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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.

Indian_cobraMy 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.)


Also known as the spectacled cobra because their markings resemble a pair of eyeglasses

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.

Spectacled_cobraSnakes 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.

There are those who think the inherently dangerous can be dealt with safely. They later turn up dead. Following their rules may not be sufficient. Stay far away and pray they do the same.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

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69 thoughts on “Living Alongside your Protectors

  1. Analogies are OK again?

    Running with this analogy seems to suggest that cops should be excluded from polite society altogether. They have their world, we have ours, and any time the two should meet we should be doing our best to insure that the collision between worlds remains a small one, and that the worlds get separated as quickly as possible.


  2. Kitten killer!

    While our protector “cobras” might think this way, there’s a bit of a problem that doesn’t exist with the literal cobras – the “vermin” is us. So, we get both the 11,000 human deaths and the countless millions of “vermin” deaths.


  3. This summer my little homestead had a problem. A rattler had struck and killed two of our dogs. A week later it struck and killed a neighbor dog.

    I have lived around rattle snakes most my life. They rarely pump enough venom to kill, and this was the first time I had lost my 4 legged friends to this wrath.

    The snake was large, even for a diamond back, not overly aggressive but quick to strike. On examination I found it to have just one functional fang. The other one had somehow been broken. I don’t know whether it was choice, fear or instinct but the predator become more deadly as a result.


    • Ugh. Sorry to hear about that. Dogs seem to have a variety of reactions to snakes. I know some definitely consider them prey. The lab I grew up with would freeze if he saw one and not move until it went away*. A lot of other dogs seem to think they’d make a good meal though.

      * Yes, he was black.


      • Over the last few summers in Austin (perhaps because of the drought? I’m not sure), there has been a bit of an epidemic of snakes (mostly rattle snakes, but moccasins and copperheads as well — I see water moccasins about once or twice a week in downtown Austin) biting dogs. Some enterprising folks have built businesses that train dogs not to go around snakes. Essentially, they take a snake out, let the dog get near it (but not too near it), and shock the dog. Dog quickly becomes afraid of snakes.

        Oh, there’s a good extension of the metaphor.

        Also, let me repeat that I see water moccasins about once or twice a friggin’ week in downtown Austin. I can’t tell my mother this or she would never visit me again.


      • rattle snakes, but moccasins and copperheads as well

        Is it just those kinds? Somehow, I’d expect you’d see a bunch of rat snakes too if those are around.

        At any rate, that’s crazy. I know when I’ve been down south I’ve seen a bunch of things while hiking, and even suburbia has its populations, but I would have thought downtown would be mostly clear.


      • Vikram, all sorts of snakes, but those are the venomous ones. A dog getting bitten by a rat snake is going to just be a dog with wounded pride.

        Citizen, there are coral snakes, through probably not downtown. I’ve seen a couple down around Barton Springs and Zilker park (including one that was frighteningly large for a coral snake), and I used to find them in the woods near my old home in Southeast Austin, though.

        There’s a video of one down in the Green Belt.


      • Also, let me repeat that I see water moccasins about once or twice a friggin’ week in downtown Austin. I can’t tell my mother this or she would never visit me again.

        Water moccasins seem downright cuddly next to the epidemic of dudebros downtown, particularly Rainey Street.


      • Nob, I refuse to leave Red River on a Friday or Saturday night downtown.

        Vikram, she will never be in a place where she’s likely to encounter them (I see them in Waller Creek, where I frequently read at lunchtime, but where she’d never go), so I figure ignorance is bliss.


      • Note to self: don’t move to Texas. I had a copperhead in my garage when I was 6, and it was about the biggest thing to ever happen in my neighborhood. That was the first and only time I have ever encountered a meaningfully poisonous snake outside of a zoo. Since then, I have had plenty of garter snakes, one or two varieties of king snakes …..and that’s about it.


      • Note to self: don’t move to Texas.

        In Texas:

        My dog got bit by a rattler.
        Another dog was gored by two javelinas.
        I came home from work one day to find that a centipede, a scorpion and a black widow decided to move into my house. All in one day. (The centipede was the creepiest. Ychhh.)
        A rattler decided to live under my house (built on piers) for a coupla months, making entering and leaving an interesting exercise in longjumping.
        Not to mention a general rattlerness that accompanies simply being there. You get so that your sorta always aware that they’re their. Lurking.


      • Last summer, a friend of mine’s teenage son was bitten by a young rattle snake he pulled out of his pantry

        I just had to explain to The Boy the meaning of the (I assume) Southern idiom “If it’d been a snake, it woulda bit you”, often deployed in situations where, for example, a teenage boy might be looking for something in a pantry and completely missing it, though it is obvious and prominent.

        I will now assume this phrase originated in Texas.


      • Apparently he pulled it out by the tail, and was turning around to place it in a bucket when his sister (also a teenager) jumped and yelled at the sight of it, ‘causing him to swing it back, which brought the snake close enough to his arm to bite it.

        There are too many lessons in there to count, starting with “Don’t swing a rattlesnake around by the tail.”


    • I do not have firsthand experience, but I have it on good authority that young rattlers will pump all their venom, but older, larger ones will not. But perhaps the trauma of losing one fang affected things.

      My sympathies for your dogs.


    • It’s common for predators to become maneaters after losing some kind of functionality, as with your one-fanged snake. The tiger that killed the most people was almost toothless and certainly couldn’t effectively hunt its ordinary prey. St. Francis of Assisi’s wolf of Gubbio was said to have been abnormally hungry, and may have had a similar problem. Maybe the best way to deal with maneaters is generally to follow St. Francis’s example: acknowledge the reason for the attacks, have compassion, and call a truce. Though I’m not sure what that would look like in your situation.


  4. This analogy has bugged me all day and now I think I know why.

    Cobras are very evidently solely self-interested actors. Cobras co-existing with humans do provide the benefit of policing against vermin and thus protecting the humans from disease. But that’s not why the cobra does it, and it’s not why the cobra exists. Consequently, humans have no right to expect that the cobra will at any time act for the benefit of humanity or of any particular human. Cobras do not love humans, even the humans who keep and feed them as pets* or performance animals. When a cobra employs violence, there is no doubt that it does so for one purpose only: survival, either through the elimination of a threat or turning some hapless creature into Cobra ChowTM.

    Police are created, exist, are given public money, and empowered to deploy violence for the purpose of protecting civilians from criminals. At least, ostensibly. We may cynically not believe that the police don’t really think that their raison d’etre is “protect and serve” and we may observe depressingly numerous incidences of police behavior precisely opposite “protect and serve,” but on paper at least that is what they are for. And at least on paper, they are subject to our collective political control.

    We have a right and an expectation that the police will act for our communal benefit. Which makes them not at all like cobras.

    * I’m deeply confident that somewhere, probably somewhere in the United States, there’s somebody dumb enough to have acted on the brain-fart of “How cool would it be to have a cobra for a pet? Dude! What could possibly go wrong?”


    • This

      Even in Riki-Tiki-Tavi, Kipling got it right. The cobras held not real animus toward the humans, they just wanted to survive & the humans threatened that. The mongoose held no real love for the humans, he was only really interested in being the predator he was in regards to the cobras. The fact that he had a more beneficial relationship with the humans was just a happy plus.

      If we are going to reduce the police to cobras (or other apex predators) via analogy/metaphor, then we should add in the last bit. Perhaps Hindus are not like this, but if a snake in the US kills a person, that snake is not long for this world unless it can run & hide.


    • I completely co-sign your views on what the public’s rights *ought* to be. But I think the evidence will show that the cobra analogy does a better job predicting interactions with the police than our notion of what our rights ought to be. I note that you used the words “on paper”!


      • “I completely co-sign your views on what the public’s rights *ought* to be. But I think the evidence will show that the cobra analogy does a better job predicting interactions with the police than our notion of what our rights ought to be.”

        I’m not sure this is the case. The recent events in the news not withstanding, I think it can be reasonably argued that the vast preponderance of police-public interactions actually do go the way Burt describes. I’ve had a number of different kinds of interactions with the police over the years, and even when it’s been for unpleasant reasons, I have always felt like they’ve been very conscious to give what in any other profession I would describe as “excellent customer service.”

        I do believe that those numbers change pretty significantly when we’re talking about people in white neighborhood vs. people in a black neighborhood, or for that matter someone black being pulled over in a predominantly white neighborhood. But that strikes me as a different dynamic at work.


      • I’ll go back to something I mentioned a few days ago that sorta links up Burt and Tod’s points: given that black communities seem to be “served and protected” in a radically different than white communities, it seems fair to ask whether cops and the related institutions aren’t actually “serving and protecting” one community’s interests afterall.


      • Yeah, the cobra analogy works better in poor and minority-majority neighborhoods, in my experience. I talk to cops frequently where I live now (the bus company has them riding buses as part of a fare enforcement program), and just a few weeks ago I talked to one who was arresting a shoplifter. These interactions are always relatively friendly (despite my deep dislike of cops as a group). If I’d talked to cops like that in my old neighborhood, particularly the one making an arrest, I’d have been treated with suspicion, and probably told to go away. If I’d been black or Hispanic, even more so.


      • Barbossa: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner .


  5. I will avoid the analogy/metaphor thingy, and just tell a few interesting things about cobras.

    Back when I was an academic scientist, I had a (barking mad, but very bright) colleague* who worked with snakes in general and with cobras occasionally. To learn how to do it safely (a VERY relative term), he spent several months working with a guy who had a reptile show. According to my friend, the key to working with a king cobra is, just like lion taming, all about controlling the distance between you and the snake. Get too close and you’ll provoke a defensive attack. Be too far away and the snake begins to control the situation. It’s a sort of brinkmanship.

    Also, a cobra will not turn and bite. You can grab them by the tail and steer them into their cages (do NOT attempt this with rattlesnakes and other crotalid vipers; they have no such scruples). But king cobras can be very aggressive, particularly if they are guarding their nest. They take a very broad view of what constitutes their territory.

    Another friend of mine, who grew up in the Indian countryside,, told me that every morning he’d shake his shoes upside down, in case any juvenile cobras had slipped into them at night.

    *I did a lot of work with sharks back then, and he though *I* was the certifiable one.


    • > grab them by the tail

      That does seem to be what they do in the documentaries with the king cobras. I was wondering why that would work, and I guess that’s the explanation. I get the impression that the five people who die each year of king cobra bites are all people who seek them out and either work with them professionally or are harassing them. They are smarter than Indian cobras and thus I would assume more difficult to unintentionally trap without giving them a way out to avoid you.

      My father mentioned doing the
      same with his shoes for scorpions. He got bit a few times as a kid, including once when one fell on him from the ceiling.


    • Another friend of mine, who grew up in the Indian countryside,, told me that every morning he’d shake his shoes upside down, in case any juvenile cobras had slipped into them at night.

      15 years or so ago, I stayed at a cheap resort in Tucson [1]. Rooms were little tiny cottages scattered about the grounds. You could tell it was cheap because the fit of the doors and windows was very bad. On the nightstands on each side of the bed were brightly-colored cards advising you to shake your shoes before putting them on in the morning because scorpions were known to crawl into them overnight.

      [1] I was there to pass the occassional miracle needed to keep a set of technology demos running. The demos were for the benefit of the senior management at a large corporation that was getting ready to split, and the CEO of the half I was going to work for was recruiting and wanted to impress people. The conference and the senior managers were at a very plush resort that probably had 24-hour scorpion wranglers dealing with things; those of us actually doing the demo had to stay down the road.


  6. I really liked this piece, though I didn’t really take it to be about police. (That’s the great thing about metaphor – it’s more flexible) I think that there are just some people in the world who are like cobras. Some are King Cobras and aren’t that aggressive, but some are more like Indian Cobras, and they have a long history of people coming at them with clubs.

    And, of course, there are the snake charmers.


    • “Aggressive” is a bit of a weird thing to use for any of them. With the exception of the occasional boy in an anaconda, I don’t think any of them eat us. I think it would be more accurate to say that different species express different degrees of caution in protecting themselves. Some will do everything they can to flee. Some (like cottonmouths) will stand their ground. Others (like copperheads) will assume that if you’re within striking range that’s already too close. It comes across as aggression, and from a human perspective it all falls under assault, but the will to harm isn’t there either in the brain or in the mechanism that made the brain.

      > snake charmers

      I’ll have to think about how they fit in.


  7. I think the police analogy fails; and is making an analogy of Vikram’s metaphor (which has other implications, living with someone who physically abuses you, for instance). It fails because the cobra is already there, while we may have aided in Cobra’s evolution, the general circumstances of environment far beyond ‘human’ also contributed. We might, if we studiously continue our current behaviors bring about Cobra’s demise, however; it is well within our power to have that be one of the things wrought by mankind.

    But the police, and how they behave? That’s our own creation, and putting the resulting viper-like behavior into such an honored status as Cobra strikes me as shirking our responsibility.


    • Agreed on all counts. I’d only note that my intention was to focus on personal behavior though. We as individuals actually do have about as much ability to change the behaviors of police as we do cobras. The former might have been created by and consist of humans, but both are dangerous creatures whose behaviors are beyond our control, at least on a practical day-to-day level.


      • Yes. I thought of people I’ve known who have been in abusive relationships, too. Men and women, both. And my pedophile. Tarantulas. They’re sacred in AZ; people go to great effort to protect them, since they prey on scorpions. One of my kids, the one who tends to get all allergic from insect bites got bitten by one in a house near phoenix that was vacant a lot. It was not pleasant.

        Where I live, the creation myth of the people who lived here before my people arrived was of how their demi-god (he wasn’t a full-on God, capital G, the way some are,) made the world safe for the people, by changing all the animals so that they would not harm anyone. And there is no Cobra, no Scorpion, no Grizzly, no animal that’s unsafe to man. Until recently, since things have started warming up and the ticks with lyme disease have begun moving north.


  8. Posts like this induce happiness.

    Thank you so much for writing them. Reading them, I get the giddy, happy anticipation for what’s next.

    Thank you so much for writing them; and this one, in particular.

    Some Thursday, there ought be a Mt. Rushmore of Ordinary Posts.


  9. Yeah, but we don’t kill vermin in this civilized country, so the poison of the cobra and it’s sharp fangs are unnecessarily potent and sharp and should be reduced.

    And it’s not the cobra’s law, it’s the law of the jungle, and people living near cobras have forgotten the fact that, sometimes, the cobra enters your house, and then it’s not a remover of vermin, it’s vermin, and it sometimes has to be killed.


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