a cobra finds you close to it, in violation of their law, it will assume that you are up to no good. By virtue of coming to its attention, you put yourself in the category of threat, both in the cobra’s personal experience and in the preceding however million years in which large animals came across small animals and nothing good happened for the small ones.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates might say, history matters, and any given interaction with a snake cannot be extricated from its bio-historical context. It matters not that the cobra is not consciously aware of that context. Its thoughts and behaviors are a direct consequence of that history. It’s biases are what they are because that is how the world has treated them. Perhaps if all animals from the very beginning had always given the gentler snakes gifts instead of killing them, they would now as a group be kinder to us now. We get along with dogs, after all.
But we didn’t do that. We killed them. And the snakes that were cautious and distrustful of humans survived and birthed the next generation. Those that might have been more agnostic toward us were beaten with sticks.
Snakes are the result of a cruel world of hidden threats. It is silly to expect them to behave in any other way. Just because they protect us from vermin doesn’t mean they like or trust us. Their reluctance to trust has been critical to their survival.
If you come across an Indian cobra, you can’t convincingly argue it has nothing to fear from you (even if you speak Parseltongue). You might try to tell it you mean no harm, but those same words were spoken by those hiding clubs behind their backs. A persuadable snake is a dead snake.
The control of vermin comes with a price. It is not an optimal price, a fair price, or even an agreed-upon price. It is simply the law of snakes in particular and protectors in general.